Last week, I called “contrived nonsense” on the claim by David Attenborough and the production crew of Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’ that the walruses they showed falling to their deaths were victims of global warming. After unbelieveable media attention since then, newly-revealed details only solidify my assertion. Something stinks, and it’s not just the bad acting of director Sophie Lanfear in the ‘Behind the Scenes‘ trailer as she delivers her WWF-approved message: “This is the sad reality of climate change”.
Despite many statements to the press, the film crew have steadfastly refused to reveal precisely where and when they filmed the walrus deaths shown in this film in relation to the walrus deaths initiated by polar bears reported by The Siberian Times in the fall of 2017.
I can only conclude, therefore, that the two incidents are indeed essentially one and the same: that the filmmakers, probably alerted by resident WWF employees at Ryrkaipiy, moved in after polar bears caused hundreds of walrus to fall to their deaths. The crew then captured on film the last few falls over the cliff as the walrus herd moved away from the haulout.
The lie being told by Attenborough and the film crew is that 200-300 walruses fell during the time they were filming, while in fact they filmed only a few: polar bears were responsible for the majority of the carcasses shown on the beach below the cliff. This is, of course, in addition to the bigger lie that lack of sea ice is to blame for walrus herds being onshore in the first place.
See my point-by-point analysis below and make up your own mind.
Walruses dying in large numbers due to falls from cliff tops is not a new phenomenon associated exclusively with reduced sea ice and neither are enormous land haulouts of walrus mothers and calves. Historical documents recorded prior to the decline of sea ice prove this is true (Crockford 2014 and references therein; Fischbach et al. 2016; Lowry 1985) and the US government does not consider them ‘threatened’ with extinction (MacCracken et al. 2017; US Fish & Wildlife 2017a,b).
As I’ve noted previously, there were disturbing similarities between the event they filmed in 2017 somewhere in “eastern Siberia” and one reported by The Siberian Times at Cape Kozhevnikov near the village of Ryrkaipiy (see photo below) sometime in early to mid-September 2017 in which several dozen polar bears spooked a small herd of about 5,000 walruses so badly that hundreds fell off the cliff to their deaths.
Locations mentioned in this post:
What we know
Details on these points in the footnotes:
- The location of the incident where hundreds of walrus fell to their deaths after a herd of about 5,000 walrus was spooked by polar bears, as reported in The Siberian Times, was Cape Kozhevnikov near the village of Ryrkaipiy in Chukotka. A similar incident involving polar bears and somewhat fewer walrus occurred in 2011 (see footnote 1). In 2007, a herd of about 40,000 walrus spent time here in the early fall and left behind an unknown number of dead that attracted polar bears, see WWF account here (pdf here).
- The location of the Netflix cliff shoot was Cape Kozhevnikov near the village of Ryrkaipiy and the date was 19 September 2017, see footnote 2.
- According to tweets made by cameraman Jamie McPherson, the crew of ‘Our Planet’ arrived in Chukotka to film walrus on 14 September 2017 and left on 26 October 2017.
- The location in the ‘Our Planet’ film of a beach where more than 100,000 walrus were hauled out was not Cape Kozhevnikov near the village of Ryrkaipiy, see footnote 3: it may have been Cape Serdtse-Kamen, several hundred km east of Cape Kozhevnikov (map above), a known haulout area for super-herds of >100,000 walrus, see footnote 1.
- I was not the only scientist to question the filmmakers explanation of what was happening on the cliff: Lori Quakenbush from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also found the films claims were scientifically dubious, see footnote 3.
- Polar bears were in the area at the time the film footage was being shot, as ‘Our Planet’ director Sophie Lanfear has admitted.
- Low-altitude aerial footage shown in the film and the “Behind the Scenes” trailer (see footnote 4, at about 1:06) suggests the crew were using drones during the filming, which may have further aggitated the walrus massed at the top of the cliff while the rest of the herd was preparing to depart the haulout.
- Walrus have poor eyesight and the calls of walrus in the water as they left the haulout below may have caused those at the top of the cliff to move towards the edge where a misstep would have been fatal, even without being frightened.
- ‘Our Planet’ director Sophie Lanfear clarified in the ‘Behind the Scenes‘ trailer (see footnote 4) that the walruses they filmed were falling off the cliff because the herd was leaving the haulout.
- The polar bear initiated event reported after the fact in The Siberian Times at 19 October 2017 must have happened in early to mid-September, in any case before 19 September when the film footage was shot as the herd was moving out.
- Critically, “several hundred” walruses were stated to have fallen to their deaths during the polar bear initiated carnage at Cape Kozhevnikov in September 2017.
- ‘Hundreds of walruses’ were also claimed to have fallen to their deaths during filming of the ‘Our Planet’ sequence (quote from Attenborough in the film).
- “There’s probably 200-300 dead walrus on like a half mile stretch of beach here” [shown at the bottom of the cliff, after the crew shot the falling walruses] said cameraman Jamie McPherson in the ‘Behind the Scenes‘ trailer, see footnote 4.
- If there were two separate events of 200-300 walruses falling off that cliff (only one of which involved bears), McPherson should have recorded almost 600 carcasses on the beach below the cliff as the herd left the haulout. But he did not.
We know the ‘Our Planet’ film crew were in Chukotka by mid-September, perhaps at Cape Serdtse-Kamen, preparing to film a huge walrus haulout. I suggest that after polar bears frightened 200-300 walruses over the cliff to their deaths at Cape Kozhevnikov in early to mid-September, the film crew were alerted by WWF employees stationed at Ryrkaipiy about the incident.
The film crew temporarily moved to Cape Kozhevnikov and proceded to shoot footage of perhaps several dozen more walruses falling of the cliff onto the 200-300 carcasses already present at the bottom, as the herd prepared to move off due to the disturbance. The number of falling walrus may have been exacerbated by the use of drones and/or human activity around the haulout, but seem mostly to have been missteps taken by aggitated animals eager to join their fellows in the water. I suggest further that polar bears trying to feed on the carcasses were temporarily chased away by the WWF polar bear patrol before the crew began filming, which is why they had people watching to alert them should the bears return.
The lie being told by Attenborough and the film crew is that 200-300 walruses fell during the time they were filming, while in fact they filmed only a few: polar bears were responsible for the majority of the carcasses on the beach below the cliff. This is, of course, in addition to the bigger lie that lack of sea ice is to blame for walrus herds being onshore in the first place.
The crew and WWF can show I’m wrong by providing evidence of where the Netflix film footage was shot, where the haulout of >100,000 walrus was located, and the date in 2017 when the polar bear initiated walrus deaths at Cape Kozhevnikov occurred. If so, I will amend this post accordingly.
1. From ‘Pacific walrus coastal haulout database, 1852-2016 (see also Fischbach et al. 2016):
Cape Schmidt [Ryrkaipii; Ryrkaipiy; Mys Shmidta; Cape Kozhevnikov; Utios Kozhevnikov], with records of ‘at least 10,000, less than 100,000’ walrus in haulouts
Haulout Description: Rocky slopes and beach on eastern both sides of the Utios Kozhevnikov cliffs and adjoining spit 700 meters north of the settlement of Ryrkaipii. “Utios Kozhevnikov” is official name from Russian geographical maps and is part of Cape Schmidt. Another settlement, Cape Schmidt, lies 4 km to the east of this haulout. “Ryrkaipiy” means the “limit of walrus moving” in the Chukchi language.
Historical Use: Arsen’ev (1927) noted Cape Schmidt as a large haulout in the end of 19th century or begin of the 20th century. During the early 1930’s a large urban settlement was built near the site of the haulout, which may have contributed to the lack of observed haulout use until Kavry and others (2008) note the formation of a large haulout of more 40,000 walruses in September of 2007 (Kochnev 2012). Thereafter (2007 -2014), regular use has been reported, though not every year, with counts approaching 50,000 (Semenova and others 2010, Kochnev 2012, Pereverzev and Kochnev 2012, Maksim Deminov written communication and photograph 2014).
The haulout has been used by both adult males and by females and young, with the females and young replacing the adult males on the haulout as the season progresses from August through October (Semenova and others 2010, Pereverzev and Kochnev 2012). Overall, the age-sex composition is about 10% male, similar to the Wrangel Island haulouts. During the 2011 haulout large number of walruses of calves of the year and older age classes of both sexes were found dead (n = 123), and the deaths were attributed to both trampling and falls down steep rocking slopes, with polar bears playing a role (monrintoing [sic] support provided by TINRO and ChukotTINRO, Pereverzev and Kochnev 2012, Kochnev 2012).
Cape Serdtse-Kamen: with records of ‘more than 100,000’ walrus in haulouts [this is the only one in the database]
Haulout Description: Prominent cape Location 110 km northwest of the Bering Strait. Map location is center of haulout by mouth of river, 5 km southwest from the cape. During peak usage, the haulout extends over approximately 30 km of coastline from the cape to the southeast (Kochnev 2010b).
Historical Use: Use prior to 1927 is noted by Arsen’ev (1927). Nikulin (1941) noted use by walruses in 1937. Regularly use by walruses in ice-free autumns during all of the 20th Century up to the present (Belopl’skii 1939, Grachev and Mymrin, 1991; Zheleznov-Chukotsky and others, 2003; Kochnev, 2010b, unpublished data).
Use was noted during the 1960, 1964, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990 aerial surveys (Fedoseev, 1966; Gol’tsev, 1968; Fedoseev, 1981; Estes and Gol’tsev, 1984; Fedoseev, Razlivalov, 1986; Gilbert and others 1992). In early October of 1975 Estes and Gol’tsev (1984) used extrapolation from aerial and density estimates to enumerate between 9 and 12 thousand walruses. The 1990 aerial survey indicated more than 12 thousand walruses on 30 September (Gilbert and others, 1992).
Estimates from 97,000 to 115,000 walruses of mixed age and sex classes are noted in October of 2009 and 2011 (Kochnev, 2010b; Chakilev and others, 2012; Kochnev 2012). Residents from Enurmino and Inchoun indicated that the exceptionally large haulout documented during 2009 and 2011 may have formed similarly large in the years of sea ice scarcity prior to the 2009 monitoring effort (Kochnev, 2010b). During the 2011 monitoring effort, mortalities (n=120) attributed to trampling was noted that disproportionately affected younger animals (Kochnev 2012).
2. Andrew Montford has explained that images of the jagged cliff face from the film match perfectly with archived photos of the cliff face of Cape Kozhevnikov near the village of Ryrkaipiy (at Cape Schmidt) near the village of Ryrkaipiy. Also, EXIF photo metadata show that the footage was shot on 19 September 2017.
3. ‘Our Planet’ director Sophie Lanfear admitted to Ed Yong at The Atlantic that footage from two different locations were spliced together in the walrus film, perhaps giving the impression that the cliff haulout was part of the beach where over 1000,000 walruses were hauled out. She has so far refused to say which beach haulout they used for filming, but it is clear from remarks shared with various news outlets that the crew spent the majority of seven weeks at that location [my bold].
“…the seven-person Our Planet team filmed one of the largest haul-out sites—a single beach where 100,000 walruses tessellate into a solid red mat of tusks and blubber. The animals arrived almost overnight, while the team slept in a cramped hut. …
The walruses gather “out of desperation, not out of choice,” David Attenborough says over the resulting footage. “A stampede can occur out of nowhere. Under these conditions, walruses are a danger to themselves.” And so they climb “to find space away from the crowds.”
As the walruses spread across the beach, some start heading up a shallow slope, which curves into a steeper escarpment, which eventually culminates in 260-feet cliffs.
…Our Planet draws a straight line between climate change, sea-ice loss, bigger haul-outs, overcrowding, climbing walruses, and falling walruses. “It is not a normal event,” says Lanfear. “It’s such a tangible, obvious thing to show people. It’s clear as day.”
…Lanfear clarifies that the sequence includes footage from two separate beaches—one with the 100,000-strong congregation and one with the falls. At the latter, walruses started climbing only once the area beneath the cliffs had completely filled up; gregarious or not, they had no room. Once at the top, they rested for a few days, and walked off only after the beaches below had emptied. Indeed, as the narration suggests, the sounds of their departing comrades may have lured the cliff-top walruses off the edge. “They seemed to all want to return to the sea to feed as a group,” Lanfear says.”
The haulout beach may have been Cape Serdtse-Kamen, several hundred km east of Cape Kozhevnikov, the only location within the range of Pacific walrus that haulouts of >100,000 animals have been recorded (Fischbach et al. 2016 database, see footnote 1). Such large herds were documented in 2009 and 2011, making it an attractive location for filmmakers intent on dramatic footage of heaving masses of walrus.
Also, according to The Atlantic I was not the only scientist to question the filmmaker’s interpretation of what was happening on the cliffs:
But a few walrus scientists who saw the clip have questioned parts of this narrative—including the claim that walruses are climbing “to find space away from the crowds.”
“Walruses thrive on crowds and haul out in tight groups, even when space is available,” says Lori Quakenbush from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Also, in the sequence, it looks as if the beach beneath the teetering walruses is relatively empty. What crowds are they escaping from?
4. ‘Behind the Scenes’ trailer:
Fischbach, A.S., Kochnev, A.A., Garlich-Miller, J.L., and Jay, C.V. 2016. Pacific walrus coastal haulout database, 1852–2016—Background report: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2016–1108. http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/ofr20161108. The online database is found here.
Lowry, L. 1985. “Pacific Walrus – Boom or Bust?” Alaska Fish & Game Magazine July/August: 2-5. pdf here.
MacCracken, J.G., Beatty, W.S., Garlich-Miller, J.L., Kissling, M.L and Snyder, J.A. 2017. Final Species Status Assessment for the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), May 2017 (Version 1.0). US Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK. Pdf here (8.6 mb).
US Fish and Wildlife Service 2017a. Press Release (4 October 2017).
US Fish and Wildlife Service 2017b. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; 12-month findings on petitions to list 25 species as endangered or threatened. Federal Register 82:46618-46645.
April 14, 2019 at 09:01PM