Out of Bounds

How Real do You Want it?

Wildlife programming is more graphic today

By Rob Breeding

When the twins were young I got them all worked up for the premier of “Blue Planet,” an aquatic documentary series by the same BBC team that created the land-bound “Planet Earth.”

The impeccable David Attenborough served as narrator.

My girls were into nature. We spent a lot of time outdoors, walking in the woods or whatever habitat we happened to occupy at the moment. They enjoyed fishing, though, like most kids, found it a little too slow-paced for their tastes.

We watched “Planet Earth” together often. The new series seemed a no-brainer.

This was far enough back that DVRs were a new thing and we were without. That meant we had to get together to watch it at the scheduled time that evening. 

The program started pleasantly enough, featuring seamounts and the variety of sea life they attract. The show then moved to the Pacific Coast of California, where videographers filmed a gray whale mother and calf migrating north to the plankton-rich waters off the coast of Alaska. The three of us snuggled on the couch, enjoying the overhead shot I now imagine was filmed from a helicopter. This was the era before drones.

Then things took a dark turn. Orcas were trailing the migrating whales, and they were catching up.

This was about 23 years ago and orcas still had a rather benign reputation, despite being more commonly known as killer whales. And the nature documentaries of that time still tended toward happy endings. A threat might present itself, but by happenstance or fierce maternal devotion, I still expected the mother and calf to swim away to safety.

Unfortunately, the writers and producers of “Blue Planet” didn’t get the memo.

Once the pod of orcas caught up things grew grim for the young calf. The orcas worked ceaselessly to separate the youngster from her mother, who fought valiantly for her offspring’s life. Unfortunately, the mother gray whale brought a mouthful of baleen to a toothed whale fight. 

As the fate of the whale calf seemed increasingly dire, my daughters stood up from the couch, and with tears streaming down their faces, implored the orcas to stop and not kill the baby. That was where “Blue Planet, Episode 1” ended in our household that night. I put on a video of a wholesome, silly cartoon, and did what I could to help them forget that night’s trauma.

After the twins went to bed I watched the recast later that night. The orcas did eventually separate the calf from its mothers side and kill it, thankfully off camera. Then, sadly, they left it to bloat on the surface. Eat what you kill wasn’t yet a mantra for mature orcas teaching the younger killer whales how they earned their name.

Wildlife programming is more graphic today. Kill shots are common in hunting programs, and it seems appropriate to present the point of the program. Well, maybe, though the point too often seems to be a kill shot followed by a “grinning hunter displaying their trophy” shot these days.

I wish more shows took the MeatEater approach, with the kill coming halfway through the program. The remaining air time is filled with instruction on how to field dress your game and prepare it for the table. In Steve Rinella’s world, the show ends with a knife-and-fork shot.

My daughters survived their “Blue Planet” ordeal and still love the outdoors, though probably not in the bordering on unhealthy way their dad does. And I think it’s a good thing the modern nature show is more likely to keep the cameras rolling when the nature of nature turns gruesome, as it often does.

As for television time with the kids, they’ve outgrown nature shows. But you can be sure, the following week, “Blue Planet, Episode 2,” received a careful prescreening before I talked it up to my daughters.