A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Nature on the Move

When Nat Geo says Great Migrations, they mean it

(Photo Credit: © John Conrad / CORBIS)

All across the planet, animals are on the move. And on the National Geographic Channel’s new TV series, you can see all their amazing migrations: the largest one, the longest, one of the strangest and what may be the most feared one.

Why do so many animals take part in these exhausting and stressful travels? Because they have to: They need to eat, they need a warmer home or a cooler one and they need a safe place to raise their young.

The stories are breathtaking and heroic, and also sometimes heartbreaking.

Among mammals, humpback whales go the furthest distances, up to 5,000 miles each way. Birds go even further. The bar-tailed godwit holds the record for the longest-known nonstop flight: 7,145 miles in nine days non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand. Monarch butterflies, meanwhile, migrate some 2,000 miles from Canada to central Mexico. None of the creatures who begin the journey make it the whole way; they give birth to new generations who take up where their parents leave off.

How do all these animals know where they’re going? They use the sun, the stars, the Earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell. They know where the right winds and currents are. It’s possible they use other senses that we don’t quite understand. And those who won’t be able to eat along the way know to fill up big-time and put on weight before heading out.

Great Migrations, National Geographic’s documentary, follows in the tradition of programs like The Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Life from the BBC and Discovery Channel. It follows animals large and small, from elephants and whales to jelly fish and sponges. The stories are breathtaking, heroic and also sometimes heartbreaking. Not all the animals make it. Babies sometimes have to be left behind. There are treacherous regions to be traversed. Wildebeests have to contend with crocodiles as they wade across rivers. And as millions of red crabs migrate out of the forest on Christmas Island, they face dangers both natural and unnatural – like non-native ants who arrived on the island with humans and squirt poison at the crabs as they emerge from the forest. The ants are such a threat that the crabs are now in danger of extinction.

The series took more than three years to film, and the video crews faced the occasional tribulation themselves. One behind-the-scenes episode shows them getting caught up for hours in a sandstorm they were supposed to be filming.

(Photo Credit © National Geographic Television)

Andy Casagrande, one of the principal photographers, talked about the whole process at a news conference. “It does take a long time to get good natural history,” he said, “and that was what was so amazing about this project. It allowed us to spend a long time in the field and get really compelling stories, not just eye candy, so it was an epic.”

A new generation of crittercams was also used in order to get an animal’s-eye view of the migrations. Sometimes these devices worked; sometimes they didn’t. “We were deploying crittercams in Cape Town where the Great Whites breach in False Bay hunting seals, and they breach with such velocity that the cameras kept coming off,” Casagrande explained. “No matter what cam system they designed or how they fastened it to the fin, it wouldn’t allow the camera to stay on.”

“But these journeys you see here encapsulate what’s going on all over our planet every day.”

Still, getting cameras on sharks provided a whole new view of the animal kingdom. “If it’s stuck to the shark for 10 hours, you get some really interesting insight into their lives,” Casagrande said. “I can stay underwater for about five hours on my re-breather, but I can’t keep up with a shark. I can follow it for however long I see it, but then it’s gone.”

Many of the people involved in the production said – it was like being on a mission – a cause. They talk of wanting to raise awareness of what is taking place on the planet.

“We can all connect with the journeys these animals take,” said senior producer David Hamlin. “We all go on our own journeys over the course of our lives.

“But these journeys you see here encapsulate what’s going on all over our planet every day.”

“When folks turn off the television, I hope they’ll realize, ‘Even tonight as I sleep, this planet is churning with movement. The seas, plains and skies are alive with animals on life-or-death journeys.’

“And perhaps the next morning, when they wake up and see a flock of birds fly overhead, they’ll say, ‘I’m rooting for you guys!’”