Planet Earth III (2023) s01e06 Episode Script


This is the entrance
to one of the greatest
of natural wonders.
Hang Son Doong, in Vietnam.
It's thought to be the largest
cave on Earth.
Here, 200 metres underground,
for just a few weeks a year,
sunbeams cast light through a hole
in the cave's roof.
There is just enough light
to enable plants to grow.
But travel deeper,
and darkness returns.
And you reach the limit
of where life can exist.
These most extreme places
on our planet
are often hard for us to reach.
Indeed, this cave was only
recently discovered.
And it contains many surprises.
Cave pearls.
Once tiny sand grains,
now spheres the size
of tennis balls.
And giant stalagmites
..formed over centuries
by billions of individual
drops of water.
Underground rivers have carved
this great passage through
the limestone.
Over five miles long
and wide enough in places
to accommodate a jumbo jet.
And it is here,
in the cave's furthest chamber,
that life can be found.
Translucent cave fish
..and shrimps.
Isolated for millennia,
feeding on little more than the
nutrients from the jungle above.
The fish are completely blind
and find their way about
by touch alone.
These underground worlds are at
the very limit
of where life can exist.
But above ground,
our planet's most extreme conditions
are found at the poles.
Here in the north,
winter temperatures can drop to
-50 degrees Celsius.
For four months of the year,
there is barely a glimmer
of sunlight.
But here, too,
life finds a way to survive.
A pack of Arctic wolves.
Their dense fur has protected them
through months of bitter cold.
But now the sun is returning.
This is Ellesmere Island.
The short summer gives the wolves
a chance to rebuild their strength.
But here in the Arctic is never easy.
This pack is led by an
experienced female.
If she can't lead them to food,
the coming winter could be
their last.
Prey is spread over
such a vast area
that they must be constantly
on the move search of it.
But finding prey is only
the beginning.
Musk oxen.
They are five times the size
of a wolf.
The conflict between wolf and oxen
is an ancient one,
and has been waged since
the Ice Age.
Each side knows the other's tactics.
The wolves try to isolate
the weak or the young.
A calf stumbles
..and the pack leader immediately
closes in.
But the herd regroups,
horns at the ready.
But it can only be brief.
This time, the herd race
to higher ground.
As they reach the top of the ridge,
the males turn to defend themselves.
Every unsuccessful hunt
leaves the pack weakened.
This could be an easier meal.
But something is not right.
This musk ox has died
from a disease.
Outbreaks like this are becoming
increasingly common
as the climate warms across
the Arctic.
Despite their hunger,
the pack don't eat this carcass.
Another herd.
Another chance for the pack.
This time, the wolves manage
to split the herd.
That may improve their chances.
The lead female makes sure
that the oxen
do not reach the ridge again.
With one less defender,
the calf is more vulnerable.
A much-needed meal.
The wolves must continue to
make the most
of the remaining weeks of summer when winter returns
..they're ready to endure
some of the harshest conditions
that exist on planet Earth.
Such inhospitable extremes
are not only found at the poles.
As altitude increases
..temperatures fall.
Here, too, animals must make the
most of the seasonal change.
Particularly if you're ready
to mate.
A male common frog
in the French Alps.
He has spent all winter
hibernating under the ice.
But now it's time to wake up.
Being cold-blooded, he needs
the sun to warm his body.
But once it sets
in a few hours' time,
he could freeze to death.
So finding a mate is urgent.
The weather is good.
And he starts to sledge.
But this is not a one-frog race.
Dozens are rushing to
the breeding pool.
This many frogs out on the slopes
..doesn't go unnoticed.
You can't afford any slips.
It was all going so well.
Made it.
But all the females have already
got partners.
There's only one thing for it.
Not this time.
Another latecomer.
A female.
Could she be the one?
Sometimes being late can pay off.
After all his efforts, the male is
not going to let this chance
slip through his fingers.
This is the cedar forest of the
Atlas Mountains, in North Africa.
These Barbary macaques enjoyed
a summer of plenty,
but now they're paying the price.
Winter here can be brutal.
In some years,
over half the group perish.
But in this macaque society,
the more social the monkey,
the more likely it is to survive.
Keeping warm by huddling
can make all the difference.
But they can't huddle all day.
They must, eventually, break apart
to feed.
They spread out, searching for food.
But each night, the group return
to huddle in the cedar trees.
No-one wants to be left out.
Especially the infants.
This baby, somehow,
has got separated.
He must get back to the life-saving
warmth of the huddle,
and soon.
But there is an obstacle.
A grumpy male is giving the baby
a rather cold shoulder.
Maybe a more subtle approach.
The male decides to leave.
At last enthusiastic reception.
The male has had less luck.
It could be a long night.
Huddling might seem a simple
expression of affection,
but among these macaques
it's essential for survival.
And not just here.
5,000 miles away,
in the forests of Mexico,
monarch butterflies, in millions,
also huddle for survival.
All of them have travelled across
North America
to escape the winter that
is coming there.
This forest,
at an altitude of 3,000 metres,
might seem to offer little
..for temperatures here can drop
below freezing,
and that could kill the butterflies.
But in fact,
a thin layer of warm air
trapped by the tree canopy
protects them,
and will do so throughout
the winter
..provided that the forest
remains undisturbed.
Unpredictable extremes
of weather, however,
can disrupt this delicate balance.
Strong winds can push deep into
the forest, chilling the air.
Hundreds of thousands
of butterflies
may be blown from the branches.
In some years, storms kill 75%
of hibernating monarchs.
This one has survived
..but on the ground.
And night-time frosts are fatal.
It can't stay here and live.
It is too cold to fly,
but it must get back into
the tree branches somehow.
So it starts to climb.
It's the equivalent of a human
climbing up a skyscraper.
Safety, at last.
As spring returns,
the monarchs wake from their
long slumber.
And now starts one of the Earth's
greatest natural spectacles.
But this mass awakening
is under threat.
The changing climate is creating
more extreme weather,
and storms are becoming
more frequent.
But, for now, this miracle
of nature continues.
Unpredictable and destructive.
This is South Africa's fynbos.
Botanically one of the most
diverse habitats on Earth
..with over 8,000 different
plant species.
Yet, every two decades,
fire reduces the vegetation
to ashes.
This may seem catastrophic.
But just days later,
plants burst into life
..and transform the landscape.
Seeds and bulbs have been waiting
for this event.
90 million years of evolution
alongside fire
has made some plants
so closely adapted
that they can't germinate
without the presence of smoke.
Remarkably, around 50% of planet
Earth's terrestrial habitats
depend on fire to remain healthy.
In Northern Australia, these
savannahs need seasonal fires
to keep them open and prevent the
spread of the nearby forest.
And they are a vital habitat
for this colourful resident.
The rare golden-shouldered parrot.
He and his lifelong partner..
rely on grassland for both food
..and a nest site.
As usual, they've laid their eggs
in a hole in a termite mound.
And now there are four chicks.
The thick mud walls don't only
protect chicks from predators,
but insulate them from the heat
of the scorching sun.
With fledging just days away,
the parents are working overtime.
They collect thousands of seeds
every day.
But they have a problem.
The fire season is becoming
more irregular.
If they are not ready to fly,
chicks have no escape.
But choosing to nest in a termite
mound has a surprise benefit.
Their home is fireproof.
Concrete-like walls keep chicks safe
from the flames outside.
The seeds of fire grass are now
easier for the parrots
to find on the blackened earth
..and they are the parrots'
favourite food.
So, for both adults and
their fledgling chicks
..fires are essential for survival.
But their grassland home
is shrinking,
and only about 1,000 of these
lovely parrots still survive.
It's through the active
management of fire by humans
that their world now exists at all.
Humans are affecting habitats
across planet Earth.
For wildlife, all too often,
the consequences have
been disastrous.
Elephants are among the most
tolerant of animals.
They are very long-lived,
and knowledge passed between
generations enables them
to find food and little-used
sources of water in times
of great environmental stress.
But even among elephants,
survival strategies are now
beginning to fail.
In Amboseli, Kenya,
years of extreme weather,
combined with overgrazing
by domestic cattle,
are turning these grasslands
to dust.
This matriarch is over
40 years old
..and she's already survived
some of East Africa's
worst droughts.
But this year, food is in extremely
short supply
..and her family are struggling
to find enough.
Her youngest son is malnourished
and weak
..and is lagging behind his mother
and brother.
She leads them to a pocket of acacia
forest that she knows well.
But broken branches and fallen trees
show that other elephants
have already been here.
There is very little left
worth eating.
Without food, his mother cannot
produce enough milk.
She has no choice
..but to leave her weakening calf
..and try to find food elsewhere.
So, she and her elder son
head off
..without him.
He can only hope for their return.
But for him, time has run out.
There is nothing his mother,
or anybody,
could have done to save him.
With her elder son still alive,
there is hope for her family.
But only if they can adapt quickly.
Some families are proving
to be resilient.
They're travelling long distances,
away from Amboseli
..and finding new sources
of food and water.
And despite the drought
..calves are being born.
But given the pace of change
and the challenges they face many of Africa's elephants
will be able to adapt?
And can they do so fast enough?
The Gobi Desert.
A land of sand and snow.
For at least a million years,
this has been
one of the most extreme habitats
on Earth.
Yet, footprints in the sand
reveal that there is life here.
A snow leopard.
Seldom seen
..especially in such hot,
arid conditions.
They live up to 2,000 metres
above sea level,
and patrol vast territories.
They are rarely seen together.
A mother
..with cubs.
Filmed here for the first time
in such intimate detail.
And they give us a glimpse
of their family life
..such as it is.
Snow leopard cubs stay
with their mothers
longer than those of almost
any other big cat.
They remain together for over
two years they learn how to master
the extremes.
Which they do so well
that they are able to thrive
in some of the hottest, coldest
..and highest places on Earth.
Some animals,
over millions of years,
have evolved ways of surviving
extremely hostile conditions.
But as the extremes become
more extreme
..evolution is being outpaced.
These extraordinary places
are still inhabited
by some of Earth's most resilient
and adaptable species.
But in our rapidly changing world
..this is planet Earth as
you may never see it again.
The most
extreme parts of our planet
are not always found where
you might expect.
Hidden deep in the forests
of Vietnam, a local man,
Mr Ho Khanh, made an extraordinary
He didn't know it at the time,
but he had stumbled upon arguably
the largest cave in the world.
Inspired by Mr Ho Khanh's discovery,
the Planet Earth team set out
to film Hang Son Doong.
But first, they have to get there.
We've left the river valley,
and we're walking uphill now
to the entrance.
It's just thick, thick forest.
After trekking for two
gruelling days,
the team finally arrive.
Down here is the entrance
to Hang Son Doong,
this tiny opening in this
massive jungle.
It's amazing that anyone
ever found this place.
We're about to go in for
the next 18 days,
and it's lights on from here on out.
Local experts guide the team
through the darkness.
OK, I can go? Yes, yes.
I'm good. I'm OK.
It's just really slippery.
A complex system of ropes leads
them down a 90-metre descent.
After four hours clambering
over rocks
they finally reach what
will be their camp.
The team wake to a new day -
but in darkness.
How did you sleep, Luke?
Quite tired.
These are all of the tents
behind me.
You can see they are pretty
..pretty snug.
This is where we have our breakfast
every day,
made by some amazing cooks.
This is our charging station.
Batteries for camera equipment,
batteries for our lights,
our head torches,
which are so important.
This is our water station.
Everything that we have got has been
brought in by someone,
so you can't shower or wash.
And it's not just water.
Tonnes of equipment has had to be
carried into the cave,
every inch of the way.
Now deep underground,
the powerful lights
reveal just how vast this cavern is.
That is amazing.
Look at that. It's
It's huge!
As you turn on each of the lights,
another part of this enormous
chamber is revealed.
It's magic. Absolutely magic.
To try and capture the true scale,
the team attempt a filming technique
never tried before.
We're trying to do a little bit
of a dance with the drones,
whereby we have one drone sort
of slightly below the other,
one filming the other one lighting
a feature in the cave.
It's a really tight space.
You can't see anything.
What could go wrong?
OK, slow down a bit.
It's making everyone a little
Yeah, don't go up any higher, Luke.
OK, that's a nice height.
With one drone lighting
and one drone filming
..they reveal the wonder of some of
the world's largest stalagmites.
As the days pass,
the team settle into
the everyday routine of
life underground.
This is the epitome of
being off-grid.
We call that one seesaw loo
because it's kind of on a rock,
and every time you sit on it
and lean back,
you're scared that there's
going to be a disaster.
The strangest thing is
having no connection
to the outside world whatsoever.
Time is warped.
Nothing makes sense underground.
Without daylight to guide them,
the team work round the clock
to capture the cave's most
unique features.
Most special of all,
an event which happens only
a few weeks a year.
To get there, they must navigate
through boulder fields
and tight squeezes.
Here, around half a million
years ago,
the cave roof collapsed,
opening a window to
the outside world.
The team wait for
just the right conditions.
We've been sat here for hours.
And finally, just on the
right-hand side of the wall,
we can see the first signs of light.
After weeks of darkness
200 metres underground
..they see sunlight
illuminate the cave floor.
The way it just lights up
this massive cave
..when we've been trying to do it
with about four or five lights
and barely even lighting
the smallest section.
When the sun comes in, it just
I think everyone's got goose bumps.
I don't think I've ever appreciated
sun so much in my life.
It's incredible.
Look at the backlit waterfalls.
They're so slow coming down.
It's literally one of the best
things I've ever seen.
For the crew, the sunbeam
marks a profound end
to their time in the cave.
We're outside!
It's so green, it's so bright.
Being back above ground feels like
where we belong.
It's a wonder to imagine
what other extremes
still lie beneath the surface
of planet Earth.
Next time
..the human world
..where animals must find
new ways to survive
..amongst us.
Habitat Explorer brings animals
and their habitats to life.
Explore this free interactive,
and make origami animals.
Go to
and follow the links to
the Open University.
Or to order a free printed version,
visit the website
or call the numbers on the screen.
Previous EpisodeNext Episode