Big Beasts (2023–…): Season 1, Episode 2 - The Elephant Seal - full transcript

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[Tom Hiddleston]
Giant animals, living legends.

Fantastic creatures.

These are nature's big beasts.

But experience the world
from their perspective,

and you'll see it's not easy being huge.


- The larger the animal...
- [growling]

...the higher the stakes

and the more epic the adventure.

A colossus returning from the deep.

Smaller males, make way.

This bull elephant seal...


...spent winter bulking up
to the weight of 40 men.


Now he's back
to defend his heavyweight title.

[grunting, roaring]

But in the face of such huge competition...

very few males rule for more than a year.

It's tough to get to the top...

and even tougher to stay there.

[exhales deeply]

[birds squawking]

Every spring on the subantarctic island
of South Georgia,

thousands of elephant seals come ashore
to breed.


They split into groups
of around 50 females,

fiercely guarded by a beachmaster.

Using his full force,
he tries to keep them under his control.

He's hoping to father all their pups,
just like last year.

But other males are always trying
to muscle in.

With a roar louder than a thunderclap...


...he does his best to intimidate.

If that doesn't work,
he has to chase them off.

The problem is...

his body is not exactly beach ready.

Shifting four tons of bulk
is a huge effort.

You definitely don't want
to get in his way.



One challenger seen off...

he's on to the next.

[exhales deeply]

Up to 17 confrontations a day
over two long months,

relentless pursuit is taking a toll
on this aging bull.


[breathing loudly]

And the battle has only just begun.

For much of the year,

Antarctica and the surrounding ocean
are dark and icy.

[water lapping]

But when spring finally arrives,

the warming sea welcomes an invasion
of giants.

Whales migrate up to 5,000 miles

to come and feast in these fertile waters.

This 40-ton humpback mother
is leading her calf here

for the very first time.

[whales calling]

Vast numbers of penguins
are also swimming to these shores...

and gathering in huge nesting colonies.


And soaring on the longest wings
of any bird,

wandering albatrosses are returning
to land.

Many are coming to breed,
but this one already has family waiting.

[bird squawking]

On the island of South Georgia,
sheltering in the tussock grass,

her very heavy, very hungry chick.

[birds squawking, warbling]

She's spent eight months sitting
on her nest,

waiting for her parents to bring her food.

Day after day,
she watches adults come and go...

- but none of them have anything for her.
- [shrieks]

Finally, Mum's home.


Their greeting convinces Mum she
has the right chick

and encourages her
to hurry up with dinner...

a much needed, supersized portion
of high-energy fish and squid.

Once dinner has been served,
Mum has to leave again...

but taking off isn't easy for such a big,
ungainly bird.

She must turn to face the wind...

brace her 11-foot wings and then wait...

for a powerful gust to help lift her.

Up, up and away.

This could be one of the very last times
the chick will see her mum.

Soon she must fly the nest

to go and find her own food
far out at sea.

But before a 25-pound baby has any hope
of getting off the ground...

there's a lot of training to do.

Down on the beach, another heavyweight
also has his work cut out.


The beachmaster is still on top
of the competition.

So far,
they've mostly been young pretenders...

but now he's facing a serious challenge.

Just as big, just as strong

and far fresher to the fight.

The newcomer wants blood.

Battles between evenly matched opponents
can last ten minutes...

and the younger male has stamina
on his side.

Banished from his beach,

now the old bull can only watch on...

as his rival lays claim to his females.

With only a month
until the breeding season is over,

unless he can regain his strength...

the old beachmaster's reign
will be over too.

The southern sun
is now shining 24 hours a day,

transforming freezing waters into some
of the most productive seas on Earth.

Small, shrimp-like creatures called krill

multiply into swarms large enough

to become food for giants.

[whale calling]

This 50-foot leviathan has barely eaten

in seven months.

Herding krill isn't easy on your own,

but he has an ingenious trick...

never filmed before.

With ten-foot flippers,
he draws circles in the sea...

to create a vortex

and round up the tiny crustaceans.

With every gulp,
he sieves out thousands of krill.

It's an impressive return
for a single whale.

And he's not the only one
making a killing.

Twice as large as a lion
and armed to the teeth,

a leopard seal is built for speed.

Not so much on the ice...

but in the water,
he flows like liquid terror.

He's homed in on an enormous colony
of gentoo penguins.


Plenty here
to keep him fed through summer.

Sooner or later,
they'll have to take the plunge.


The defeated champ needs
to pick his moment too.


While the new beachmaster
tightens his grip

- on the old bull's harem...
- [shrieks]

...he's still floundering at sea.

the females aren't receptive right now.


They are focused on nursing their pups,
fathered by last year's biggest bulls.

There is hope.

Females only come back into season
once their pups are big enough

to face life at sea.

The old bull must bide his time,
gather his strength...

and trust that the trials
of being beachmaster

will slowly wear his rival down.

[exhales deeply]

[bird squawks]

It's now a week since Mum last returned.


Other adults are already beginning
to breed...

[squawking] it's time she got going.

As the summer arrives,
her down disappears.

And now that flight feathers
are poking through, an idea is forming.

Wandering albatrosses are one
of nature's greatest aeronautical marvels.

A special tendon locks their 11-foot wings
into position...

so they can soar above the ocean

and cover 1,000 miles with barely a flap.

They use scarcely more energy flying
than sitting on the nest.

Perhaps it's time to become that bird.

But taking off takes practice.

Controlling those enormous wings
isn't easy.

And nearly 50% heavier than her mother,

she needs to convert her baby fat
into muscle.

As her strict diet continues,
other giants are preparing to feast.

More and more humpbacks are gathering.

With so many other whales around,

Mum can team up and show her calf
how to catch food.

Swimming in circles,
blowing out air as she goes,

she scares the swarms
of krill tighter together.

Trapping them in a spiral of bubbles.

This bubble-netting technique
allows the whole pod to take their fill...

but it has to be mastered over years.

At least the calf is giving it a go.

When big brains combine,

each whale can harvest
up to a ton of krill,

a million calories a day.

The humpbacks will keep feeding

until the seas freeze over once again.

The leopard seal has been gorging too...

on six penguins a day.

And even once he's caught his fill,

he can't resist the thrill of the chase.

Gentoos are the fastest penguins
on the planet,

capable of swimming 22 miles an hour.

Long, powerful flippers
and a streamlined muscular body

mean the leopard seal
is more than a match.

But if the penguin plays dead...

The one that got away.

But there are plenty more penguins
to chase

and still months
to go before the colony leaves.

Time is almost up for the old bull.

Now the females are weaning their pups,
they're ready to mate again.

And his rival isn't wasting
any opportunity.

Yet even a few weeks of being beachmaster
has exhausted the young male.

And the old bull can sense it.

When his rival is focused on females
and his defenses are down...

it's time to strike.

Once again,
the younger bull has the higher ground.

But by luring him into the surf,
the veteran evens things up.

Finally, he sends his rival packing.

The old bull is back,

back to reclaim his beach and his females.

In the hills above, it's time someone else
seized the moment too.

Now she's lost five pounds of fat
and all of her down,

the chick is lighter on her feet.

And weeks of practice
have built enough muscle

to control those extraordinary wings.

After ten long months of admiring others
in the air,

she's finally ready to head off
on her own adventure out at sea.


That takeoff still needs some work.

But with her wings to the wind...

and a few flaps to get her going...

finally, she's airborne.

Soon she'll be flying
up to 600 miles a day.

It could be ten years and the equivalent
of 30 trips around the globe

before she returns
to have chicks of her own.

As the breeding season draws to an end,
the old beachmaster can finally rest.


He's mated with all his females...

and last year's pups are growing strong.

In just three weeks,
they've tripled in size.

Plenty of blubber will keep them warm

and give them the best hope
of reaching adulthood.

Although only one
in 30 males ever makes it to the top,

by inheriting their dad's giant genes,
they've got a fighting chance.

It's time for the old bull
to return to sea.

Let the ocean ease the burden
of his battered bulk.

He may not live to see a third season,

but now this heavyweight
has defended his title for two years,

he'll go down as one
of Antarctica's true greats.