Grab your seat! For avid adventure seekers and armchair travelers alike, this year has soared exhilaratingly high with fresh films and documentaries that spotlight wildlife and wanderlust deep in dazzling nature destinations. Now a new seven-episode series, National Geographic’s Incredible Animal Journeys, crowns the end of 2023, premiering November 19 on National Geographic and debut-streaming November 20 on Disney+ and Hulu. Narrated by actor Jeremy Renner, this horizon-stretching show swoops into action-packed lives of migrating animals, which traverse the globe via often arduous paths that have been replicated generation after generation. Viewing animals’ relentless drive to survive and thrive is an eye-opening revelation. This series was filmed over more than three years on seven continents and 20 countries with an international crew, who unearthed charming, challenging, courageous, complex and intimate animal encounters. Travel fans will especially swoon at stellar scenery. Check out the trailer (below).

Each episode artfully weaves a different theme: Ocean Odysseys, Chasing the African Rains, Alaska’s River Race, Home at the End of the Earth, Polar Parenting, Frequent Flyers and, particularly elucidating, Behind the Journey. Hear about the visions and quests of photographers, directors, scientists and other crew. Throughout Incredible Animal Journeys, Renner’s voice is key—exuding charisma and strength. The narrator is such an essential part of what makes a nature series successful, notes Tom McDonald, executive vice president, Global Factual and Unscripted Content, National Geographic. “The beauty of narration reflects the stunning cinematography that brings storytelling to life,” says Janet Han Vissering, senior vice president, Development and Production, Nat Geo Wild. “We are celebrating not just the majestic creatures, big and small, captured on screen, but also the talent behind the lens who are integral to best-in-class storytelling,” she explains. So I talked with executive producer Mark Brownlow and showrunner Sarah Gibbs of Plimsoll Productions—a large independent TV-production company in the United Kingdom, applauded for its extensive and award-winning natural history content—about their insights creating Incredible Animal Journeys. Dive into our fun conversation (below).

Setting This Show Apart

Laura Manske: “What makes Incredible Animal Journeys astonishing?”

Mark Brownlow: “I have had the privilege of producing wildlife programs for more than twenty years—from the original Planet Earth series to Blue Planet 2. But Incredible Animal Journeys offers an entirely new perspective on wildlife, engaging the audience on another level, as well as delivering documentation of remarkable new animal behaviors with stunning visuals. We follow individual characters. And it’s these characters that you can’t help but fall in love with as they overcome extraordinary obstacles to complete their seemingly impossible journeys.”

Sarah Gibbs: “Alongside the spectacle and world firsts, this is a series with real heart. Each story is a Hollywood drama all its own. You get to experience what these animals go through, such as a green turtle, who, before she can even begin her journey, fights her way Saving Private Ryan-style across the beach where she was born. Rooted in the latest science and space-age tech, Incredible Animal Journeys is a chance to step out of our world and into theirs, traveling without borders and boundaries on an incredible wild ride.”

Mysterious Know-How

Manske: “Most people are unaware about how animals are able to travel vast distances, using the Earth’s magnetic fields, celestial markers and ocean currents. It’s befuddling and breathtaking.”

Brownlow: “Nature continues to humble us. After seeing the Frequent Flyer episode, for example, I defy anyone to look at the diminutive barn swallow the same way again. The size of your fist, these plucky birds arrive in the UK each summer to reunite with their lifelong partner and raise a family. The 6,000-mile journey [from South Africa] to get there not only requires extraordinary navigation, but also involves dodging predatory fish, birds of prey and crossing the parched Sahara Desert. I get lost without Google maps.”

Gibbs: “We couldn’t have made this series without scientists pushing boundaries to discover secrets. The data gathered from satellite tags is amazing, but it’s the navigation that blows your mind. These animals are literally tuning into nature to find their way home. Humpbacks have been found to deviate less than one degree over thousands of miles. They steer straight as an arrow through open ocean—a mean feat for the most experienced of [human] sailors with all our modern tech. It’s thought that whales do so by using sun, moon, stars and even geographical features, learning the route and then teaching it to their young. Monarch butterflies use a ‘time compensated sun compass’—basically the position of the sun plus their internal body clock—to steer a course from Mexico to prairies [as far away as Canada], not bad for a creature with a brain the size of a sesame seed. And scientists know that dung beetles use the Milky Way to keep them on track, because they’ve put them to the test in a planetarium! So much is still a mystery. The little we know gives you ultimate respect for nature.”

Illuminating Impact

Manske: “Animal migration powerfully shapes and sways human life as well.

Brownlow: “The movement of life across our planet is on such a scale that entire ecosystems depend on and operate around these epic migrations. For example, the mighty salmon run that takes place across the Alaskan seaboard each spring feeds more than 200 species of animals—even fertilizing ‘fish trees’ that grow substantially taller than the surrounding forest.”

Gibbs: “Every day billions of animals make billions of journeys helping to keep our planet on the move. They’re traveling without borders or boundaries, bringing back stories and data from places we just can’t reach, teaching us not only about their lives, but also about our own lives on this changing planet. [The animals are] eco-engineers. They spread seeds and pollen, fertilize grasslands, mix nutrients in oceans. They can even help in the fight against climate change. Green turtles traveling to graze seagrass bed after seagrass bed help maintain a crucial habitat that absorbs carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. Protect these journeys, protect these animals and you protect our planet.”

Food for Thought

Manske: “It is surprising and startling that some animals go days, weeks, months between meals.”

Brownlow: “Yes, in terms of fasting, migrating humpback whale moms perhaps set the record. Once within their breeding grounds of Hawaii, a mom will effectively starve herself for six months as she nourishes her growing calf with milk. Then she undertakes a 3,000-mile voyage to Alaska before she can finally feed herself again—making up for it by gorging on more than a ton of herring a day!”

Gibbs: “We all think that we know what it’s like to go hungry, but animals making these journeys really push the limits. [For example] the rich waters of Alaska are full of food for humpbacks, but it’s not a good place for vulnerable youngsters, so a humpback mom has to make a 3,000-mile return trip south to predator-free waters of Hawaii to give birth in relative safety. She won’t eat again until she’s back in Alaska. Polar bear moms make a similar sacrifice: eight months without food while they keep their cubs safe. Then an epic trek onto the sea ice in search of a much-needed meal.”

Gibbs: “One of the greatest land migrations on the planet—the wildebeest and zebra herds in East Africa—is an army that marches on its stomach. Together these nearly two-million animals eat five thousand tons of grass a day. They have to keep moving—following the rains and the grass on an epic circular trek.”

Right Place, Right Time, Plenty of Luck

Manske: “The Ocean Odyssey episode scene of the humpback giving birth is uplifting.”

Brownlow: “I have made numerous marine-based series, but in all this time the holy grail of filming a whale birth seemed impossible. It can’t be stressed enough how special the birth scene is. And how it was only possible thanks to the experience and professionalism of the crew, and its unique collaboration with Hawaiian research scientists.”

Gibbs: “Filming any whale birth in the wild is hard. You need to be in the right place, at the right time and have luck on your side. Working with leading humpback scientist, Dr. Rachel Cartwright, and her team, gave us our best shot at this world first. After weeks of filming in Hawaii, our break came in the most unlikely of places. The team was following ‘heat runs’—during which males race to win the affection of a female. But when [our crew] got into the water, they found a whale in the [initial] stages of birth. The humpback males hung back, one even blowing bubbles as a [protective] screen. For everyone involved it was a wow moment. These are huge animals. [The crew was] swimming next to something the size of a school bus. The sight of a tiny tail emerging from mom was awe-inspiring. To witness the beginning of a new life, and a new journey, is a privilege. Spellbinding.”

Astounding Alliances

Manske: “Your favorite compelling event?”

Brownlow: “A whale rescue, again in Ocean Odyssey. Spoiler alert: For the first time ever, we witnessed a passing whale coming to the aid of an ailing fellow traveler [whale]. Fending off the circling sharks, the whale then raises her to the surface to breathe. A heart-wrenching moment of drama and an expression of kindness in nature, helping us relate to those wondrous creatures on a whole new level.”

Gibbs: “In a series with so many standout moments, it’s hard to pick one, but, as a filmmaker, it has to be the scene with the young humpback entangled in discarded fishing gear, starving and barely able to breathe. For me, it’s the scene that reflects what the series is at its core. It’s heart-breaking, it’s important and, in the darkness, it carries a beacon of hope with a demonstration of true kindness. Making documentaries, you can wait your whole career for a moment like this. Jaw-dropping animal behavior. It’s something you never want to happen, but it’s a stark [reminder] of how dangerous these journeys are becoming. To see another humpback come to her aid was a genuine wonder of nature. We knew in the field that what we had was extraordinary, and we had to treat it with great respect. In the edit, less was more—the whales had done it all for us. It was about holding that moment up to the light and letting it speak for itself.”

Passion for Travel

Manske: “As the showrunner, Sarah, you are responsible for all creative aspects. You manage and juggle hundreds of complicated details.”

Gibbs: “Running the creative with so many moving parts means mostly needing to be at base in the office and live vicariously through the teams on the ground. There are definitely days that I’d rather have swapped my desk for an expedition yacht in the Gerlache Strait, watching orca cut majestically through luminous blue water as they danced around icebergs!”

Manske: “Travel is an essential part of your job, Mark. What is your most treasured memory?”

Brownlow: “Hawaii—with the opportunity to meet a humpback whale. While filming a similar ‘heat run’ in French Polynesia, following testosterone-fueled humpback whales on the chase, I was in the water, calling to my cameraman to alert him of the approaching whales. Instead of drawing his attention, I drew in the whales, with one bull [heading] straight for me. Rather than crush me, he put on the brakes, rolled onto his side and eyed me up, revealing his curious, gentle nature.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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