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National Geographic's Strange Days on Planet Earth
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Strange Days on Planet Earth
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About the Project

Imagine a healthy planet with healthy humans living on it: the world has embarked on a path to clean energy, clean air and fresh water; we are feeding ourselves without compromising land or sea and parents are starting to believe that their children will inherit a better, safer world...

Strange Days on Planet Earth is a multi-year landmark undertaking inspired by this vision of the future. Climate change… Ecosystem degradation… Clean energy… Poverty… Disease…  Strange Days on Planet Earth connects some of the greatest issues of our day. It presents problems, currently perceived to be disconnected, hopeless or even harmless, as globally connected, personally relevant and urgent. It brings into focus the realization that the decisions we make today will affect all life on Earth for years to come, and asks the simple but profound question: how do we move these decisions from minor to monumental?

At the heart of Strange Days on Planet Earth is the award-winning PBS series, hosted and narrated by Academy Award nominee Edward Norton. Strange Days first aired in the spring of 2005, reached 20 million viewers and won fourteen prestigious awards, including Best Series at Wildscreen, the environmental equivalent of the Oscars ®.  It became known for exposing the web of invisible connections of the Earth’s life support systems. In its second season, the series reveals the profound global consequences of our simple everyday actions, with special focus on global ocean and freshwater issues. This season is made possible by generous support from The David and Lucille Packard Foundation, National Science Foundation, and the ITT Corporation.

Episode Five: Dangerous Catch

A series of strange, seemingly unrelated events are unfolding across the globe. In the West African nation of Ghana, olive baboons are ransacking crops and terrorizing villagers. Further down the coast, putrid fumes are rising from the ocean depths off Namibia, causing whole towns to gag. Half a world away in Puerto Rico, space-age aquapods filled with fish are floating far out at sea, while off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada, migratory salmon are settling into coastal life astride kelp and mussels in a radical new farming experiment.

These events can be linked to one activity—over-fishing. Recent reports state 90 percent of our most important commercial fish are gone, and fisheries all over the world are in dire straits. Our insatiable demand for seafood is affecting more than just life in the ocean, however. Bizarre, often unpredictable, effects are rippling out far beyond the shoreline.

We begin in the steamy heat of south-central Ghana where biologist Justin Brashares and his team have come to survey antelope. They find that antelope numbers have plummeted along with large animals like lions and leopards that used to keep olive baboon numbers in check. Released from predation, the crafty, hard-to-catch baboons have now multiplied into a menacing force that is wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. What happened to the antelope and the predators of the baboons? Delving into dusty archives where decades of animal population records lie hidden, Brashares discovers a shocking link — hunting pressure on Ghana’s large animals increases in direct proportion to fish supplies. With foreign fishing fleets stripping West Africa’s waters of protein-rich fish, the bushmeat trade is booming.

As Brashares continues his research, other researchers are witnessing disturbing events further down the coast. In Namibia, ecologist Bronwen Currie is working with satellite oceanographer Scarla Weeks and biologist Andrew Bakun to understand what’s behind a putrid stench that periodically overwhelms the coastal villages and towns. Following the arrival of the vile, inescapable odor, countless dead fish carpet the beaches and bastions of lobsters flee the sea. While Currie investigates the seafloor where decaying algae create a primordial stew of toxic gases, Weeks looks to daily satellite images of the ocean’s surface to forecast the next big event. Through dogged sleuthing, the team reveals these stench events are orders of magnitude larger than ever imagined and may be influenced by over-fishing of a small silver fish, the sardine. Furthermore these events are releasing copious amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Bakun suggests other hot spots worldwide may be approaching a similar explosive state. Could over-fishing drive these places to their tipping-points? What can be done?

While some scientists work to conserve massive tracts of ocean, others are tracking animals to reveal and protect migratory routes and mating grounds. And others, like Brian O’Hanlon, hope to reduce fishing pressures by tending fish like ranchers tend livestock. O’Hanlon is creating space-age aquapods in Puerto Rico — raising fish offshore where waste is easily diluted by strong currents, unlike many inshore fish farms. In the foggy reaches of New Brunswick, Canada, another biologist, Thierry Chopin, is conducting a novel experiment —building small ecosystems of salmon, mussels and kelp in hopes of creating a lucrative, environmentally friendly fish farm. Can marine reserves, fish ranches and other solutions stem the tide of change and help restore the bounty of life in the world ocean? It’s now becoming clear that by reducing our take from the ocean and restoring wild fish stocks, we might also be helping life on land and ultimately the entire life-support systems of the planet.

Episode Six: Dirty Secrets

Along the shores of rivers, estuaries, islands and the sea, a disturbing set of mysteries is unfolding. Striped bass are succumbing to flesh-eating bacteria in Chesapeake Bay. Majestic seabirds are starving in Hawai‘i. Coral reefs are weakening under a growing assault of invisible contaminants. A known hormone-disrupting chemical is showing up in streams and rivers across the country, potentially jeopardizing the health of animals and humans alike. All these mysteries share a similar culprit. Each is linked to insidious hitchhikers silently riding the currents of the world’s water system. Something is amiss in our water supply, and expert teams of researchers are racing the clock to find clues and devise lasting solutions.

Water — it’s our most essential ingredient. Throughout the millennia, humanity has naturally been drawn to water, and the larger the body of water, the greater the draw. Nearly half the planet’s population now lives within a mere 75 miles (120 km) of the ocean, and coastal development is escalating worldwide. Few places showcase this massive seaward migration more dramatically than Mexico’s Mayan Riviera where some of the fastest growth on Earth is taking place. Yet all this development depends on a hidden and vulnerable underground water supply. Expert researchers plunge us into a spectacular watery underworld to investigate the impacts of Yucatan’s fast-growing economy on the region’s freshwater supplies and nearby coral reefs.

Further north in Chesapeake Bay, researcher Wolfgang Vogelbein is tracking a disease that’s eating the flesh of the region’s prime sport fish — striped bass. Through forensic analysis, his team reveals how opportunistic bacteria are getting a foothold in bass populations due to the fish’s increasingly stressful living conditions. With a community-assisted tagging program, Vogelbein’s team reveals how the disease may be linked to warmer waters and daily doses of excess nutrients streaming from surrounding lands. Together, these conditions are leading to low oxygen levels and creating dead zones. In recent decades, Chesapeake’s dead zone has tripled — and similar dead zones are growing across the globe.

Far out at sea other experts are discovering the disturbing consequences of another hitchhiker in our waters — plastics. On the remote islands in the Pacific, a team of researchers has discovered adult albatrosses unwittingly administering a daily diet of plastics to their chicks — a practice that prevents the chicks from digesting food and eventually leads to starvation. Where are the adults collecting all the plastic? Through tagging studies, scientists reveal the birds are likely foraging in a region known as the North Pacific Gyre — the same area where Captain Charles Moore recently found more plastic than plankton in some places. While plastic is often dumped directly at sea, Moore relates that most comes to the ocean by way of big city storm drains and rivers. What’s more worrisome is that along the way much of this plastic can leave a menacing wake. A known hormone-disrupting chemical called bisphenol A has been found to leach into water from commonly used polycarbonate plastics. Developmental Biologist Fredrick vom Saal and his colleagues have linked this chemical to a wide range of developmental and reproductive maladies in numerous species, including humans.

As researchers and policymakers scramble to encourage smarter use of plastics, hundreds of miles south, researchers in Mexico are investigating what might be the greatest threat to our water system yet. Roberto Iglesias-Prieto and his colleagues are studying how CO2 , one of our largest industrial waste products, is impacting coral reefs.  For 20 years he’s charted how Earth’s second-largest reef system is changing in response to rising sea temperatures. Now he and others are turning their attention to the fact that CO2 has not only increased ocean temperatures, but has also altered its pH, essentially making it more acidic. As CO2 levels continue to rise in the water, organisms comprising the very foundation of the marine food web are in jeopardy, with potentially devastating consequences on everything from snails to sharks, whales, and ultimately humankind. Meanwhile, across the world, innovative and ingenious researchers race against time to reduce the daily dose of contaminants flowing into our world water supply and to stem the tide of change.


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