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Full EpisodeSnow Chick

During two months of blizzards and frigid temperatures dipping to -80 degrees, each male Emperor penguin who breeds in Antarctica must nurture and protect a single egg that harbors his offspring. But once the eggs hatch by midwinter, these dads are ready to move on to their next stage of parenting. Snow Chick imagines the story of the youngest and last chick of the colony to emerge from his shell and the challenges he encounters growing up in the world’s most extreme nursery. The program follows the ups and downs of what this littlest chick experiences during the first six months of childhood starting from birth through a chick’s journey to the sea.

Transcript Print

♪♪ WINSLET: In the depths of winter, some 50 miles from the sea, emperor penguin chicks hatch into the frozen world of Antarctica.

[ Chirping ] [ Calling ] Their childhoods will last six months here on the ice and every day is full of drama.

[ Chirping ] While the chicks brave storms and bullies and the discipline of babysitters -- [ Chirping ] they rely on parents who must survive great dangers to reach them.

There are thousands of baby emperors in this colony, and from all their adventures, we imagine the story of a single one.

One little snow chick, trying to fit in, in the toughest place on Earth.

♪♪ ♪♪ Midwinter in Antarctica, and one of nature's most extraordinary stories is about to begin.

Through two months of biting winds, blizzards, and unimaginable cold, these male emperor penguins have each nurtured a single, precious egg.

One by one, they welcome their tiny chicks into the world.

[ Chirping ] [ Chirping ] But not all eggs will hatch, and one father is still waiting.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Calling ] A neighbor shows off his own new youngster.

[ Chirping ] His calls will encourage the chick to emerge.

[ Chirping ] [ Cracking ] Finally, the youngest member of the colony is born.

But growing up in the world's most extreme nursery will be a huge challenge.

For in just 6 months he must have learnt enough to fend for himself in the great Antarctic Ocean.

[ Chirping ] But that's all in the distant future for him.

He hasn't even met his mother, yet.

[ Chirping ] [ Tranquil tune plays ] Far from their chicks, the mothers have spent the last two months catching fish and fattening up, while the fathers were left alone to hatch their eggs.

Now, the race is on to get back and feed their young.

Among the excited crowd is Snow Chick's mother.

She's got a belly full of fish for her newborn, but between them is a grueling 60-mile trek across the frozen sea.

Waddling at less than 2 miles an hour, it will take many days to get home.

♪♪ Instinct drives them on.

Their babies' lives depend on them arriving in time.

[ Calling, chirping ] Back at the colony, the father is getting to know his chick.

He gives him some high-calorie baby milk, produced from a gland in his throat.

But these supplies will only last a few days.

It's just as well his mother is on her way.

[ Calling continues ] Following her maternal instinct, she and all the other females are making steady progress on their journey home.

But, in places, the ice is wafer-thin.

Below, a predator tracks their every move.

A leopard seal: the penguins' greatest enemy.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Suspenseful music climbs ] The chick's mother senses danger.

[ Rapid calling ] [ Wail ] [ Suspenseful music climbs ] [ Snort ] She was right to be cautious.

[ Wail ] [ Calling ] Broken ice is a death trap.

[ Sinister music plays ] [ Calling ] For the rest, their chick is their only concern.

But the seal needs just one victim.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] ♪♪ [ Snort ] [ Calling ] A near miss, and she still has 40 treacherous miles ahead of her.

[ Calling ] While the chick waits for her return, outside temperatures are -20°. [ Rapid calling ] But the pouch covers him like a tea cozy and keeps him at a comfy 100°. [ Whimsical tune plays ] [ Rapid calling ] For a new father, walking with a chick on your feet is a tricky balancing act.

[ Wail ] [ Rapid calling ] [ Chirp ] [ Whimsical tune continues ] [ Collective wail ] [ Collective wail ] He'll get the hang of it soon.

The mothers are also struggling with the icy conditions and they are crossing some of the toughest terrain on Earth.

Their sharp claws grip the ice, while scales on their feet act like treads.

Back at the colony, it's been a week since the chick was born.

At these temperatures, survival depends on getting enough to eat.

[ Chirping ] His father tries, but there's nothing left to give.

The mothers battle on.

Sadly, some years they simply don't make it in time.

The chick is getting weaker by the hour.

[ Calling ] [ Chirping ] ♪♪ Then, at last, some weary figures appear.

[ Chirping ] ♪♪ [ Chirping ] Utterly exhausted by the walk, the mother still has one final challenge before she can meet her chick... finding him.

[ Calling ] There are over 3,000 fathers with chicks here and, even to penguins, they all look the same.

For the chick, time is running out.

But the penguins have a solution.

The fathers get in line, and Dad and his chick join them.

[ Whimsical tune plays ] They form an identity parade.

All she has to do is simply work her way along the line.

Sounds simple enough.

But, among all the penguin lookalikes, her partner is still tricky to recognize.

So, every so often, she stops and calls.

[ Rapid calling ] [ Various calls nearby ] Her cry is unique, and the father responds with a call of his own.

[ Rapid calling ] It's what she was hoping to hear.

[ Chirping ] After 2 months at sea and a 60-mile trek across the ice, she's made it back, in the nick of time.

[ Rapid calling ] [ Chirping ] In a miracle of natural timing, he gets a morsel that will save. his. life.

[ Rapid calling ] It's now his mother's turn to take over the childcare.

But they must be careful.

A few seconds too long on the ice, and their chick will die.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] ♪♪ Finally, they unite as a family.

The bond they share is one of the most remarkable in nature.

♪♪ For over the next five months, they'll take it in turns to trek to the sea to bring back food for their ever-growing baby.

[ Chirping ] His father endured so much to get the tiny chick this far, saying goodbye is hard.

[ Calling ] This time, there's no looking back.

In four weeks, he will return with fresh supplies.

But, first, there's the little matter of a 120-mile round trip to the sea.

[ Rapid calling ] Now, it's Mum's turn to feed him.

A natural preservative has kept the fish as fresh as the day it was caught.

The chick may be satisfied, but his father hasn't eaten for four months.

He and the rest of the hungry fathers are now two days into their long walk to the sea.

[ Rapid calling ] But, sometimes, the ice offers a shortcut: an ice hole, a portal to the sea which could cut their journey by days.

And, when you're famished, it's got to be worth investigating.

But such holes don't appear by themselves.

[ Rapid calling ] There had to be a catch.

They can either stay and hope the leopard seal goes away, or continue their long, risky trek to the sea.

Time to regroup.

This must be a joint decision.

Emperors rely on each other for their very survival, so learning social skills starts early.

[ Chirping ] Penguins are naturally argumentative, so his first lesson is sticking up for himself.

[ Chirping ] His mother only intervenes when things go too far.

But no kid likes being told off.

[ Chirping ] [Wail] At the ice hole, the standoff continues.

[Wail] [Rapid calling] No one is keen to be first.

But they egg each other on, as penguins like to do.

[ Calling ] [ Wail ] ♪♪ The coast is clear.

Their gamble paid off.

At the colony, two weeks have passed.

The chicks are testing their independence and spending time away from their mothers.

All, that is, except one.

As the last to hatch, he's behind in development.

While the older chicks are boisterous and confident, he still feels most comfortable in his mother's pouch.

But penguins are sociable birds and, to survive, he must learn to play his part in the colony.

It's a daunting prospect, but the little chick finds some courage.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] [ Tranquil tune plays ] [Chirping] [Wail] [ Collective wail ] ♪♪ [ Chirping ] It's a shaky start, but he mustn't lose his nerve.

Time for a bit of tough love.

[ Chirping ] [ Chirping ] With every step, he gains more confidence.

It's just as well.

He has so many friends to make.

[ Chirping ] ♪♪ But when you're the smallest, it's tough to join the gang.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] [ Chirping ] [ Adults calling ] [ Chirping ] [ Rapid calling ] For now, there's always Mum.

[ Chirping ] [ Tranquil tune plays ] Out in the open ocean, the fathers are reveling in being back in the water.

♪♪ They haven't eaten for four whole months and have lost half their body weight.

To stock up on fish and squid, they hold their breath for up to 20 minutes and dive to nearly 2,000 feet, deeper than any other bird.

♪♪ ♪♪ At the colony, three weeks have passed, and the chick is confidently following his mother wherever she goes.

He's still learning how things should be done.

He soon thinks there's nothing left to learn.

So nervous toddler turns cocky explorer.

But, at this age, she mustn't let him out of her sight.

[ Chirping ] [ Chirping ] [ Wail ] [ Faint chirping ] She's lost him, and heads off in the wrong direction.

[ Chirping ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Chirping ] Confused, he does the only sensible thing and heads towards the colony.

♪♪ He feels safer now.

His mother must be here, somewhere.

[ Chirping ] And then, security, at last.

But he's got it wrong.

It's not his mother.

[ Chirping ] [ Chirping ] This must be her, surely.

[Chirping] Wrong again.

[ Chirping ] He tests each penguin in turn, but nobody wants him.

In a colony this size, he may never find his mother again.

These are desperate times.

In this frozen world, lost chicks don't survive for long.

His father is among the many rushing back with fresh supplies.

But, he must be careful.

[ Sinister music plays ] A pod of killer whales are on their tail.

♪♪ ♪♪ They look for any penguin that makes a mistake.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] [Wail] Just a tiny error, but, now, he's in deep trouble.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] He torpedoes to safety.

But killer whales are intelligent and persistent predators, and the spring melt has turned the ice edge into a maze of gullies and openings.

Perfect for a surprise attack.

[ Sinister music plays ] He must find a safe passage out by staying on solid ice.

[ Wail ] To keep him in their sights they spy hop.

He sees a route and heads for safety.

[ Sinister music plays ] A reprieve, of sorts, but the other fathers left without him.

And, with a storm brewing, he's totally exposed.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] ♪♪ Already, the blizzard has reached the colony.

The chick's only protection is his overcoat of down, and, at -40, it's simply not enough.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] [ Chirping ] And, unfortunately, the other mothers care only for their own.

[ Chirping ] The chick's mother calls one last time.

[ Rapid calling ] But her cries are lost on the wind.

[ Music climbs ] [ Chirping ] ♪♪ [ Wind blows ] At last, he's found.

And not a moment too soon.

Within a few hours, the full force of the storm engulfs the colony.

The chick may be safe, but, as temperatures drop to -80, his mother's warmth is not enough.

To protect him, she needs to find refuge in the shared warmth of the other penguins.

[ Wind whips ] As 70-mile-an-hour winds lash the colony, the penguins huddle together.

[ Wind whips ] Sheltered from the storm, they're snug, at last.

[Melancholy tune plays] But, out on the ice, the lone father is still paying the price for his mistake.

[ Wind blows ] His only hope is to reach the safety of the colony in time.

In the comfort of the huddle, the penguins have all the shelter they need.

In the center, temperatures can even reach a toasty 100°. To cool down, they shuffle to the outside, letting others take their place.

By sharing body heat, they weather any storm.

[ Wind blows ] Desperate for the warmth of the family, the lone father struggles on.

For the sake of his chick, he simply has to make it back.

♪♪ Then, through the blizzard, salvation.

[ Faint calling ] [ Triumphant music climbs ] Against the odds, he's made it home.

♪♪ ♪♪ A few weeks pass, and the days are lengthening.

Dad is on parenting duties, while Mum takes the fishing shift.

But, even in the safety of the colony, there are unexpected dangers.

Penguins who have failed to breed practice childrearing skills on chunks of ice.

But their mothering instinct is so overwhelming, what they really want is a baby of their own.

And who better than the smallest, most adorable chick in the colony?

[ Chirping ] [ Whimsical tune plays ] Dad has his work cut out, keeping these kidsnatchers at bay.

And they aren't the only broody penguins.

Soon, there are so many babysnatchers, they block the father's path at every turn.

[ Calling, chirping ] As his chick gets smothered by admirers, there's nothing he can do.

[ Whimsical tune continues ] For these lone females, the urge to nurture a chick of their own is overwhelming.

In the frenzy, they are in danger of loving him to death.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] [ Rapid calling ] [ Chirping ] When Dad can finally reach him, his little chick is in real peril.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] Then, a lucky break.

He gets his battered baby back.

Nothing is more important than the safety of your young.

As the weeks go by, spring turns to summer, the sea ice melts, and the ocean gets closer.

[ Tranquil tune plays ] It means feeding the chicks is easy, so they are growing up fast.

They hang out together in small, comforting huddles.

But Snow Chick isn't ready to cut the ties, despite being too big for his father's pouch.

It's starting to get embarrassing.

It's long overdue, but his father finally persuades him to find his place in the gang.

But there's an art to joining a huddle, and he hasn't mastered it.

But practice makes perfect, and the first thing to work out is which way to face.

You know you've got it right when someone snuggles in behind you.

Accepted, at last.

This is a huge milestone in his development.

It means that, for the first time, both parents can go fishing.

♪♪ The chick is not so sure he's ready to be left on his own.

[ Chirping ] [ Chirping continues ] But the colony has invisible walls and he instinctively knows they mustn't be crossed.

[ Chirping ] The adults left behind don't have the caring ways of his parents.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Chirping ] Until they return, he must find one of the colony's childminders.

A penguin who hasn't bred takes on the role as practice for the future.

She'll take him under her wing, but only if he does as he's told.

She's a firm believer in discipline.

♪♪ With so many chicks in her care, stragglers won't be tolerated.

He will just have to toughen up.

But there's a reason for the new, strict regime.

With the warmer days, the open sea is closer now, and new and unwelcome visitors can reach the colony easily.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] [ Calling ] [ Chirping ] A giant petrel.

[Suspenseful music climbs] [Chirping] They always pick on the smallest.

[Suspenseful music climbs] [Chirping] He's caught.

But just by his baby fluff.

[ Continues chirping ] The childminder is welcome now.

[ Whimsical tune plays ] It's now a deadly game of hide-and-seek.

♪♪ Luckily, the petrel spots an easier meal of scraps.

[ Whimsical tune continues ] And the chick has learnt a valuable lesson.

As spring continues, the melting ice brings another new arrival. [Squawk] [ Whimsical tune plays ] The Adélie penguin.

[ Squawking ] A cocky character.

Very different to the laidback emperor.

[ Squawk ] Adélies breed in the Antarctic summer.

He's the first to arrive and he's heading straight for his breeding grounds.

Exactly where the emperors are living.

[Whimsical tune continues] [Calling] When the Adélie reaches the colony, he's on a mission.

He's setting up home for the summer and he expects to have the place to himself.

Adélies are only a foot and a half high, but they are the most pugnacious of all penguins.

He thinks nothing of taking on the whole colony.

Chicks that don't give way soon get the message: he'll be a thorn in their side until he's seen the back of them.

♪♪ In the meantime, he makes himself at home.

[ Tranquil tune plays ] As the melt brings the sea ever-closer, the parents visit their chicks more frequently.

[ Wail ] The littlest still has some catching up to do, but with this continuous relay of food, everyone is piling on the pounds.

When the chick isn't eating, he spends his time hungrily waiting for his next meal.

When his mother does arrive, she's plagued by greedy chicks, all trying to blag a free lunch.

[ Calling ] But if she feeds any of these imposters, her chick will go hungry.

He's hidden somewhere in the huddle.

To find him, she must use her unique and comforting call.

[ Rapid calling ] [ Rapid calling continues ] The chicks are so tightly packed, he can only reach her by crowd surfing.

[ Chirping ] Even now, he must undergo an identity check before he gets a meal.

[ Chirping ] [ Chirping ] Fortunately, he passes the test.

♪♪ At the ice edge, a new invasion.

More Adélies.

Hundreds of them!

[ Collective wail ] [ Whimsical tune plays ] [ Squawk ] [ Squawk ] ♪♪ They're ready to breed and will stand in their way.

They timeshare these breeding grounds with the emperors and the summer season is their turn.

♪♪ [Calling] [Squawking] If you're small, it's best to keep a low profile and hope they'll pick on someone their own size.

[ Emperor chirping ] [ Adélie squawks ] While the bigger chicks are squaring up, he makes his exit.

[ Squawking ] [ Squawk ] ♪♪ [ Squawking ] When the new neighbors aren't picking fights with the chicks, they argue amongst themselves.

[ Rapid squawking ] [ Tranquil tune plays ] The Adélie invasion is also a sign of a bigger and more profound change.

After five months of nurturing, the adults are preparing to leave their chicks for good.

A conveyer belt of food is now arriving around the clock, building them up until they can fend for themselves.

Many adults are leaving the colony for the last time.

And the smallest chick here still has some feeding up to do and his parents are nowhere to be seen.

Then, two familiar figures.

[ Rapid calling ] [ Chirp ] ♪♪ It's double helpings, this time.

♪♪ He'll need the extra nourishment.

He doesn't know it, yet, but this is the last meal he'll ever get from them.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] Without so much as a backward glance, Mum and Dad head back to sea.

Their work is done.

The chick they spent five months rearing must now stand on his own two feet.

♪♪ A week goes by and the weather deteriorates.

[ Wind whips ] All that time, the chicks have been waiting, but their parents never returned.

Even the Adélie seems confused.

[Squawk] -[Chirping] Eventually, driven by hunger and instinct, their only choice is to cross the colony's invisible boundary and begin the most important journey of their lives.

[Squawk] The Adélie couldn't be happier to see them go.

He escorts them off the premises.

[ Chirping ] As winds reach 80 miles per hour, the smallest struggles to keep up.

But he'll only survive if he stays with the group and it's so easy to lose them in a blizzard.

[ Triumphant music climbs ] ♪♪ In temperatures of -5, they battle on, driven by a need to reach the sea.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] After several hours, the struggling chick is losing energy.

[ Wind whips ] [ Faint chirping ] [ Continues chirping ] ♪♪ Then, even the other chicks can travel no more.

Completely exhausted, the chick must make one, final effort.

[ Triumphant music climbs ] Together, the plucky little gang wait for the storm to pass.

♪♪ A few days later, the weather has changed.

And so have the chicks.

As they prepare for a life in the ocean, they preen away their baby fluff, to reveal their adult plumage underneath.

As ever, one chick has some catching up to do.

[ Chirping nearby ] [Whimsical tune plays] [Squawk] The Adélie wants them on their way.

[ Chirping ] [ Screech ] [ Screech ] [Screech] Urged on by their escort, the ragtag army reach their destination.

[ Tranquil tune plays ] This is their first sight of the sea: the great Antarctic Ocean.

♪♪ They're facing the greatest challenge of their young lives, and they'll only go when all are ready.

[ Squawking ] But their ice world is disappearing, fast.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] [ Chirping ] [ Wail ] He hesitates.

Something's wrong.

The ice gives way.

He's tossed into the sea.

[ Wailing ] [Wail] He can't go it alone.

He must rejoin the others. [Wail] [ Wail ] [ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Wail ] Then, he starts to settle.

[ Tranquil tune plays ] It feels strangely natural.

[ Squawking ] But, as the rest show no sign of joining him, his only choice is to clamber back out.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] It's far more difficult than getting in.

And it seems he's not alone in the water.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Suspenseful music climbs ] [ Wail ] [ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Wail ] [ Splash ] [ Calling ] The chicks head for a safer spot.

But, despite the danger, the ocean is beckoning and the excitement is contagious.

An old foe is here to see them off.

[ Intermittent wailing ] The chick may still be the smallest, but he seems more confident now.

He may be facing the great unknown, but he's already had a taste of the sea.

He pushes his way to the front.

After all he has learnt, this is his moment.

He takes a leap of faith.

And, this time, there is no turning back.

The rest follow his cue.

♪♪ He might have been the smallest, but he was strong enough to survive against the odds.

And, now, he leads the penguin gang into the vast Antarctic Ocean.

This will be their home for next four years.

Then, driven by the same feelings that drove his parents, Snow Chick will return here, to find a partner of his own, and the whole incredible story will begin all over again.

[ Triumphant music plays ] [Suspenseful music plays, gong crashes♪