As Earth Day approaches, you may be itching to get outside and enjoy nature. But since we can't travel right now, I have some ideas for you. I did a deep dive into WGBH's endless array of programs about the natural world, which took me on emotional, educational, and thrilling journeys. From deep-sea dives to rocky English coasts to breathtaking white waters, here are five incredible places you can explore from your couch.
Cuba's Wild Revolution in NATURE
Take a virtual walk through a wildlife wonderland in NATURE's Cuba’s Wild Revolution and explore not a political revolution, but a natural revolution. Cuba is a wonder of biodiversity, and remarkably, half of Cuba’s animals and plants are found nowhere else on Earth. As the film shows, Cuba’s limited development compared to the rest of the Caribbean has meant less human intrusion on nature, making it a rare sanctuary to explore colorful oceans, lush forests, and active coral reefs.
I spent a large part of the documentary scratching my head, thinking, “how in the world did they possibly film that?” The filmmakers take you inside the miracle of a green turtle finding the perfect patch of sand to lay her eggs, and provide over-the-shoulder shots of Cuban rock iguanas on the beach, and the teeny tiny bee hummingbird gathering nectar and feeding its baby chick, and the underwater orchestra of colors in the coral reef. It’s a beautiful and emotional journey. I was riveted by the treacherous adventure of a baby sea turtle trying to evade predators after hatching, and then making it to the safety of the ocean.
The Arctic and Antarctica in NOVA’s Polar Extremes
When you think of the the Arctic and Antarctica, you probably see white. But in NOVA’s Polar Extremes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a vast array of colors — piercing white, yes, but also brilliant blues and green patches poking through on the tundras, and some yellow arctic wildflowers and golden petrified tree stumps. As this sweeping film proves, some of the harshest places on Earth are also the most beautiful. As the film unfolds, you’ll find that Earth’s extreme places are not only splendidly beautiful; they also hold the key to better understanding our planet’s history and future. Deep in the ice are clues that show how much Earth has changed and evolved. Did you know the Arctic used to be a vibrant swamp, or that Death Valley used to be covered in glaciers? Host Kirk Johnson uncovers all kinds of fossils in these places — plants, animals, and even a dinosaur — which help to illustrate what life was like on Earth tens of millions of years ago.
It’s also a reminder that humans are a tiny little blip in the history of Earth. We only appeared about 300,000 years ago, yet we are already making an impact on the atmosphere. Although these vast places are void of human life today, they are impacting our future: ice in our poles holds 70% of our planet’s vital supply of fresh water, tying the fate of the glaciers to humanity’s fate. A large part of the film focuses on climate change, taking a chilling look at how people have accelerated the buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. But there’s hope in the ice.
The Cliffs of Cornwall in MASTERPIECE’s Poldark
In many great TV shows, the setting often becomes a character in and of itself. That’s certainly true with MASTERPIECE’s Poldark, which takes place in Cornwall, England in the 1700s. Cornwall sits on the southwestern tip of England, surrounded by the Celtic Sea and the English Channel. Its cliffs are a majestic backdrop for the show, filmed on location. Aiden Turner stars as Captain Ross Polark, who returns home to Cornwall after the American War of Independence, as he deals with family loss, leading a coal mine as his business struggles, and the ups and downs of marriage.
The cliffs are timeless, as are the themes of the show: love, loyalty, family, loss. Many of the most important moments of the show take place atop one of the cliffs or down on the beaches —first kisses, tragedies, reunions, triumphs — all set against the windswept cliffs and expansive ocean views. “Cornwall is everything to Poldark,” Turner has said about the location. “It depicts the mood and cadence to what’s happening in any scene. It does feel like it’s a part of Ross — tempestuous, rugged, and changing and unforgiving.”
Bhutan In Expedition With Steve Backshall
While the other films on this list are a relaxing trip through nature, this one is thrilling. In this episode of Expedition, Steve Backshall travels to Bhutan, the small kingdom situated at the foothills of the Himalayas between India and China. His mission: kayak down a river no one has ever traversed before, which cuts through a steep gorge. We get to see his careful preparation, as he assembles a superhero team of expert kayakers and maps out the safest route. Then it’s go time, and the journey down the rushing white waters is as suspenseful as any action movie I’ve seen.
There’s extreme beauty in this extreme sport, too. When Backshall's team meets calm sections of the river, they get to enjoy the stunning mountain views. “We’ve paddled into paradise,” he says as he admires the untouched serenity of Bhutan. Even when Steve has a near-death experience, he calls it one of the best days of his life. I’m not a person drawn to extreme sports in real life, so this virtual trip was all I needed for a thrilling experience in the wild.
The Pacific Ocean in Big Pacific
A virtual jaunt through nature wouldn’t be complete without visiting an ocean, and there isn’t a more worthy exploration than the Pacific Ocean. Covering 64 million square miles, it spans one third of our planet’s surface. The 5-part Big Pacifictakes a cinematic approach to uncovering the rare and mysterious treasures deep below the ocean's surface. The Pacific is home to some of the most remote places on Earth, and some creatures that seem otherworldly — like the firefly squid, covered in luminescent blue dots that shimmer like sapphires, and the deep-dwelling glass sponges, which are more than 500 million years old and are possibly the ancestors of all complex organisms.
The first episode dives into mysteries of the Pacific, such as, why do so many species of sharks congregate at one island off the coast of Colombia? (Answer: it’s a home base for all of the hunting in the area, and they’re attracted to the magnetism of the island.) And, why are there beautiful cryptic sand designs on the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Japan? (Answer: A newly-discovered puffer fish species artfully creates them to protect its eggs.) The series is a reminder that although we have explored much of the Earth’s surface, there is still so much we don’t know about our planet in the depths of our oceans.