Originally created 01/20/99

PBS show explores extreme nature of Soviet state



LOS ANGELES -- Immaculately decked out in black and white, they stand erect and alert, their long rows extending to the horizon.

They are king penguins, each occupying a small plot of rocky land near Antarctica on which they protect their eggs or newborn.

This striking scene is one of many in a new chapter of The Living Edens nature films. South Georgia Island: Paradise of Ice airs at 9 p.m. today on Georgia Public Television's WCES-TV (Channel 20) and 10:30 p.m. Thursday on South Carolina Educational Television's WEBA-TV (Channel 14).

Previous Living Edens examined on PBS included Alaska's Denali, Africa's Etosha and Namib, Madagascar, Palau in the Pacific, Argentina's Patagonia and Namu in Peru.

A former Soviet state, South Georgia is a bit bigger than Rhode Island and lies about 1,200 miles east of the tip of South America. Snow-peaked, glacier-packed, it serves as the mating ground for penguins, albatross, snow petrels, elephant seals and southern fur seal. The penguin colonies, numbering in the millions, are the world's largest.

BBC crews filmed on the island in summer and winter. Michael Richards, who has traveled the world to capture raw nature on film, did his work during the forbidding winter. Since living in the bitter cold was too dangerous, Mr. Richards and his assistant, David Rootes, retreated after each day's shooting to a supply boat offshore.

Mr. Richards, 47, knew South Georgia from a 1992 visit for another BBC film, Life in the Freezer.

"But I was surprised by the severity of the winter," he said by phone from England. "Also the rough seas. From the time we left the Falklands we had huge seas, the biggest the boatman had ever seen. I thought we would never find South Georgia at all because we got blown off course.

"On the island, the wind chill was the most numbing thing. The weather was about 20 below, the wind chill taking it colder than that. It was dangerous to have any skin exposed for any length of time. We were in the sort of winds that could blow you off balance on level ground if you weren't paying attention.

"In the first three weeks of the eight weeks we were there, it stormed constantly. It was amazing, actually. But it was what produced the film we got."

The unique footage he captured helps explain how the king penguin chicks survive in the fierce winter. He was able to get close enough to the chicks without disturbing them.

"They weren't frightened per se," he explained. "They don't see many people, though some of the penguin beaches are visited in the summertime. They were not frightened by me, because I was just another object.

"The noise is the one thing that is overpowering, the scream of the wind all the time. Because of that, they would appear to be hardly aware of you."