Portugal: Wild Land on the Edge | Full Episode | NATURE | PBS
NARRATOR: From coastal cliffs battered by the world's biggest waves... [ Dramatic music plays ] ...to ancient forests where wild horses roam... [ Horse neighs ] ...Portugal possesses a vast array of landscapes... ...and creatures. ♪♪ It's a bounty of natural treasures. [ Birds squawking ] ♪♪ But we have encroached on these wild places and threatened its inhabitants. While some have adapted, others need protection...
to ensure Portugal can preserve its wild side. [ Mid-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Down-tempo music plays ] [ Birds crying ] NARRATOR: Portugal's west coast, for centuries the last sight of land for brave mariners setting out on epic journeys into the unknown. Their spirit of adventure and discovery continues to define Portugal, on the mainland, in surrounding seas, and on its remotest islands. A fascination with the world that lay beyond the horizon drove many to conquer their doubts and fears. In their quest to discover new worlds, great explorers faced nature's most powerful forces...
[ Birds crying ] ...forces that all too often overwhelmed them. Many a dream of conquest was dashed against these mighty cliffs. Sunken cannons from the 15th and 16th centuries bear witness to failed attempts to open new areas of trade and influence. [ Water bubbling ] Now they've become one with the seabed and provide sanctuary for creatures like the fangtooth moray. ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Old shipwrecks create new habitats in places where real reefs are rare. ♪♪ ♪♪ The barracuda is just one of many colonizers of these new territories. The ship has a new crew, grazing on the thick layer of algae that settles on its steel sides and taking up residence in the cabins.
♪♪ This giant grouper will probably grow old here, adapting his coloring and patterning to his surroundings on a 40-year static cruise. ♪♪ ♪♪ The grouper and his fellows are protected from the currents that once sank these ships. Portugal's Atlantic coast is one of the roughest marine environments in the world. [ Dramatic music plays ] An undersea canyon 150 miles long and three miles deep runs straight towards Portugal's west coast.
Powerful winds and currents channel the surging water, creating giant waves. [ Waves breaking, wind whistling ] ♪♪ At Nazaré, they reach up to 100 feet, making them the highest waves on Earth. The world's best and bravest surfers come to ride the ocean forces. But there is no doubt where the power really lies.
In reality, it's no contest. This is the coast of a country forever defined by the vast contrasts of its natural habitats. [ Down-tempo music plays ] Portugal has just one national park, and it seems to want to conceal itself in mist and clouds. ♪♪ When the clouds part, most often in spring, they reveal the rugged majesty of the Peneda-Geres mountains on the northern border with Spain. [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ [ Dramatic music plays ] This spectacular landscape is one of Portugal's lesser-known natural jewels.
♪♪ ♪♪ The stars of the national park are no newcomers -- wild Garrano horses. [ Horse snorts ] ♪♪ They have lived among these peaks for 20,000 years. [ Birds chirping, horse neighs ] The craggy landscape at 5,000 feet has made them stocky, strong climbers and trusted companions for Portuguese seafarers.
[ Birds chirping, horses neighing ] Small and surefooted, they were suited to life on the ocean waves. Garranos rarely grow to more than five feet tall. [ Horse neighs ] Springtime is foaling time, time for the young to get to know one another, to relax, and above all, to explore their boundaries. [ Horse whinnies ] To escape the summer storms, Garranos seek shelter in one of Portugal's last ancient mountain forests.
[ Thunder rumbling, horse neighs ] Only a few hundred purebred Garranos remain. [ Horse grunts ] Protecting and maintaining this ancient species is the task of both the national park and private breeders. But they too must respect the forces of nature and its innate transience. [ Horse neighs ] [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ Wild horses sometimes fall victim to rare Geres wolves. Although the predators are rarely seen, there's no mistaking the tracks they leave behind. Living with wolves means the Garranos have never lost their flight instinct.
The mists that can return at any time offer the horses a welcome cloak of invisibility. ♪♪ But invisibility isn't helping another kind of horse that lives at the opposite end of Portugal, in the Algarve -- the seahorse. [ Water bubbling ] ♪♪ These shallow coastal waters are home to one of the largest seahorse colonies in the world. They are sensitive and vulnerable, and their real misfortune is their status as good-luck charms in much of Asia.
Their only protection are the fields of seagrass just beneath the surface. But they too are gradually disappearing. ♪♪ ♪♪ Water and sand engage in a never-ending dance here, as high and low tides create transitory artworks in the Ria Formosa's lagoons and bays. No surprise that tourists like to linger here... [ Dramatic music plays ] ...without realizing that they themselves have become a threat. This is a nature reserve that doesn't restrict tourism. ♪♪ Every dropped anchor destroys a little more of the seahorses' habitat.
They're left literally clutching at straws for their survival. Without seagrass, there's nothing to hold on to, nowhere to hide. Adrift in open water, an innocuous piece of seaweed can be deadly. [ Down-tempo music plays ] Even if you survive, a drifting clump of seagrass can sweep you from home and away from your partner. ♪♪ ♪♪ In the Algarve, nature seems poised between land and sea, a source of both beauty and conflict.
♪♪ Humankind's attempts to extract the riches of the sea have a long history. Salt harvesting is still mostly a manual activity here. [ Birds crying ] Saline pools are flooded between spring and autumn.
When the salt crystallizes, it's skimmed off the top and dried. The finer the grains, the more valuable the harvest. [ Down-tempo music plays ] [ Insects buzzing ] The local wildlife treats this activity with discretion. They keep their eyes open and are always ready for a tactical withdrawal. ♪♪ Fortunately, nature offers plenty of hiding places and other ways of disappearing. [ Mid-tempo music plays ] The Mediterranean chameleon has a small foothold in Europe and no great desire to draw the attention of tourists.
That might not be easy in such a popular region, but the chameleon is an expert at blending into its surroundings. Chromatophore cells in its skin change color, reacting to temperature, light, and emotion. And its independently swiveling eyes can spot danger -- or opportunity -- in any direction. ♪♪ Preparation is all.
This animal isn't interested in close combat. It's all about assessing the distance to the chosen prey. The chameleon's weapon is its sticky, darting, slingshot tongue. ♪♪ A well-aimed strike can pinion insects up to 15 inches away.
[ Water lapping, birds chirping ] As the tide goes out, other fascinating creatures emerge. Fiddler crabs. They inhabit the sandy and muddy intertidal zones and pools near the shore. They waited out the flood tide in their underground burrows, and now there's no time to waste. They're not picky where food is concerned, filtering algae, worms, and shellfish remains from the sand and silt. Females have two claws for searching for food, while the males are limited to just one.
[ Bird squawking ] Interruptions are most unwelcome. Time is short. The tide will soon be coming in. [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ After food, it's time to flirt.
The males wave their big claw in the air. What female could resist that powerful weapon? Eventually, the males hope, a female will relent and join them in their burrow for a little affair between the tides. ♪♪ [ Birds squawking, crying ] [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ At the height of the tourist season, the animals here are rarely left alone. ♪♪ But the steadily disappearing seagrass makes it difficult for seahorses to find each other. ♪♪ That matters because seahorse partners form strong, lasting bonds and play unusually equal roles in the relationship. ♪♪ The males bring the babies into the world.
They carry the females' fertilized eggs for the last 12 days. Only 20 out of 200 tiny seahorses will survive the first few days of life. From the moment of their birth, these delicate creatures are left to their own devices.
The Algarve's seahorses are vulnerable at every stage of their lives. [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ [ Birds crying ] ♪♪ The elements ceaselessly shape and reshape Portugal's natural world... ...like sculptors, never quite satisfied with their creation. ♪♪ ♪♪ Contrasts hold this land together in a creative tension. ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Wind whistling, thunder rumbling ] When heat and drought relent for a few short spring weeks, mist and rain can take over. Landscapes that lay parched and dormant for months awaken. [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ When moisture reaches the dry earth of Montado, it's soon awash in a sea of flowers.
♪♪ But the clouds disperse, and the merciless sun beats down on southern Portugal, draining color from the land, baking the soil. ♪♪ Hot winds whip through the eucalyptus forests. In the 1940s, dictator Antonio Salazar planted quick-growing eucalyptus to boost the timber trade -- with unintended consequences. Their deep roots drew moisture out of the ground, and the trees themselves produced flammable oils. Each summer, Portugal's powder keg ignites.
[ Dramatic music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Massive forest fires regularly scar the land. It's a good year when no humans are injured. Though for nature itself, fire is a natural part of life. [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Full recovery in this monochrome world can take some time. Almost all the anthills have been razed. Ants that survived beneath the earth must now find ways to rebuild their colonies.
Centipedes and heat-resistant weevils face similar challenges. The blaze has briefly banished the birds and the lizards that hunt them, giving them time to navigate the charcoal landscape. Moisture-storing moss is the first new vegetation. Like a wild wood in miniature, it offers protection and nutrition for survivors and for new life.
[ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ ♪♪ On the well-watered banks of brooks and rivers, the young plants grow fastest. Within a few weeks, the hardy eucalyptus have begun to recover. The trees that caused the inferno that tore through large parts of the landscape are among the first to produce new shoots. But one tree seems to meet every natural disaster with equanimity.
Whatever goes on around it, the cork oak survives. Its bark is fireproof. [ Birds chirping ] [ Blade scraping ] Ten percent of Portugal's surface is covered in cork forests.
[ Indistinct conversations, bark creaking ] Individual trees live up to 200 years -- or 400 if their cork isn't harvested. Each oak can shed its cork mantle every eight years, at the height of summer when the bark has dried out. The cork ends up in many products, most famously at the end of wine bottles. A cork oak must grow for 30 years before its bark can be harvested, so cork farming needs planning across the generations. [ Bird squawking ] Storks seem to do the same, settling on a single tree year after year. Experts believe the storks know about cork's fire-resistant qualities.
Several stork families will share one tree -- as many as the tree will support, seeing as a single nest can weigh hundreds of pounds. [ Birds squawking ] [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ Portugal's white storks clearly have a liking for exclusive and eccentric homesites. ♪♪ The western coastline of Cabo Sardao. Together, the crashing waves and steep cliffs create an almost impenetrable protection against any threat from any direction.
♪♪ And yet the white storks of Cabo Sardao are the only storks known to nest on cliffs. They take advantage of the challenging conditions, allowing the coastal updrafts to carry them to their nests. ♪♪ [ Bird screeches ] Storks are creatures of habit and remain faithful to a single place for long periods. On their return from African winter quarters at the beginning of March, they start on the repairs to their nests, ravaged by winter storms. [ Mid-tempo music plays ] Renovations can be time-consuming, and some storks prefer to cut corners. Rather than collect supplies on land, many birds help themselves to building materials from their neighbors' nests.
♪♪ [ Down-tempo music plays ] [ Birds squawking ] Whether the materials are collected or stolen, the nests are completed within a few days. Now it's time for the crucial rendezvous. [ Bills clicking ] Storks are loyal partners, returning to the same nest and the same mate year after year. ♪♪ ♪♪ Female storks lay between two and five eggs and incubate them for approximately one month. Then, life in the nest becomes really challenging. [ Bird screeches, chicks chirping ] The exclusive sea-view location may be spectacular, but it comes at a price.
[ Chick chirping ] Food is difficult to find, and the parents have to make several trips a day to keep their young satisfied. Abandoned rice paddies near the coast are the preferred destination. These are home to worms, beetles, and frogs the storks swallow whole before carrying them back to the nest.
The delivery is eagerly awaited. [ Waves breaking ] [ Chicks chirping ] The greedy chicks are never satisfied... ...and little is left over for their hardworking parents. From here, the world is within reach.
And it's the ideal starting point for a flight of exploration, to a part of Portugal far beyond the ocean horizon. [ Down-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ [ Birds crying ] The Madeira archipelago is some 300 miles from the African coast. Most people only know of the main island, Madeira. Desertas Grande, to the south, is less well known.
[ Dramatic music plays ] ♪♪ The so-called "Great Desert" lies like a ghost ship, surrounded by the Atlantic... ...or like a remote planet in a distant galaxy. ♪♪ Storms, searing heat, and heavy rainfall have created a landscape that looks a bit like Mars... ...inhospitable and yet attractive. And this island has become a sanctuary for two of the planet's rarest life-forms. Its upper elevations are home to Europe's largest wolf spider, with a span of up to five and a half inches. Far below, one of the world's most endangered mammals fights for survival -- the Mediterranean monk seal. Evolution has created two vastly different animals.
But Desertas Grande has brought them together as neighbors in a fascinating, protected environment. [ Down-tempo music playing, woman vocalizing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ The Mediterranean and the coastal waters of North Africa and western Europe were once home to hundreds of thousands of Mediterranean monk seals. These days, just 300 or so remain. Over centuries, they have been hunted to the brink of extinction. A small colony enjoys the protection of the Desertas Grande conservation area.
Mealtimes are followed by a quick power nap. ♪♪ A Mediterranean monk seal can spend up to 15 minutes beneath the surface before it has to come up for air. After a few deep breaths, the seal dives down again to continue its afternoon siesta. ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Engine humming ] The only humans to visit Desertas Grande are the researchers who come once a year. The team works quickly as the tide rises. [ Water splashing ] Cameras that can broadcast for 10 months are installed before the start of the mating season The monk seals have always been independent creatures.
Their justified fear of humans has made them even more shy and careful, and they are now rarely seen along beaches or coastlines, preferring the safety of caves. The cameras are there to observe the seals' mating behavior and to capture a possible population increase without in any way disturbing their subjects. [ Dramatic music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Down-tempo music plays ] The Desertas wolf spiders are equally shy creatures and the undisputed kings of this sparse landscape. They have no real competition here.
But try telling that to the lizards. The lizards know not to get too close. The spiders' eight eyes see everything, and a moment's carelessness can mean a vicious punishment. That was a narrow escape.
Thanks to their dominance in this habitat, the wolf spiders can reproduce in large numbers. The female wolf spider carries her cocoon-shaped egg for around 40 days. More than 100 small spiders grow within the egg. After they hatch, they spend a few days riding on their mother's back before they are eventually shaken off to fend for themselves. [ Mid-tempo music plays ] Those that survive strengthen the Desertas Grande population, now numbering 5,000. [ Down-tempo music plays ] By contrast, the colony of Mediterranean monk seals, totaling just 30, is under pressure.
The challenge facing conservationists -- raising awareness of the seals' plight while ensuring humans keep their distance. Farther away, 1,000 miles from the European mainland, lies Portugal's westernmost archipelago, the Azores. ♪♪ The largest animals that have ever lived stop here twice a year on their marathon journeys between the northern and southern hemispheres. One hundred feet long and 200 tons in weight, they truly are the gentle giants of the seas.
In early summer, blue whales can be found in the waters off these volcanic islands. Rising some 7,500 feet, the dormant volcano Pico is Portugal's highest mountain and the peak of a giant submarine ridge, the result of over 300 million years of volcanic activity. ♪♪ Here, three great tectonic plates were torn apart 200 million years ago, when the supercontinent Pangaea split, creating Eurasia, Africa, and North America. Benefiting from nutrients from the Gulf Stream, these waters are rich in krill and fish. They attract marine mammals with large appetites.
A blue whale filters more than a ton of plankton from the sea in a single day. [ Down-tempo music plays ] The explorers and seafarers of the past used the Azores as an essential stopover on their way to the overseas colonies. The islands serve this purpose for today's cetaceans. Some, like the sperm whales, stay here all year 'round because of the abundance of food. [ Birds crying ] ♪♪ [ Dramatic music plays ] [ Dolphins echolocating ] ♪♪ Thousands of dolphins hunt here in superpods. Wherever dolphins patrol around the Azores, Cory's shearwaters are never far away.
This is a close cooperation. If a school of sardines appears, the attack immediately begins from every direction. The fish form a defensive bait ball for safety in numbers, but the merciless shearwaters dive to capture their share of the prey. [ Birds crying ] ♪♪ The Cory's shearwaters are also drawn to another Portuguese island -- Selvagem Grande. [ Down-tempo music plays ] This inhospitable island is Portugal's southernmost point. ♪♪ Here, almost every rock crevice contains a shearwater nest.
[ Birds crying ] Cory's shearwaters are among the birds with the longest life span, some living up to 50 years. But many never reach such an advanced age. Some won't survive the perilous hunting expeditions. Others die in agony from the plastic they swallow at sea. Selvagem is also home to thousands of Madeira wall lizards. They're always on the lookout for food, especially a nutritious unhatched egg.
Sometimes teamwork is needed to guarantee success. [ Birds crying, waves breaking in distance ] After the first, hesitant approaches, the lizards descend on the broken egg. Before long, it's a free-for-all where the weak are left behind. Soon only the empty shell remains... ...and the lizards swarm out on their quest to ensure their survival in Portugal's southern extremes.
[ Birds squawking ] [ Down-tempo music plays ] To travelers returning from the high seas, the appearance of this lighthouse meant far more than just the presence of land. It marked the return to civilization, the westernmost point of the European continent -- Cabo da Roca. ♪♪ It's also the entrance to a natural world, much changed by human influence. ♪♪ The pine trees of the Mafra forests spread their branches high above the undergrowth, as though providing protection for the animals below. The inhabitants of this nature park might not draw too much attention elsewhere in Europe, but in Portugal, this fairy-tale landscape offers a rare opportunity to see these animals in the wild.
It was not always so. [ Suspenseful music plays ] Portugal's monarchs were hunters who left little to chance. [ Gunshot ] Not content with erecting hides and blinds for hunting, they built the longest wall in Portugal. ♪♪ Ten miles long and some 16 feet high, the wall was designed to provide the royals with easy prey. ♪♪ [ Tender tune plays ] ♪♪ Then, it was an unequal contest. Today the wall provides a peaceful glimpse of the forest's shy inhabitants.
♪♪ Contests now take place on an equal footing. [ Antlers clacking ] The forest inhabitants, including fallow and roe deer, can now emerge from hiding. The 42,000 acres of former hunting grounds that once belonged to the kings of Portugal have been a conservation area for decades.
Wild boars can now safely engage in their favorite pastime -- energetically rooting for worms and grubs. [ Squealing ] ♪♪ [ Bird cries ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Vultures circle in the skies above Portugal. Many commute across the border to Spain for food.
There, farmers can leave animal carcasses out in the open. That's forbidden in Portugal. ♪♪ But when a piece of carrion is spotted on this side of the border, griffon, black, and bearded vultures descend en masse. [ Squawking ] A strict ranking system applies at the carcass.
This threatening gait leaves no doubt. This griffon vulture will be the first to the feast. [ Chirping ] A wild boar, victim of a snakebite, is a rare treat for vultures in the Montado border region with Spain.
Some turn up without an invitation. As soon as the carcass has been torn open, the vultures descend on the meat. [ Squawking ] A fox considers his options. [ Insects buzzing ] Facing 40 ravenous vultures would be foolhardy, and possibly suicidal.
[ Screeching ] But the fox launches a frontal assault. -[ Barking ] -[ Chattering ] [ Squawk ] And finally decides that hunger is preferable to certain death. ♪♪ ♪♪ In their nest, young vulture chicks eagerly await their parents' return. ♪♪ [ Chirping ] They are hungry, but the real problem is the heat that turns the rocks into a furnace. ♪♪ Small strips of carrion will be welcome, but the chicks desperately need a different kind of help.
♪♪ Next to food, shade is the greatest gift a vulture parent can offer its young. ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ In the unforgiving heat of summer, Portugal's greatest rivers come into their own. ♪♪ Both the Douro River in the North and the Tejo in the South originate in Spain, but reach their full glory in Portugal. ♪♪ These vital arteries nourish the country, seeing Portugal through even the severest droughts.
♪♪ ♪♪ The Tejo flows more than 600 miles from its source to the sea, making it the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. Its infinitely broad delta finally reaches the Atlantic close to Lisbon. ♪♪ This estuary is one of Europe's most significant wetland regions, attracting migratory birds on their way to and from Africa.
Many more choose to winter here. ♪♪ ♪♪ It's bustling and busy here, as if the birds of the world have chosen to mimic human society. ♪♪ [ Zooming horn honks ] ♪♪ [ Zooming trolley bell rings ] ♪♪ [ Squawking ] ♪♪ It's mass tourism, animal-style.
The mudflats and marshes attract well over 100,000 birds from every part of Europe. [ Chirping ] ♪♪ Black-tailed godwits arrive from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe in their tens of thousands, mounting breathtaking displays on the fringes of the Portuguese capital. [ Chirping ] [ Squawking ] ♪♪ Most of the flamingos have made their way from the Camargue in Southern France.
As temperatures in Europe rise, more and more flamingos are foregoing the long-haul flight to Africa. Over the winter months, this is the largest flamingo colony on the continent and here, the birds have the ideal environment to maintain their startling characteristic coloring, as their long legs churn up the mud for algae, crabs, and crustaceans. [ Chirping ] The shellfish supply the carotin pigment that keeps their bills pink and wings orange. ♪♪ ♪♪ In the Tejo delta, the borders of a country constantly battling the elements shift continuously.
♪♪ Portugal is a country that has always pushed boundaries and has, for centuries, provided its inhabitants with visions of a wider world beyond their horizons. ♪♪ These thousands of pied avocets can choose any direction in their search for new adventures and discoveries in Portugal, a wild land on the edge of Europe, of the sea, and of life itself. ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ To learn more about what you've seen on this "Nature" program, visit pbs.org.