The first definitive natural history of North America’s spectacular five Great Lakes – one quarter of Earth’s available freshwater.
A uniquely unpredictable and extreme environment which wildlife and humans have adapted to in remarkable ways. Bordering Canada and America, water flows through life and the landscape traveling through five giant lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. In a world short of freshwater, these spectacular lakes have become our planet’s most important ecosystem.
Each story will be surprising and told by an Emmy-award-winning team with remarkable television pedigree. Our goal is to blow the audiences’ minds, making them fall in love with the greatest freshwater environment on Earth – a world audiences have never seen before.
Why now? On a planet short of freshwater now is the time to look at this beautiful and fragile ecosystem containing one quarter of Earth’s surface freshwater.
EPISODE 1: SOURCE TO SEA
The Great Lakes watershed is the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. We meet the five giant lakes and the journey of a drop of water as it flows on its way to the sea – a distance as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. The scale of the landscape is hard to comprehend. There is more coastline here than anywhere else in America.
We see a giant beaver dam and how millions of these giant rodents control and purify water flowing into Lake Superior. Beaver have created a paradise for grey wolves and for iconic common loons and ospreys that hunt fish in its clear waters. Lake Michigan has spectacular nature but also a major trade route which brought invasive species like jumping silver carp. As the water flows to Lake Huron we see some of the thousands of remarkably preserved underwater shipwrecks. Water flows into Lake Erie, the shallowest and most southerly Lake and millions of migrating birds and insects must cross here. Pelee Island is home to the rare Blue Racer snake which uses Erie’s warmth power its hunt. Incredible Niagara Falls is also migrating and will someday drain Lake Erie. As water flows to Lake Ontario human pollutants once harmed the watershed are improving allowing a giant cormorants colony to thrive. Nearby a newly discovered giant underwater cave system harbours millions of giant native mussels and sponges that filter water. The mighty St Lawrence River drains all the lakes as water flows into the Atlantic Ocean forming the largest estuary on Earth and a rich feeding ground for thousands of whales and one million seals.
EPISODE 2: THE BIG FREEZE
Winter is arriving in the Great Lakes. Free-divers swim beneath ice of Lake Huron, part of a giant watershed created millennia ago by glaciers two-miles thick that now contains much of which is now freezing. North American river otters are also free-divers who must find ice-free areas to hunt, rolling to keep their fur dry. Ice is a powerful and dangerous force. In Lake Superior a white-tailed deer gets stuck in the ice. Ravens make a ‘yell call’ to gather numbers and work together to outwit bald eagles and wolves. In the forests surrounding Lake Ontario new science shows how flying squirrels use ultraviolet fur to communicate and avoid predators. In winter the powerful jet stream dips creates huge storms and the largest freshwater waves on earth for ‘ice surfers’. These waves also help to form Lake Effect snow along the coastline. A Canada lynx is perfectly adapted to deep snow with huge paws and the Ruffed Grouse create snow dens and sheds feathers to escape the lynx. Snowflakes come in many forms some of which provide powerful insulation for baby black bears. A new phenomenon the ‘Polar Vortex’ creates unpredictable cold snaps which paralyze gizzard shad creating one of the world’s largest gatherings of bald eagles. Rare wolverines studied by a biologist north of Lake Superior need winter to survive and could repopulate the continent. Giant freshwater cod sing and mate under the ice, but Great Lakes moose are declining because warmer winters are spreading blood-sucking ticks. Native American, Poe Dechampes is trying to save these moose. Ice and snow created North America’s Great Lakes, but in this warming world the future of life in the Great Lakes will be shaped by one species – us.
EPISODE 3: MYSTERIES, MARVELS & MONSTERS
The transformation each year from brutal cold to blazing heat is the ‘forge’ which creates ‘mysteries, marvels and monsters’ of evolution and an explosion of life uniquely adapted to change. For centuries there have been stories of giant lake monsters – but could these monsters be real? The world’s largest mass spawning if Lake Sturgeon happens each spring near Lake Michigan. Some of these fish were born during the American Civil War. A newly discovered shipwreck in this lake reveals its own mystery. In the wilderness around Lake Huron a thirty-year-old female salamander performs an epic migration across snow and is the world’s only ‘photosynthetic vertebrate’. Spring in the Great Lakes is unpredictable, so a great horned owl family has adapted to feed on everything that moves including aquatic animals. Wolves prey upon spawning white suckerfish to feed their pups and Massasauga Rattlesnakes swim between Lake Huron’s 30,000 islands looking for a place to breed. This lake has the largest freshwater island on Earth where the rocks glow at night. On the shores of Lake Michigan are Earth’s tallest freshwater sand dunes where tiny, cute and rare baby piping plovers must try to survive with human help. In the headwaters of Lake Erie colourful redside dace are the only fish on Earth to have evolved to catch insects in the air. Beneath the surface weird mussels imitate aquatic prey spreading their parasitic larvae. Humans are battling invasive sea lamprey with coloured lights and pheromones while native watersnakes are learning to eat invasive goby fish. The adaptation of wildlife here to unpredictable change gives us hope about the future of the world’s greatest and most important freshwater ecosystem.
Co-Produced by Oak Island Films Canada, Merit Motion Pictures and Terra Mater Factual Studios in association with TVO, Smithsonian Channel and Two Wise Monkeys Entertainment