The BBC Natural History Unit faces an unprecedented challenge as the world marches into the 21st Century. It has a dual responsibility: it must explore the planet inspiring wonder and awe, whilst highlighting the fragility, danger and threat to the great wildernesses of our planet.
The dilemma facing the BBC is this: how to tell stories from the wild; to explore the wonder, danger, thrill and awe of the natural world and all of its inimitable characters; their instincts and wild behaviours in close up, staggering high definition visual detail…. WHILST also communicating to it’s audiences the devastating impacts of human activity on the natural world.
It’s a challenge that all wildlife filmmakers face today; on one hand their programmes make wildlife seems abundant to audiences – we can see it right there, on large TV screens broadcast into living rooms around the globe. On the other hand; the reality is staggeringly very different -, vast ecosystems now stand empty, deserted and dying both underwater and above land where countless millions of wild animals once made their home.
Negotiating this balance is a fine line to portray and a nuanced portrayal of the wild world has to be made in order to communicate the urgency of the environmental pressures facing our planet; and its one that Blue Planet II has totally delivered, in epic proportions. In fact the scale of this documentary is both grand and humbling and David Attenborough with the appropriate level of solemnity, declaring:
The health of our oceans is under threat, they are changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.
Never, has there been a more crucial time to explore what goes on beneath the surface of the seas!
Everything about Blue Planet II is urgent and epic; its scale and scope is so far unmatched in the history of wildlife documentary making. And it comes from a strong context. The seven episode series is anchored in a long history of wildlife programming with the BBC’s Natural History Unit which was established in 1957 and this series taking over 4 years to produce.
At the core of this production, and so may other BBC Natural History documentaries over the years, are the scrupulous, impassioned and incisive observations and reflections of its presenter — Attenborough’s awe-inspired reaction is still wholly evident after a lifetime of wildlife documentary making. Attenborough himself has fared considerably better than the natural environments he has been reporting on for more than 65 years. Like a barnacle of truth, he remains a firm fixture of the awe inspiring documentaries he presents, steadfast, immovable and right in the centre of action.
And yet, whilst reassuring similar, this presenting style has not become stale. It’s because Attenborough expresses in words, and tone, the thoughts and awe we all feel, as scenes of natural wonder unfold before us. The hushed tones of amazement and urgency are spoken with the same level of awe and respect as we spoken when his natural history career began 65 years ago; the natural world never becomes dull, boring or uninteresting. In Attenborough’s world it’s a fascinating, endless adventure captured here through a high definition lens.
And it’s the ever improving advances in camera technology that have enabled filmmakers to present things never before seen; a whole new world of firsts encountered on an almost daily basis by the Blue Planet II team.
Using drones, robotic submarines they were able to go deeper into the ocean than any other filmmakers before them; in fact only two dive trips have gone deeper; The Bathyscaphe Trieste and James Cameron’s Mariana Trench Dive in 2012. Drones captured whale migrations in the vast ocean and micro-cameras are attached to sharks and albatrosses temporarily to find out exactly what they get up to in the private wanderings of their lives. Attenborough muses on this revolutionary camera tech, reflecting that we are now able to…
…enter new worlds and shine a light on behaviours in ways that were impossible just a generation ago
And some of these behaviours are rewriting what science once thought about the intelligence of animals. In one scene a Tusk Fish uses a tool to open a clam; tool-use in its own ‘special kitchen’ no less. Tool use, once thought to be the preserve of only highly intelligent animals, is now being observed across the animal kingdom.
In another unbelievable scene we see fish, Giant trevallies, snatching birds right out of the air:
And just in case we aren’t quite sure of the uniqueness of a fish… fishing… Attenborough reminds us:
There is a fish here, that has a brain capable of calculating the airspeed, altitude, and trajectory of a bird.
But this is nothing compared to the utter weirdness or underwater sea eels swimming back and forth from an under-the-surface lake of brine, for reasons yet unknown. We see one unfortunate eel eek its way out of the pool of brine, spasming in agony, as it slowly awakes from its stupor and swims away.
Wonder and awe doesn’t just dominate the series however, and Blue Planet II sticks to its brief echoing Attenborough’s opening sentiment of concern to ‘reveal what’s going on.’ And this theme stays throughout the series. We see scenes of a female Walrus, desperately seeking out an ice hard surface for her calf to rest on amongst a sea of slush. We witness Sperm Whales gingerly mouthing bits of plastic waste and we are reminded of the devastating effects of plastic with Albatross parents regurgitating plastic ‘food’ for their chicks.
It’s in this balance that Blue Planet II shows its strength. Natural History Documentary making has sometimes, in the past, either veered into the titillating drama and cut and thrust of survival in a challenging world or simply lectured its audiences about the devastation wreaked upon the planet by us humans.
Blue Planet II avoids going too far in either direction. It’s not an unremitting celebration of the abundance of wildlife and it’s neither a horrifying account of our damage. Instead it walks a fine line exploring humanity’s influences in the oceans whilst retaining the awe and wonder that draws us in and commits us to environmental change. It weaves into a number of thrilling stories (like the one where an Octopus uses its own intelligence to outwit a shark) and subtly reminds us throughout of the human made devastation leading to increasingly acidifying oceans and record coral bleaching events.
This is the new standard for wildlife and environmental documentary making. No longer are the two subjects separated, distinct from each other, but unequivocally intertwined. Blue Planet II has shown that it is not possible to talk about one, without considering the other — and in its final episode it brings this message right to the fore.
The characters that we have come to know over the preceding six episodes are presented, deeply embedded within their environments and the challenges that these rapidly changing wild, yet changing places will now throw up. Challenges that have been created as a result of human action; of CO2 emissions creating a warming planet and of plastic pollution toxifying the oceans.
Blue Planet II presents to us both the marvel of the natural world and an explicit warning that we must do much, much more to protect it. And if ever there was a call to arms; an entreaty to do more, act more and protect more… this is it. In closing the series, Attenborough reminds us:
We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet. And never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely, we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity and, indeed, all life on Earth now depends on us.