This month has seen the return of David Attenborough to our screens and (the return of David Attenborough to our) oceans as he uncovers more of their secrets in Blue Planet II. Blue Planet II transcends anything we normally see on TV. It is the pinnacle of sublime televisual viewing, and cements in my mind why TV should never be underestimated as a medium for art, entertainment, and education. To think that something so carefully crafted as Blue Planet is readily and freely available to all of us is a testament to the potency of TV.
In the first episode, tensions already begin to rise as we are introduced to a group of birds who like to relax on the ocean surface from time to time. Unfortunately for the birds, their favorite chill out spot is not as exclusive as they might think. Their blissful repose is suddenly interrupted by giant trevally fish who leap after them in an attempt to engulf the birds in their basketball hoop-esque mouths. It may not quite recreate the level of unbearable tension of the infamous lizard versus iguana chase of Planet Earth II2 but it comes damn near close. This apprehension is turned up to full whack with Hans Zimmer’s score, which transforms the ocean into a battlefield where the birds and trevallies play out their war strategies. Another highlight from the episode was an encounter of two disparate groups. When a pod of bottlenose dolphins meets a group of false killer whales there appears to be some initial animosity. As the footage continues we expect another battle to erupt. However, gradually the two species seem to recognise each other and it appears the two groups are old friends. Humanity is reflected in ocean life but humanity’s impact on the ocean is also unavoidable in this episode. This is shown most acutely by the plight of a mother walrus and her baby fighting for a place on the ever-diminishing and depleted ice.
In episode two, “Into the Deep”, Attenborough and his team take us down into the darkest recesses of the oceans and here too we find that it is teaming with life. The first episode was great, yes, but it is here where the true magic begins. We are taken on an epic journey. As the submarine pushes its way down lower sending searching white lights into the murky shadows of the ocean depths, one could half expect to be on another planet. With the strange and enchanting visuals, we would be forgiven for thinking we were watching a new Alien movie. I half expected Sigourney Weaver to pop up down there, kicking some fish-alien butt. Alas, this was not to be. However, what we are presented with is just about the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. It is just utterly fascinating and enlightening and I implore you to at least watch this episode, even if you don’t watch anything else in the series.
As we journey deeper and deeper, we are confronted with stories of cannibal squid who turn on each other when food is low and also two shrimp who were swept into a sea sponge as larvae. They’ve now had children who have left the sponge but are themselves too big to escape; they’ll be trapped there together, until the end. Again, in the self-destructiveness of the squid and tragic love story of the shrimp we find stories imbued with humanity. This becomes more profound when Attenborough’s hypnotic explanation leads us to giant hydrothermal vents in the deep sees. One of these named “The Lost City” is spontaneously producing hydrocarbons, the fundamental foundations of all life. Many scientists believe that life on Earth could have started around a vent much like this and given that other planets have their own deep seas, who’s to say that life is not existing there as well.
From the philosophical to the environmental. Attenborough has introduced us to our possible origins and now he shows how we are destroying them. Episode three explores the hustle and bustle of the coral reefs, there is a constant flurry and flow of sea life traffic and in this way the reef resembles a bustling metropolitan city, except with far fewer coffee shops. It is a living organism that itself supports thousands of other organisms. However, with rising sea temperatures the reefs risk drying up and emitting all their plant cells. In the fourth episode we face the most damning accounts of our impacts on the ocean yet. This comes at the hands of plastic. It is arguably intrinsic to the tragedy of the human condition that perhaps our most useful modern invention is also destroying the planet we live on. A pilot whale carries round her dead calf and has been doing so for many days. The baby has most likely died from their mother’s milk, poisoned by plastic particles. It is the clearest cry for environmental responsibility that Blue Planet II has made to date. Whether it is for the aesthetic wonderment or the environmental education I cannot wait to see what Attenborough has in store for us in the following three episodes.