David Attenborough’s U-Boat Explores the Great Barrier Reef for BBC1

David Attenborough is featured on BBC1 this week diving in a Triton submarine to capture magical sequences on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

attenborough

This story flags several questions about the direction of the Wildlife genre:

Kit Wars?

  • Will costly kit like the Triton edge out the legendary patience and expertise of the wildlife cinematographer as the key success factor for the genre?

Talent Escalation?

  • As Attenborough faces retirement, will his incomparable star quality be replaced by Hollywood celebrities to deliver breakthrough Natural History programs?
  • See my coverage at Thessaloniki of Leo DiCaprio, Virunga and Netflix.

SVOD Winners and Losers?

  • Will these two trends, alone or combined, create the secret sauce for the genre in the SVOD world?
  • VOD is a disturbing and barely explored new landscape where Netflix and Amazon are leading the challenge to Discovery, Nat Geo, BBC and others.
  • All these players are making big bets to create signature programs that build global brands and attract viewers.

We’ll explore these questions in depth during 2016.

Credit Due

  • BTW, in my capacity as a strategic consultant for the non-profit sector, I made the connection between David Attenborough and the Alucia research vessel, the Triton’s mother ship.
  • I earned a credit as ‘Development Executive’ for the series.

More on Great Barrier Reef

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Attenborough’s magic carpet: That’s what Sir David calls the mini submarine that helped him explore the remotest regions of the Great Barrier Reef.

In a new series Sir David ventures beneath the waves of Queensland
The programme sees dives that have never been attempted before.

Great Barrier Reef With David Attenborough, Wednesday, 9pm, BBC1

By LISA SEWARDS FOR MAILONLINE, December 25, 2015

With six decades of the most enthralling natural history adventures under his belt, you’d think there was little left on Sir David Attenborough’s bucket list.

Yet the legendary natural history expert has always dreamt of returning to the Great Barrier Reef and doing his first ever deep-sea dive into the undiscovered depths of this extraordinary underwater world.

Not only has his dream now come true, but for his latest TV series David was granted unprecedented access to the most remote areas of the reef off Australia’s north-east coast to undertake dives never attempted before.

It’s a far cry from his first visit 60 years ago when he learnt to do a simple scuba dive. But that experience was life-changing nonetheless. ‘I first came to the Barrier Reef in 1957 and I remember it like it was yesterday, how amazed I was to see such complexity of life,’ he says.

‘People often ask me, “What was the most magical moment in your career?” and I always say it was the first time I put on a mask and went underwater and moved in three dimensions, just with a flick of my fin, and suddenly I saw all these amazingly multi-coloured things living in communities right there.

‘Back in 1957 I was going to New Guinea for Zoo Quest and having got there, I thought I might never go back so I might as well nip to the Great Barrier Reef. It was there that I first learnt to scuba dive.

‘Well, I say I learnt, I never learnt. Back then the Navy were the only people who taught it. Then I met a welder in a bar and he’d made a ship which he’d welded himself. So I said, “Will you take us out?” And he said, “Sure. Come on board, Dave. Where shall we go?” I said, “What about going up there?” And he said, “Nobody’s ever been up there – but yes, we’ll go there.” So we were doing it like that. You cannot imagine how irresponsible it was.’

Extraordinarily, David has only recently seen the original footage from that trip. ‘Underwater shows were very rare then – not a lot of people were doing them. The amazing thing was that I hadn’t seen the footage from that day to this and even more amazing is that it was transmittable and will feature in our new series. The camera was clockwork and I did the recording. It may have been a modest shoot but in its way it was ground-breaking.’

Now David’s made history again, using super-high-speed cameras, state-of-the-art lenses, time-lapse photography and other techniques to film the reef in completely new ways. To undertake his journey, David hopped aboard MV Alucia, a 183ft research and exploration vessel with a helicopter, laboratory, advanced mapping systems and its own cutting-edge Triton submarine – the first of its kind to be brought to the reef.

At 1,400 miles long and 40 miles wide, the reef is the largest and most complex living structure on the planet, comprising 3,000 individual coral reefs and 900 islands. Led by Captain Buck Taylor, David was able to dive to 1,000ft in the submarine to explore it, although there were worries about putting him into the Triton, says series producer Anthony Geffen. 

‘David’s incredibly active but he’s 89 so we were slightly worried about how he might get in as it’s very small.’ But David was undaunted.

‘It’s a bit cramped but you don’t even have a seat belt because nothing can happen to you. You’re as safe as houses and you’ve got lights. So you just sit there munching chocolate and watching the fish. Triton was a kind of magic carpet for us.’

And it was well worth it. ‘Sinking beneath the waves is a surreal experience. Down there is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in your life, with hundreds of different kinds of creatures, none of which you’ve seen before and all of which are fantastically coloured and take no notice of you whatsoever. What more can you want?’

The first stop was to examine the coral itself. Hidden inside these structures – which are actually made of limestone – are thousands of industrious little organisms called coral polyps that build up the reefs on the limestone base by extracting calcium carbonate from the seawater and depositing it.

Each coral species has its own unique way of building itself, which is why the reef is made up of 450 different types of coral, providing homes for millions of sea creatures. But as coral polyps are only active at night, David had to do something he’s never done before.

‘We had to do a night dive. When I came here 60 years ago the idea of a night dive was almost inconceivable. It seemed to me, a beginner, to be far too dangerous because you didn’t know what was coming.

‘At night the reef’s a ghostly world. But then the water fills with clouds of tiny micro-organisms called zooplankton which the coral polyps eat, so they emerge from their stony skeleton and start groping in the water with their tentacles, it’s amazing,’ he explains. What was extraordinary was to see how the corals fight to defend their territory. ‘It has only been discovered comparatively recently that corals are territorial. But in order to see the battles, you have to speed up the camera.’

The shelter and nutrients provided by the mangroves growing in the reef are one of the reasons why the fish populations there are among the most varied in the world. As a result it’s very overcrowded but, as well as territorial fighting, David also witnessed some extraordinary co-operation between its inhabitants.

‘Manta rays, things the size of this sofa I’m sitting on, are huge great things,’ he chuckles. ‘They sort of queue up then hang above the reef, drooping their fins in a particular way which says, “I’m ready to be tended.”

‘Then a group of little wrasse, or cleaner fish, which have bright blue stripes, come along and go all over the mantas, picking off the dead skin and parasites, swimming into their gills. Right on cue the rays will open their mouths for the cleaner fish to go in and clean them. It takes five to ten minutes for a full back and sides. 

‘Recent research shows that one dominant male cleaner fish runs the team of hairdressers, as it were. If the females get too enthusiastic they might actually nip into the flesh which makes the Manta twitch. Then you see the male cleaner fish boss go up and say, “What are you doing? You’re ruining our business.” It’s remarkable.’

A fact we don’t normally associate with underwater worlds is just how noisy coral reefs are. ‘Jacques Cousteau, in one of his wonderful 1950s films, called it a silent world, but it’s not,’ explains David. ‘It’s full of clicks, squeaks and grunts by all kinds of fish.’

For David, one of the greatest of all natural spectacles was how, on a few nights of the year in the right conditions within days of the Full Moon in October or November, the corals suddenly erupt. ‘It’s the great spawning event when the corals themselves don’t just grow by budding but they also reproduce sexually and it’s vital for the survival of the reef,’ he explains.

‘What triggers this extraordinary event is still a mystery but each species has to synchronise its behaviour to ensure success. Half an hour before the big event, small bundles of sperm and eggs bulge from the polyps. When the moment is right there’s a mass release and great ribbons of coral spawn drift over the surface of the sea.

‘Without this one remarkable event, none of the reef’s millions of residents would be here. For me, the Great Barrier Reef is truly one of the most extraordinary places on the planet.’