Natural Wonder

5 June 2019 Meg Mundell

Natural Wonder

To celebrate World Environment Day, we throw back to our January 2018 interview with the world's favourite naturalist himself, David Attenborough.

It’s the voice that’s spawned a thousand imitators: wise but warm, avuncular and slightly husky, breathless with enthusiasm. The voice of a born storyteller, a plummy baritone infused with dry humour and a limitless capacity for wonder. For every vole scurrying through the undergrowth, there’s a David Attenborough impersonator doing a dramatic YouTube voiceover. 

At age 91, Sir David has racked up 32 honorary degrees, written dozens of books and had some 15 species named after him, including an echidna, a carnivorous plant, a miniature marsupial lion and a weevil. The Times  has called Attenborough “the greatest broadcaster of our time”. At age 11 he began his career by selling newts from a nearby pond to zoologists at his local university. After his first on-camera appearance, his boss declared his teeth too big for a TV career. From his pioneering days of live TV broadcasts, where he wrangled a menagerie of animals in the studio, he began making wildlife documentaries, then rose through the BBC ranks to senior management roles. In 1973 he quit management to return to his true love: writing and presenting natural history documentaries. 

In his newest series, Blue Planet II,  the much-loved broadcaster and wildlife filmmaker revisits the earth’s final frontier: the mysterious oceans covering more than 70 per cent of our planet’s surface. 

Ambitious in scale and gorgeously shot, the series casts new light on the earth’s oceans: vast and mysterious, awe-inspiring and terrifying, teeming with life yet imperilled by human carelessness. Most people now live in cities, and being disconnected from nature makes it harder to care. By revealing this hidden world, Attenborough hopes to create an emotional connection – so that we feel not just wonder and awe, but also empathy and compassion for the creatures that inhabit this watery realm, a world he has spent a lifetime fighting to protect. 

After six decades in the business, can nature still blow Attenborough’s mind? “Yes, from minute one,” he says. “From this [new footage] I’m absolutely astounded, really. There were so many new things.” The series journeys through coral reefs, undersea forests, coastal zones and the ocean’s darkest depths. Some of the startling footage, including shots of eels diving into a bizarre lake at the bottom of the sea, left the seasoned narrator momentarily speechless. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. It takes a bit of time to get your mind around that sort of thing. How can there be a lake at the bottom of the sea? And then it explodes like a volcano!” 

Four years in the making, the ground-breaking project seeks to capture the vast and teeming diversity of our oceans. Working closely with scientists, Attenborough’s 25-strong crew spent more than 6000 hours underwater, making 125 expeditions across 39 countries. They also took risks: producer Orla Doherty clocked up 500 hours in a deep-sea submersible, springing a perilous leak deep beneath Antarctic waters. (Insuring the whole project was a total nightmare.) 

Technology has progressed somewhat since the first Blue Planet aired in 2001, and it is used to dazzling effect in the new eight-part series: from re-breathers, a diving apparatus that lets divers stay down longer without disrupting fish, to tiny probe cams that can peek into rockpool crevices. Working with marine scientists, the crew mounted cameras on the backs of orca and used tow-cams to zoom alongside dolphins and tuna.

“The amazing thing is how every film has found new things,” says Attenborough. One new discovery was seeing an Anchor tuskfish, from the Great Barrier Reef, using coral tools to open clams. “You suddenly saw this fish that was more intelligent than you imagined. It was extraordinary. And that was aided by the fact that the underwater camera technology is now absolutely parallel with what we have on land.” 

There’s breathtaking footage of huge trevally fish snatching seabirds from the air, a Houdini-like octopus using shell fragments to camouflage itself from a hungry shark, dolphins self-medicating with curative corals, and marauding packs of giant Humboldt squid prowling the pitch-black waters off Chile. 

It would be hard to pick a favourite part from so much footage, but Attenborough does mention a particular scene that combines epic courage and domestic harmony: a male anemone fish dragging a coconut shell back to his mate, braving the reef’s dangers so she has a safe place to lay her eggs. What tickled him about this scene? 

“The struggles which he has to bring the coconut shell to [her], and the triumph on his little face when he does.” 

Herein lies Attenborough’s appeal: his enduring capacity for awe, an almost childlike delight in the natural world, and an enthusiasm that’s both infectious and sincere – you know he’s not faking it. 

While his films never shy away from nature’s brutality, there’s always humour, too, and he’ll gladly indulge in a spot of anthropomorphism if it helps the audience see animals as fellow beings. In one scene, fish and turtles relax on reef-based “cleaning stations”, where tiny fish pick parasites off their skin. “It’s difficult not to think that this fish is really enjoying a bit of a facial,” intones that famous voice. The analogy’s not so far-fetched: for the fish on the receiving end, scientists found, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped noticeably. 

Over his 60-year career, as he’s watched the human population triple and climate change become a frightening reality, Attenborough has become a passionate environmental defender. The final episodes of Blue Planet II take a clear-eyed look at humankind’s heedless rise to dominance, and the damage our love of fossil fuels and plastics is doing to the world’s oceans. 

“It’s easy to get depressed, very depressed, and I do,” Attenborough said in 2016. “But you have to take a longer view. I still don’t think we ought to despair. If we can get together, we can find solutions to a lot of problems we face, particularly energy production.” 

Attenborough says that rising sea temperatures and plastic pollution are today’s most urgent marine threats. The first problem is harder to reverse, he admits, but there’s no excuse for the eight million tonnes of plastic we dump into the oceans every year: “We could actually do something about plastic right now. I just wish we would. There are so many sequences that every single one of us have been involved in – even in the most peripheral way – where we have seen tragedies happen because of the plastic in the ocean.” 

Despite having many names, the oceans are in fact a single body of water, says Attenborough: “They are connected both on the deep level and the atmospheric level. We have to care for the whole ocean.” His film crew directly witnessed the consequences of plastic in the ocean. “We’ve seen albatross come back with their belly full of food for their young, and nothing in it. The albatross parent has been away for three weeks gathering stuff for her young, and what comes out? What does she give her chick? You think it’s going to be squid – but it’s plastic. And the chick is going to starve and die.” 

Beyond its appeal as pure spectacle and ecological wake-up call, the series has also helped advance scientific knowledge. More than a dozen scientific papers have been published from collaborations with marine scientists who advised on the project. 

And Attenborough doesn’t shy away from controversy over his environmental convictions. He has described humans as “a plague on the earth”, called George W Bush the world’s “greatest environmental villain”, and in 2016 joked about shooting then-presidential candidate and global warming cynic Donald Trump. A lifelong agnostic, Attenborough has also lobbied for creationism to be banned from school curriculums, saying the Bible has granted humankind permission to exploit nature. Creationists send him hate mail, demanding he credit God for the planet’s natural wonders. When they point to the beauty of hummingbirds, he mentions the African eyeworm, which burrows into children’s eyeballs, blinding them: “I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.” 

Hate mail is far outweighed by accolades. Despite receiving sack-loads of fan mail, Attenborough still writes back to kids. When he turned 75, the BBC starting booking him on business class flights; until then he always flew economy, refusing upgrades unless his crew got the same treatment. After a health scare in 2013, he had a pacemaker fitted. He plans to work past his 100th birthday, but fans don’t like to dwell on his age: a world without Sir David is too daunting to contemplate. 

So what does the planet’s most influential naturalist hope viewers take from this new series? “That we have a responsibility. Every one of us. We may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t.” Wherever we are, he says, “what we actually do…has a direct effect on the oceans, and what the oceans do then reflects back on us. It is one world. And it’s in our care. For the first time in the history of humanity, for the first time in 500 million years, one species has the future in the palm of its hands.” Ever the optimist, he hopes this truth hits home before it’s too late. 


» by Meg Mundell (@megmundell).

» This article first appeared in The Big Issue Ed#553.