David Attenborough on conservation: “Someone has to solve it before we poison ourselves out of existence”

The veteran broadcaster hopes Blue Planet II will raise awareness of the state of our oceans

(BBC, TL)

Only a few 91-year-olds are still at the top of their game. We have Tony Bennett, still singing, the Queen, still reigning, and Sir David Attenborough, still inspiring viewers about life in the oceans from the prow of a vessel at sea.

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He tells us at the opening of his new series that revolutionary technology will allow us to enter new worlds, see creatures beyond our imagination and understand that the oceans are under threat and changing faster than at any time in history. Peerless stuff.

I can report after seeing the first episode of Blue Planet II that this looks to be a worthy successor to the series Attenborough narrated in 2001. It has a bravura opening, with sequences full of surprise and stupendous energy: bottlenose dolphins tear through mountainous surf for fun; orcas use their tails to stun schools of herring; an army of false killer whales meets up with an army of dolphins and goes off hunting together like old friends.

The jaw-dropping moment of the first episode – the racer snake sequence, if you like, to compare it with its cousin series, Planet Earth II – are the exploits of the giant trevally, a fish that launches itself out of the water like a missile to catch birds in the air, a sight never before filmed and captured gloriously in slow motion here.

I predict this series will improve upon the dazzling original Blue Planet, not just in terms of new insights into natural history but in its treatment of big environmental issues – which the first series was felt to have ducked. Climate change was melting the Arctic sea ice and overfishing pillaging the world’s oceans, but back in 2001 these issues were banished to an epilogue that the Discovery Channel then cut when the series reached America – to environmentalists’ dismay.

This time, we’re assured, the seventh and final episode will linger on the multitude of problems facing the oceans, from global warming to plastic waste, and these crop up in the other programmes too, which will eventually be seen by something like half a billion people globally.

Surfing bottlenose dolphins on the Wild Coast in South Africa (BBC NHU, JG)
Surfing bottlenose dolphins on the Wild Coast in South Africa (BBC NHU)

What ambition does the BBC have for Blue Planet II? Sir David, who insists modestly that he was “a servant, not an initiator” of the series, passes this to “the boss”.

Executive producer James Honeyborne says: “We wanted to immerse the viewer in a world that was quite alien and remote and to meet fish as characters and see if we could create a closer connection to life beneath the waves. This series is presenting the sea as we see it. It is not campaigning. But as we are out there filming, we do see issues.”

What is Sir David’s perspective on the big new insight the series gives us? “The extraordinary thing,” he says, “is that we are all much more intimately connected with the oceans than you imagine – even if you live in the middle of England and think the oceans are miles away. Our lives, our food, our air, all these things are connected with the oceans and if the oceans become barren and sterile, it is the end of humanity, quite literally.

“We know that the atmosphere is dependent on what happens in the oceans and we know that the rising temperatures of the oceans are connected, though to what degree we can argue, with the ferocity of the hurricanes hitting the coast of America at the moment. That is just simple physics.”

Beyond that, there’s the threat of acidification of sea water, which could alter zooplankton’s ability to absorb carbon, accelerating global warming. If it were to affect the phytoplankton, which produces about half the oxygen we breathe – and there’s no evidence of this yet, Sir David reassures us – we’d really be in trouble.

All these threats come as we are realising just how little we know about the sea, the exploration of which, in Sir David’s view, has “hardly started. The huge revelation to me, what this series does, is to illuminate the complexity not just of individual species but the sociology, as it were, of the ocean. You are realising that species communicate… to a degree we had no idea of. I hadn’t anyway. To see false killer whales communicating with dolphins then collaborating to go hunting together is extraordinary, as it is to see an octopus and a grouper working together.”

So what were the moments that affected him most? “I suppose what does strike you like a punch on the chin is a picture of an albatross, this extraordinary, beautiful, long-lived bird that pairs for life, a bird that takes over a year to rear its chicks so they are competent to ride on the polar winds.

“The parents go away for as much as a month at a time in order to get food and they come back faithfully to this chick, having been round possibly the entire Antarctic continent, with a crop full of food. The chick sees its parents arriving and begs for food and the parent opens its bill and you can see that what comes out is nothing but plastic.”

What can we do about plastic? Aren’t we on the way to having more plastic in the sea than fish? He has an observation, not an answer. “I opened yesterday’s post and I found people were sending me letters in plastic folders. For no reason at all they put it in a plastic envelope. All we can do is tell people. One despairs really.”

So what can this series achieve for conservation? “That people are aware of the problem. There are government and international organisations in the UN and all over the place working on it. Somebody has to solve it before we poison ourselves out of existence. You can say all sorts of nice neat things, like give your pennies to a conservation organisation, but in the end it has to be international and political.”

Political, of course, is the word that the BBC is properly cautious of as a state broadcaster, and Sir David is equally so. But he commends the Paris climate agreement as “a moment of encouragement” when nations “were going to come together to take a serious decision about world conservation, of which the seas are a very significant part”.

President Trump went back on that, surely? “One is distressed that one nation has abrogated itself from that. But a lot of places, such as India and China, have agreed to be doing things about this. I think that the US will be changing its policies and indeed shows signs of doing so.”

Yet, these quite political views aside, he says that it would be “improper” for the BBC to take a position on whether exploiting the deep sea was right or wrong without exploring both sides of the issue.

So does Sir David take any lessons from the series into his private life? What does he eat? “I’ve given up meat, not for ideological reasons, I just don’t care for it too much. I do eat fish. Poor fish.”

Does he select fish he considers to be sustainable? “My daughter buys the fish, but I think she does, yes.”

What does he hope audiences will do after seeing Blue Planet II? “Let’s get it clear, this wasn’t done as an axe-grinding series, a political series. It was done because our responsibility in the Natural History Unit is to illuminate the natural history of the world, including marine.”

So what does he personally want the series to do? “Just to raise people’s awareness of the sea, the complexity and the responsibility.”

Is he optimistic? “The only cheerful note is that you know how resilient these things are. Given half a chance, the [ocean’s] capacity for regeneration is quite extraordinary. We should take advantage of that.”

By Charles Clover

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Blue Planet II is on Sunday 8.00pm BBC1