David Attenborough on the Great Barrier Reef, climate change, Christmas, and turning 90

"At Christmas we’re under the impression we have it all: we have turkey and brandy butter and Christmas pudding and the family and we have a great time, by and large. But think of those poor refugees and migrants..."

Has having your life play out on our TV screens affected your personality?

I don’t think so. Someone said to me the other day: well, you’re not what you were 40 years ago. But me 40
years ago is actually what I do think I look like. If I see myself in the shaving mirror now, I just think it’s a bad day – that I’m really like that chap on the telly. When I see myself catching Komodo dragons in 1956, I think that is me 
on a good day.

Your Great Barrier Reef series includes footage shot on your first trip there in 1957.

I was rather impressed by me when I watched it again. I thought: he doesn’t look quite as cloddish as I feared. I’ve seen footage from another trip to Australia in the 1950s and I’m in the sea – the intrepid lad cleaving the water, not showing a morsel of fear.

Is your attitude to danger different now?

It certainly is. When you’re 25 you think you’re immortal. You put the diving goggles on and think: there can’t be any danger down there.

It was brave to go down in the Triton submersible – no one had gone down as deep as 1,000ft on the Great Barrier Reef before.

Brave? No, it was actually very safe, like sitting in an armchair. If you’re free-swimming, that scares the hell out of me. But I was in this bubble with a chap from the Royal Navy who is the biggest expert in the world. Before we
got in, he said, “I’ve been stuck down 
there for hours before, but we just sat there eating chocolate.” So you can’t be worried. I was a passenger, the most privileged passenger you could imagine.

The dive was the latest of many firsts. Which was the most important – introducing colour TV in 1967 when you were controller of BBC2?

Well, it seemed to me I owed it to the British people to do that. I’m a BBC man through and through. The BBC was the first broadcasting organisation in the world, so, when I heard that the Germans were going to introduce colour television, I said: hang on, we can’t have that. And we got on the air three weeks before them. It was fairly childish, but it made me laugh.

Explore the Great Barrier Reef with Radio Times Travel

You’re a famous agnostic, yet the programme features Aborigines who credit the reef’s formation to a sacred fish.

I have a lot of sympathy for their beliefs. They have a remarkable, entirely non-literate culture, but the extraordinary thing is the accuracy with which tradition is passed on. I’ve travelled with groups who knew where they were conceived: this place belongs to the possum spirit, it’s where I came from and where I shall return.

Do you know where you were conceived?

The sexual behaviour of their parents isn’t the sort of thing European people think about. I never asked mine – they would have thought it was none of my business.

You say in the programme that 10,000 years ago the reef wasn’t there. So nature comes and goes, despite climate change.

Yes, but it’s a fundamentally different timescale. A rise of two degrees that takes place over 500 years is not the same as one that takes place over five. The natural world simply can’t accommodate these sudden changes we inflict on it. If the reef were to disappear in 1,000 years’ time, it might well come again, but a fat lot of use that is to you, me or my grandchildren.

What do you think of a nation stuffing itself then sitting back to watch your programmes?

At Christmas we’re under the impression we have it all: we have turkey and brandy butter and Christmas pudding and the family and we have a great time, by and large. But think of those poor refugees and migrants. My God, the state of the world. Madmen dropping bombs in places, as if that solves anything. And poor people being bombed by us. It’s dreadful.

You’ll have a contemplative Christmas, then?

I’m not against people enjoying themselves, but at Christmas you ought to be able to count your own blessings. In a way it’s a bit like my own luck in life. Here I am verging on 90, I know a lot of people my age who can’t get about, who can’t remember things. It would seem to me almost blasphemy, really, to be given the good fortune to be able to go and do these things and then not do them. If you’ve been blessed in that way, you should take advantage of it.

What’s your first memory of Christmas?

I remember when I was very small waking up at 4am on Christmas Day and looking out of the window, seeing it was all dark, and thinking, “There are people there who are still asleep, don’t they realise that it’s Christmas Day, that it’s wonderful?” 

Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough Wed 30 Dec 9.00pm BBC1 (BBC2 in Wales) 

Explore the Great Barrier Reef with Radio Times Travel

Read more: Top 10 Great Barrier Reef resorts