David Attenborough first filmed on the Great Barrier Reef in 1957 – and the world’s largest living organism certainly made an impression.
“People say to me, ‘what was the most magical thing you ever saw in your life?’, Attenborough explained when he announced that he was revisiting the reef for a BBC1 series. “And I always say without a word of exaggeration, ‘The first time I was lucky enough to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef’.
“As I entered the water I remember suddenly seeing these amazing multi-coloured species living in communities… just astounding and unforgettable beauty.”
This time round, Attenborough swapped his flippers for a small submarine known as a submersible and dived deeper on the reef than anyone else has.
Below, he tells us what it was like and what he discovered…
Your new series includes snippets of footage from your first exploration of the reef in 1957. What inspired that trip?
As a boy, I remember seeing a whopping great book called the The Great Barrier Reef by Saville-Kent with wonderful hand-coloured illustrations inside – and it always seemed to be one of the miracle places.
Then I found myself going to Australia on the way to New Guinea and I thought: there’s a chance here, boy. And so I had a three-day course – in Plymouth I think – learning how to use an aqualung in a Royal Navy tank. And then I was out on the Barrier Reef. It was great fun to do and it’s marvellous to do it again.
Is it strange seeing the footage of you as a young man?
My impression of course is that I still look like that! It just happens that today is a bit of a bad day. I was rather amazed that it still existed in the BBC vaults.
You descend to a record-breaking 1,000ft in the submersible – what was it like down there?
It’s like you’re sitting in a cinema. You are in absolute comfort. You aren’t strapped in. The temperature is the same as it is above surface. The air pressure is the same. You don’t have to worry about breathing. You just sit there, munching chocolate and saying “this is wonderful”.
Attenborough and sub pilot Mark ‘Buck’ Taylor in the Triton submersible
It was a fantastic privilege because the Alucia is the only craft in the world that could do [deploy the submersible]. And I don’t know exactly how Anthony [Geffen, series producer] arranged that we should do that but I didn’t ask any questions!
In the first programme, you explain how the reef’s marine life uses sound to communicate. Is that a recent discovery?
It’s surprising how recent our knowledge of the underwater world is. The above water world we’ve been exploring for a thousand years; we’ve only been exploring the underwater world for about 50 years. It wasn’t until [Jacques] Cousteau invented the demand-valve that you could swim with any degree of freedom.
Exploring it personally as you can do with an aqualung – actually looking at the underside of the coral, going in here or there – that’s only been going on for 50 or 60 years. So it’s really still a very, very unknown world.
Among the many brilliant sequences is the “manta ray cleaning station”…
Yes, these huge manta rays come regularly to a particular place on the reef and they queue up like customers at a barbers shop. Because there’s a community of little fish called wrasse, which are only about four or five inches long with a bright blue stripe down them – and which are specialist cleaners.
Manta ray and scuba diver
When the manta comes down, it holds its fins in a particular posture, which is a signal saying: I’m ready for a clean. And then these astonishing fish come along and pick off bits of dead skin. They go not only over the whole surface of this great fish but inside – into its gill slits, even into its mouth. And the manta, which is profiting by this circumstance, just allows them to do so.
So it’s an extraordinary piece of community behaviour, which has only been unravelled in the last few decades.
Visitors to London’s Natural History Museum will be able to take a 360-degree virtual reality dive with you – just by putting on a headset. How does it work?
Inside there are two small images and when you put it on, one matches each eye. And when you first put it on you can see ahead of you. But then if you hear a noise behind you – which you may well because it’s also got headphones – you can look at what it is behind you. Or alternatively, look and see what’s down beneath or follow a particular fish as it goes through a shoal. It is up to you where you wish to look.
So it is a real addictive immersive experience. You actually feel you’ve been there, you really do. I can say that because I’ve done both!
The last programme will be about efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef. What threatens it?
There are problems stemming from the land because northern Queensland has a much bigger human population than it had 50 years ago and of course people living on land create effluence, industry creates effluence, so there are problems about what’s going into the ocean.
Coral reef surrounding Heron Island in Queensland
But even bigger than that – the increasing temperature and acidity of the oceans together has had a huge effect upon the inhabitants of the ocean. In the last programme, we are showing the research that’s going on to see just what those effects might be and what action could be taken to stem or ameliorate them.
So for example, we show experiments in which basic communities of different species of coral are kept in different temperatures and acidity so you see the effect. And the answer is clear: if it goes up by two degrees – as is quite likely – the number of species of coral that will survive that is very small. So there will be a big die-off.
It’s an issue that is desperately worrying to coral scientists who are working on the reef and who were our advisors. And who will be going to the [climate] talks in Paris and I will be going too – to explain the urgency and to get international agreement if we possibly can to do something about global warming. Of course global warming affects the globe but it certainly affects the Barrier Reef very, very seriously.
Both this and your original trip to the reef were for BBC documentaries. What does the BBC mean to you?
There’s no other organisation in the world that could tackle these things. The BBC is the only place that does it. Certainly no other organisation has the ambition to do that sort of thing and I just hope that it will go on doing them.
You’ll celebrate your 90th birthday next year. What do you have planned?
Another film for BBC1 in the new year, which is about the biggest dinosaur yet discovered in Patagonia – a record-breaking dinosaur. It’s an astonishing thing to do and I’m very, very privileged and lucky to be able to get there and talking to the people who are discovering these things.
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef will be shown on BBC1 in December