Ellie Harrison is contemplating the challenges of modern motherhood. Should she, for instance, discourage her two daughters’ current obsession with all things pink and princessy?
“Before I had children I was part of this ‘pink stinks’ campaign because of what the colour pink represented, but since having them I have realised that if you ban things, they want them all the more. Also, why would I try to turn them into me – just because I think that’s awful? They’re individuals with personalities; just because I am that way doesn’t mean they should become me.” Disney 1, Ellie 0.
Soon her two daughters Red (6) and Lux (5) will have something, or rather someone, that might entice them away from the dressing up box: a new sibling.
The 38-year-old Countryfile presenter is expecting her third child in May but she’s not giving any clues about whether her daughters will get a brother or sister to play with. “It’s an exciting surprise,” she chuckles playfully. For her and partner Matt Goodman? “For us all!”
The new arrival means she will be absent from Countryfile for several months: “I will take some time off, certainly until winter. It will be lovely playing mummy for the summer.”
She’s under no illusions about how difficult it will be juggling parenting and programme-making on her return. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t be a Steve Backshall or a Bear Grylls because you can’t be on huge expeditions for weeks and months on end and be present in your children’s lives. You simply can’t have it all. It is absolutely different for daddies. It just is. If you hear about women doing the same, people look on very anxiously and nervously.”
Plus, she says, it is “hugely important” for her to be at home with the children. “I didn’t have them to be raised by somebody else. But having said that I do want them to see me work and see me work in a job that I love.”
If they’re allowed to stay up on Friday night Red and Lux – “they were just top-of-the-head beautiful names” – will see mum and Ben Fogle in search of the whales and sharks that feed in British coastal waters in the summer.
It meant six days at sea – “I have done eight days away before but that was on the verge of being too long because the girls are so young” – and six minutes in the sea surrounded by what’s thought to be the largest gathering of sharks ever recorded off our coast.
But let’s rewind. In order to attract the sharks they needed bait. A lot of it. Eventually it emerged in the form of a 9m-long, seven-ton humpback whale that had died off the Scottish coast after becoming tangled up in fishing line.
“We had been on standby for two years waiting for the right whale to come along,” she says. “It became known as the Goldilocks whale – it couldn’t be too big for the container that we’d transport it in and couldn’t be too small and not fulfil its purpose.”
If that sounds callously opportunistic, it isn’t. Most, if not all, whales that wash up dead around our coastline end up in landfill – an ignominious end for such a noble creature. And Ellie admits to being moved by its plight. “I’m someone who never cries. But when this crane lifted her up and the huge body was dangling there, whereas normally she’d be suspended in water, I was choked up by it. Logistically I guess it’s easier putting them in landfill, but it’s really expensive – it costs tens of thousands of pounds. Ultimately it would be great if they could just be returned to the sea.”
This one was, though it spent three months being chilled and preserved in liquid nitrogen awaiting the seasonal arrival of the sharks. Then, late last summer, the whale – all 15 million calories of it – was transported to Devon, hitched to the back of a boat and, supported by buoyancy bags, towed out to an area between the British and southern Irish coast known as the Celtic Deep. There, in the warming waters the sharks, as well as dolphins and whales, arrive to feed. But in what numbers no one had any idea.
On the first night, two blue sharks were seen ripping into the whale carcass. Ellie went into the water the following day and got the shock of her life.“These blue sharks were everywhere. We estimated 100 to 150 but it could easily have been so many more. It was an extraordinary sight.”
Wasn’t she just the tiniest bit scared? “I don’t think I was frightened… actually that’s a complete lie. By the time I got into the water fear definitely was at play. Nobody had ever done this type of experiment in British waters before so there was such a huge sense of the unknown. There was the dive element, the shark element… We were right next to the bait ball. I was at the head end and that was where most of the feeding was taking place. Being right next to that really was quite unnerving. But the thing I will remember for ever is looking down into this darkness and seeing so many sharks.”
So intense was the shark activity – and remember this is just 50 miles off the UK coast – that one cameraman was bitten on the backside. At which point they were all pulled out.
“Because there were so many sharks in the water, something in their behaviour began to change. They started to investigate us. They never became threatening but it seemed our presence did increase their nervousness.
“It was a bit of a relief to come out, but also disappointment that it was over so quickly. I was only in for five or six minutes. I never really got to find my calm place down there!”
With filming over, the partly eaten body of the whale was sunk, eventually coming to rest 86 metres down on the seabed where it will continue to be studied by experts.
Her appetite whetted, Ellie says she’s keen to find other projects that bring her that close to wildlife, though she has no intention of scaling back her involvement in Countryfile. “I don’t think so… I hope not anyway.
“I would love to do more like this… to be more physically engaged in natural history. I am not really a big brave Steve Backshall type and having children certainly makes you feel that you are responsible for returning home. Also, getting older makes you feel less invincible and much more aware of danger. But I am really up for things.”
Including, for the moment, indulging two little pink princesses.
Britain’s Whales and Sharks airs Good Friday on ITV