In the midst of the launch of Planet Earth II, UW360 revisits SD OCEAN PLANET‘s interview with one of the industry’s leading pioneers:
David Attenborough may reject the title “national treasure”, but there are few others who dispute it.
“I’ve simply been doing my job,” he says. “Admittedly, I’ve done it for over half a century, but it’s something I absolutely love, and I take immense pleasure from it. A life is a life – you either sit on it, or do something with it.”
At 87, his restless drive to explore planet Earth and all its curiosities shows no signs of abating, and, as he explains here to us, what lies beneath the oceans’ surface arguably fascinates him the most.
David, are there any underwater frontiers that you haven’t yet explored?
Oh, the natural world is infinite for me. No human being in half a dozen lifetimes could see all there is to see of the world. There is always sometimes new. We now have pictures of the undersea world, but of course sea cover two-thirds of the planet, and that is the least explored part of our planet. People say it’s a shame we haven’t been able to explore that yet. I disagree! It’s marvellous we still know so little, because wouldn’t it be terrible if all the answers were mapped out there in front of us?
What was your most memorable experience of filming life below the surface?
Well, the Galápagos Islands are so fantastic in that they showcase their own unique ecological base. I recently filmed a piece there on the marine iguana which, having been swept by the seas across from mainland South America – and lived to tell the tale – adapted its very being in order to be able to survive on seaweed (the only plentiful vegetation), swim, and even dive to the foot of the ocean.
This animal’s physical structure has evolved as well to enable it to do this, and it’s this utter uniqueness that fascinates anyone passionate about wildlife and Nature. And the iguanas are one of many incredible “one-offs” on the Galápagos Islands, both in terms of animals and plants.
What has been the most important development for underwater filmmaking and why?
The ability to go as freely as people do and the arrival of a group of extremely skilled, brave, intrepid underwater cameramen. There are about half a dozen who are head and shoulders above the rest, and who have produced amazing shots and taken us to the bottom of the ocean. And there are also the deep-sea rovers, the things that can take the cameras down to depths that human beings can’t survive in.
Can you tell us a bit about your diving career?
I was never much of a diver. I can dive in tanks and so on. And when you dive alongside really good divers, you realise how inadequate you are, and I don’t dive much now – I snorkel!
I must never stop saying that I am a very fortunate member of a large team, and when it comes to shows like Blue Planet my part is limited to words. I didn’t get those extraordinary shots; they were done by skilled divers. I wish I had that skill, but I don’t!
What is the best or most memorable place you’ve ever dived?
I’ve seen lots of things that I never thought I would be seeing but if I’m honest, one of the big revelations for me in my career was diving the Great Barrier Reef for the first time. It was completely mind-blowing, and every time I’ve gone back, it’s never ceased to amaze. The sheer variety, the sheer beauty and abundance was a massive personal revelation. It’s a wonder that simply cannot be missed.
What’s the most extraordinary marine creature you’ve come across?
I suppose a giant squid would be a good place to start, and the Japanese have just filmed it. It’s about 15 metres long with these giant tentacles; it’s an enormous beast. The problem with filming it is that because it lives in the very depths, nothing lives there, you can’t push a human being alongside him, so you see this looming shape, but you have no idea how big it is. It’s this excitement but also this faint disappointment, because you can’t really appreciate the size of it until it’s washed up dead on the shore.
If you could erase humans permanently from an ecosystem which would it be?
If I could erase humans permanently from an ecosystem, I would take them away from the Great Barrier Reef. It is an awe-inspiring place, and every time I’ve gone back, it has offered something bigger and better than the previous occasion. But it’s incredibly fragile and already mass bleaching is showing us the effect the human population is having on it. So keeping humans away from the Great Barrier Reef would be my choice – I would isolate it completely and lock it within Mother’s Nature’s grasp.
What is your predication for the future our oceans?
Climate change obviously remains a huge problem for the planet. The Earth is getting warmer year on year, considerably so, although it’s not a uniform increase either, which can complicate the issue somewhat. In the Arctic, the increases in temperature are happening very fast, but in the Antarctic places are getting much colder and this, I imagine, gives something for certain lobbyists to cling to. That way they can tell everyone there’s nothing to worry about. But the world is a big place: There are no uniform characteristics, so there are quirks and contradictions everywhere. But overall, the planet is getting much warmer, very quickly. I have seen huge ice floes and icebergs dramatically decrease in size. We’ve lost several ice shelves from the poles; the evidence is there for all to see. And there is definitely more extreme weather about. We are steaming towards disaster, at a faster rate than was ever anticipated.
I hope some sort of paralleling solution can be found before long. And hopefully there will be one, as we have many talented, worthy, diligent individuals out there striving to make a difference, and I salute them all.
But all we seem to hear about these days is climate change, the ice caps melting, the fluctuating weather patterns that result. In short, the uncertain future we face. But the more serious problem – so serious in fact that most governments seem reluctant to even address it – is the issue of global population growth.
Do you agree that wilderness is becoming peripheral and ever more in danger?
Oh yes. Since I started making television programmes there are three times as many human beings on Earth. We’ve tripled in size. And everybody like you and me, and everybody else, wants houses to live in and we want schools for our children and roads to travel upon. And most of these things have to come from the natural world. There’s less space for Nature.
It isn’t necessarily a disaster, but what we need to do is to recognise what the problem is, and then we can be a bit more sensible about how we invade the natural world, and do it more economically and efficiently and carefully, and with a real conscience.
And let’s swing this back to the oceans: There is no place in the ocean, even the most remote part of the Pacific Ocean, as far away as you can get, where you won’t find plastic floating on the surface of the sea. That’s a tragedy and it’s our fault. Plastic is long-living and we can’t get rid of it, yet we are polluting the world with it. Dreadful.
What is the most important thing to you about the legacy you will eventually leave to the planet?
I’ve always felt that my voice is just a vehicle for expressing what an incredible natural world we have. I’m certainly proud of the work I’ve done over the years, but I’m lucky that I’ve loved what I’ve been able to do. I’ve been granted a tremendous opportunity, afforded relatively good health, and even stepped into the realms of longevity, when you look at my age. I’m simply a lucky person. And nothing will ever quench my thirst for more, for seeing more, for discovering more about the world.