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Preserving the Legacy of the World's Best Underwater Documentary Series

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It took four years to make and just seven hours to watch, but Blue Planet II is already one of the most viewed TV programmes in history, with the first episode raking in 14.1 million viewers in the UK alone (that’s over a fifth of the population).

Those figures, mighty as they are, almost pale into insignificance beside the estimated 80 million viewers in China – so many, in fact, that the Chinese Internet noticeably slowed as each episode was downloaded.

The second series has generated some amazing highlights, from the first trailer featuring giant trevallies leaping out of the water to catch Arctic terns, the killer-whale cam that gave an orca's-eye view of their tail-slapping, herring-stunning somersaults, and never-before-seen footage of Galapàgos sharks rubbing up against a giant female whale shark as she descended into the depths. In amongst the drama, however, Blue Planet II has also taken a stand against the human impact on the world's oceans, and in the final episode 'Our Blue Planet', the sight of a sperm whale trying to eat a plastic bucket must be one of the most striking – and heart-breaking – scenes of the series.

Our Blue Planet covered a range of topics including noise pollution, coral bleaching and rising sea levels, but the section on plastic pollution was where the team became most outspoken. Lucy Quinn’s face as she recounted the fate of an albatross who died after its stomach was pierced by a plastic toothpick told a great deal more than the objective information which she was professionally passing on to the viewer, and Sir David’s famously even temperament may have broken a little as he summarised the plastic problem by addressing the audience directly: ‘Every year, some eight million tonnes of it ends up in the ocean.' he tells us. 'And there, it can be lethal.'

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Sir David Attenborough introduces the problem of plastic pollution (BBC / Blue Planet II)

Sir David Attenborough and his team left us in no doubt as to who bears responsibility for the plight of our oceans, but instead of resorting to doom and gloom and accusation, our nonagenarian favourite TV personality offered rays of hope that our current predicament might be reversed, with just a little bit of forethought and a good deal of effort.

Take the opening sequence of the Norwegian herring fishing industry, which took so many fish from the ocean that the orca population – the natural predators of the vast schools of fish – also began to decline. Government mandates, better fishing practice, and a more respectful and knowledgeable industry working in partnership with marine conservationists have seen the fish stocks restored to sustainable levels, for all parties involved, although the plight of the orca caught in the net, however, left a sour note on the tongue. Why do the fishermen need permission to open their nets in order to set such magnificent, sentient creatures free?

Or take the heartwarming profile of campaigner Len Peters, whose tireless efforts to preserve the leatherback turtles of Trinidad have turned poachers into conservationists, with a complete turnaround in the fortunes of the turtle population as a result.

The scale of the plastic problem, however, potentially outweighs all of the others. As Sir David points out – they found plastic in all the oceans they visited. Although the series producers are keen not to be seen ‘campaigning’, and the images of the whale eating the bucket, grouper swimming under discarded fishing line, turtle using a plastic bag for refuge and the dead dolphin calf – probably poisoned by toxins in the water – are certainly distressing enough, one producer was quoted as saying that much of the footage was ‘too upsetting to be shown in the programme’. If there is a possible criticism to be made, it is, therefore, the question: ‘why not?’

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Timelapse footage showing coral bleaching in progress (BBC / Blue Planet II)

Throughout both series of Blue Planet, the cinematography has been nothing short of spectacular, and the patience required to film many sequences must have been monumental. As described in the show's last episode of ‘Into the Blue’, some footage took several years to acquire, and even the best amateur photographers will know that most fish are not willing subjects. Ground-breaking time-lapse footage has brought to life parts of the ocean that can’t ordinarily be seen by our brief visits, and also brought the stark reality of coral bleaching into perspective.

The advances in high-definition technology and affordable wide-screen TVs (don’t forget that when the original Blue Planet was released, a 42” flat-panel widescreen plasma TV retailed an order of magnitude above today’s prices) have brought the underwater world to us in exquisite detail, and similarly, advances in sound technology have allowed us to listen to the sounds of the seas. Most divers will have heard the constant ‘popcorn’ background noise of coral reefs and clownfish are not silent, but never before have we heard their continual conversation as we did during the footage of the clownfish family nesting in their anemone.

If there is one direct criticism to be made of Blue Planet II, however, it is the sound effects department – the underwater world may not be silent and much of the recording is genuine, but anemones do not ‘roar’ as they open and close!

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Sir David takes it on the chin as he's pelted with sand by a nesting leatherback (BBC / Blue Planet II)

One general recurring theme from the series of Blue Planet II is the question of what we’re going to do without Sir David Attenborough, the implication being that aged 91, he won’t be around forever, as if the population has already begun to grieve a man who – we must remind everybody – is very much still here.

Part of that undoubtedly comes from that fact that – no matter how hard they try – there are no other presenters who can bring the natural world to our TV screens with the same fastidious, calm and objective approach. We must not forget the legions of production staff who have traipsed around the world on his behalf, but without Sir David, it just wouldn’t be the same. The viewing figures speak for themselves.

A better question than ‘what are we going to do without him’, would be ‘how are we going to ensure that his legacy endures’, so that in 15 years’ time, Blue Planet III can bring us the happy news that fish stocks are plentiful, coral reefs are resurgent, plastic is on the decline (or obsolete), and the planet has, indeed, remained blue. Sir David’s final words from the most outstanding underwater documentary series ever made leave us in no doubt as to what the great man himself thinks:

‘We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely, we have a responsibility to care for Our Blue Planet. The future of humanity – and indeed all life on earth – now depends on us.’

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