South Pacific

Documentary: South Pacific (BBC)

South Pacific
South Pacific

Cecil lent Tony and me this six-part BBC nature series, dealing with the 20,000 islands and wondrous diversity of the South Pacific Ocean. It’s of the same very high standard as Blue Planet and Nature’s Great Events, and we enjoyed it immensely. Each episode is 50 minutes long, with a 10 minute additional feature on how a particular aspect of the episode was filmed. Some impressive camera equipment, local knowledge, great patience and a small measure of luck makes for a visual feast. We loved seeing the vortices that form under a wave as it travels over the seabed, and watching a surfer in a giant tube in slow motion. We love water!


The natural history of these myriad islands is totally unique, and one episode is devoted to examining how the various life forms spread from place to place. There’s also a LOT of ocean in between the islands, and this has its own special character, including many beautiful coral reefs. The volcanic nature of many of the islands (subject of another episode) has given rise to beautiful atolls and lagoons, black volcanic sand, and life that somehow thrives on barren lava fields.

The idiosyncratic nature of many of the islands and their inhabitants is examined in an episode called Strange Islands. Much of the wildlife on the South Pacific Islands walks a fine line of survival, and the introduction of mammalian predators has wreaked havoc on flightless birds such as the totally adorable kakapo (a large parrot), for example. This episode also featured Easter Island, which used to be richly forested but is now a barren wasteland almost devoid of the life forms that used to shroud its rocky shores. All that remain of the prior inhabitants are their solemn Moai statues. I find it alarming that the Rapa Nui, a thousands of years old civilisation, managed to collapse several hundred years ago through (hypothesised – Jared Diamond writes fascinatingly about this in Collapse) environmental mismanagement. It always seemed to me a very modern problem, but it isn’t (hello, Mayans!).

It was wonderful to see the albatross chicks and other seabirds at French Frigate shoals, having read about them (and these islands) in Eye of the Albatross. Their wingspan is completely breathtaking! Tony and I also added Bora Bora, the Solomon Islands, Palau and the Galapagos to our travel bucket list. As each island group appeared on the screen, Tony’s first words were, “How do you get there?”

The final episode, “Fragile Paradise”, was both hopeful and awful. Coral reefs are being rebuilt after destruction by storms, dynamite fishing and other not so nice human interventions by coral gardening – growing shoots of coral, and then replanting them on damaged reefs. The sequences about this were beautiful and promising.

The part that really upset me and Tony was about fishing. Because the South Pacific is so large, it’s difficult to police, and there are no regulations about fishing in ocean that is not part of a particular country’s territorial waters. A pair of cameramen go inside a purse seine net that caught 150 tons of yellowfin tuna in a few hours (before the advent of these massive nets it would take a year to catch this much fish), and film the fish panicking and trying to escape as the net tightens. It was awful.

Later in the episode we see the tuna fishermen of the Solomon islands, who are ensconced on equally dodgy looking fishing vessels but instead of using nets sit in a row on the back of their vessel with long fishing rods, each man catching one tuna at a time. There’s a slowed down sequence showing the school of yellowfin in the water, and then the fish on the hooks, coming out of the water, and being flicked off the hooks onto the deck of the ship by the fishermen. It was also horrible, though – those magnificent fish were, seconds ago, swimming powerfully through the water. In a matter of seconds they are flying through the air, hitting a hard metal surface, and (assuming the fall doesn’t kill them – there was a lot of blood) suffocating to death in a pile of their brothers and sisters.

The irony is that this fishing method is sustainable in terms of catch volumes and methods – even though it looks brutal and the creatures the men were catching are so utterly spectacular. I’m pretty sure we weren’t meant to admire what was happening, and the producers of the series cleverly opened an ethical dilemma in my mind (about eating fish at all!) whilst showing us the only manner of commercial fishing that doesn’t devastate fish stocks. Purse seine nets catch entire schools of tuna, whereas rod and line fishermen can’t catch all the fish in a school and thus leave it to breed another day.

You can get a copy of the DVDs here if you are in South Africa, and here otherwise. As with all the BBC’s nature documentaries, this one is highly recommended.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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