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!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BOhDaJH0m4&w=540]

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.

Series: Wreck Detectives

Wreck Detectives Series 1
Wreck Detectives Series 1

The premise is simple (if contrived): a land-based historian (Jeremy Seal) and an “intrepid diver” (Miranda Krestovnikoff) attempt to resolve mysteries (identity, manner of sinking, date and reason for wrecking, and so on) surrounding various shipwrecks in the British Isles. They only have one week to do it in (one is frequently reminded of this). There are eight episodes, each dealing with a particular wreck site.

To assist them, the hosts bring in experts in whatever field they are studying. This is actually the best part of the series: the array of experts is very impressive. In increasing order of specialisation, some examples are one who knows all about frigates, one who’s an expert on cannons, and another who specialises in a particular type of pottery jug that was popular on ships during a particular era. The one whose job I most envied was a Ministry of Defence damage assessor, who assisted the wreck detectives in figuring out what sort of device sank the HMS Lawford off Normandy, two days after D-Day in 1944.

During the week in which the wreck detectives do their work, Jeremy Seal follows up clues and interviews experts on dry land. Miranda Krestovnikoff and a Divemaster whose name did not stick (his contribution was limited to saying things like “descend on the shot line”) dive on the wrecks. The diving, about which much hoopla is made, seems similar to Cape Town diving at its worst. Visibility was generally poor (5 metres was exciting), and they often had to contend with strong currents. I suppose that poor or treacherous sea conditions are almost a given when you’re diving a ship that wrecked because of those very conditions! Tony and I did feel very proud of ourselves, though, as the diving team were being lauded as heroes for descending to a depth of 30 metres in slightly dodgy visibility. All in a weekend’s work, for us!

The Wreck Detectives vessel off the coast of Scotland
The Wreck Detectives vessel off the coast of Scotland

Unfortunately the BBC seems to have window-dressed somewhat with the selection of presenters for this series. Jeremy Seal is credible, knowledgeable, and can hold up a conversation. I can’t say as much for his co-presenter, whose contributions were restricted to repeating what someone else had just said, and getting it wrong about 60 percent of the time – like an inaccurate echo. I am annoyed by apparently ignorant female television presenters (or even loud, vacuous ones who are secretly knowledgeable), because I feel that it feeds into a stereotype about women that doesn’t need reinforcing. Feminist rant over.

I sound negative, but we actually really enjoyed this series. Once you tune out the inanity, the contributions of the archaeologists, maritime historians, shipbuilders, and other experts make this an extremely engaging and wide-ranging show. My favourite episode – which reduced me to tears more than once, to my chagrin – was the one about HMS Lawford. The wreck detectives marshall the only two surviving crewmen, who were 18 and 19 years old at the time – mere boys – and involve them in the search for answers as to why the navy’s official report of the sinking appears to contradict their memories of it (which, in turn, contradict each other). Seal visits a WWII graveyard in France with the two men. The waste of life is heartbreaking, as is the inscription on the gravestones of some of the men who perished when the HMS Lawford sank: something along the lines of “Here lies an unknown sailor from the 1939-1945 war. Known unto God.”

There’s another episode in which the great (perhaps two greats?) grandson of one of the survivors of the shipwreck, an elderly retired vicar, travels on the boat with the wreck detectives. In both this case and the one in the prior paragraph, these gentlemen were able to watch a live feed of the video footage while the divers explored the wreck. For the two navy men, it was the first time they were seeing their ship in 60 years. I loved seeing their wonder and amazement at seeing something so familiar – the vessel on which they spent all their time at one stage of their lives – and yet so unfamiliar, lying on the bottom of the ocean, revealed by technology that doesn’t exist in their life experience.

We learned a huge amount from this show and it gave us lots to discuss. We are both in awe of the British propensity for record keeping, and their faithful protection and preservation of their historical sites. It also made me want to spurn London for the coastline next time I am in the United Kingdom, and brought back fabulous memories of a solitary morning I spent in Portsmouth dockyard after arriving on the ferry from Jersey in the Channel Islands.

A second season was made but to my knowledge has not been released on DVD (yet). The DVD set is available here.

Article: Wired on filming shark kills

Great white sharks move fast when making a kill. If you’ve watched Air Jaws, or the BBC Blue Planet series, or visited Seal Island, you know this. Wired featured an article on filming animal kills for nature documentaries, and great whites came under the spotlight.

It requires some expensive equipment, some ingenuity (think bicycle wheel…) and a lot of time and patience to get even a few seconds of decent footage. Wildlife filmmaking isn’t for instant gratification seekers!

Read the full write up, and see the video, here. The filming was done in South Africa.

Sea life: Sea lettuce

Tony and Mark walk down Long Beach
Tony and Mark walk down Long Beach

I really, really hate sea lettuce. It does this (see above) to the beach after rough sea conditions, and (see below) it’s really, really annoying on a dive.

Tony behind some sea lettuce
Tony behind some sea lettuce

The only good thing about sea lettuce is that it provides camouflage for super klipfish, like this friendly one I met on a dive last year at Long Beach. Their green colour often perfectly matches the colour of the sea lettuce.

Super klipfish in the sea lettuce likes to be tickled
Super klipfish in the sea lettuce likes to be tickled

There seems to be a sudden growth spurt of sea lettuce around the middle of spring, and for a few months all our favourite False Bay shore entries are littered with it. It gets wrapped around your hoses, caught in your BCD, tickles your cheeks in a most creepy manner, and (most annoyingly) makes photography a frustrating challenge as it waves about everywhere!

Sea lettuce on the kinked anchor chain at Long Beach
Sea lettuce on the kinked anchor chain at Long Beach

Sea lettuce is eaten by sea hares and other sea slugs, as well as some marine mammals. It’s also extensively eaten by humans, in salads, soups and stir fries. I wish they’d eat more of it.

Sea lettuce attached to the end of a kelp stem
Sea lettuce attached to the end of a kelp stem

Sea lettuce seems to grow on anything and anywhere. We’ve seen a lot of it attached to kelp stipes, taking advantage of the extra height to get some sunlight from closer to the surface. The leaves are incredibly delicate – sometimes only a single cell thick. This doesn’t make me feel sorry for it, though.

Sea lettuce on the wooden wreck at Long Beach
Sea lettuce on the wooden wreck at Long Beach

If you need any more evidence that sea lettuce is bad news, read this BBC news article. It is believed to have been directly responsible for two deaths in France. I think it’s even more malevolent than seals are!

Opportunistic sea lettuce hitching a ride to the surface sunlight on a kelp plant
Opportunistic sea lettuce hitching a ride to the surface sunlight on a kelp plant

Sea lettuce is a frustration to divers, and some people find it genuinely scary. It can be quite a vertiginous experience to swim over a patch of sea lettuce that moves beneath you. I think Corne enjoys sea lettuce, however, but for reasons that the following photo make clear – it releases his inner child!

Corne playing with sea lettuce
Corne playing with sea lettuce

Here’s what happens when sea lettuce dies… All the brown marks on the sand in this picture are from dead sea lettuce that has decomposed and left its tasty organic stain all over the shallows. These marks will eventually disappear, but not before providing a lot of nutrients for the organisms in the vicinity. Now THAT is what sea lettuce is for!

Decomposing sea lettuce at Long Beach
Decomposing sea lettuce at Long Beach

Series: The Deep

The Deep
The Deep

The Deep is a five episode BBC production starring Minnie Driver and two other actors who I am sure are famous on Mud Island. It has mostly been panned by critics, but Tony and I quite enjoyed it. We found it pretty gripping and watched it over several consecutive evenings.

It’s set almost entirely on a submarine, 600 metres beneath the North Pole. The crew are visiting a hydrothermal vent field to do scientific research, but first have to figure out what happened to an earlier expedition that was lost with all hands, six months prior. The repercussions of their discoveries (we are told) could set off world wars if the information they uncover were to fall into the wrong hands. And besides the explosive discoveries, the crew find themselves trapped under the ice with no power, communications, and limited air. It’s uncertain as to whether they’ll escape with their lives (cue DRAMATIC MUZAK).

I’m not sure what audience this was intended for, but there’s a lot of repetitious explanation of what’s happening, and I imagine the actors must have felt like total bananas saying some of the lines. Stating the obvious – often summarising the entire series of events that has transpired to date – is commonplace. The script is not in the tradition of Shakespeare. That said, it gets the job done, and it’s the atmospheric interior of the Russian submarine and the cramped but high-tech British submersible that provide much of the interest and entertainment.

I must confess not to be terribly well-versed in the undersea horror genre, but this is more of a thriller than a horror (for which I was grateful). I think this series has what must be the standard ingredients of cramped spaces, uncertain future survival, and some emotional entanglements to add spice to the plot.

I was annoyed and disappointed by Minnie Driver’s character, Frances Kelly, who is the captain of the British submarine. She’s supposed to be a capable, unflappable leader, but is reduced to a simpering lip-quivering mass of jelly by one of her crew, with whom she is having an adulterous affair. Her leadership abilities are seriously compromised by their attraction, and we find her uttering a lot of painfully embarrassing pleas in his general direction (as he prepares to commit unspeakable acts of courage), accompanied by heaving bosoms and wide eyes.

Initially I was pleased to see what appeared to be a positive female role model in Captain Kelly – and the submarine’s crew is pretty diverse in all respects – but the ultimate message recieved is that even a woman who is a highly-qualified scientist and leader will be undone in all respects by the devastating charisma and good looks of her one true love (or lust). And, also, that if you’re in LURVE, an adulterous affair is just fine. Bleugh. End of rant. I think Captain Kathryn Janeway , captain of the Starfleet starship USS Voyager, spoiled me.

There are some illogical and impossible to justify decisions on the part of members of the crew, numerous implausibilities, and some downright ridiculous situations… For example, “triangulating the click signals” of the pod of beluga whales visible through the front windscreen (is that the right term?) of the submarine in order to find the hole in the ice to which they’re headed, instead of just following them using visual contact… Maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough!

There’s not much marine life on show – the aforementioned beluga, and a squid-like deepsea creature with glowing dots – but the focus here is on the storyline and the cramped interiors of the submarines.

The DVD is available here. Here’s the official BBC website page for the mini-series.

Documentary: Oceans (BBC)

Oceans
Oceans - a BBC production

I was hoping this documentary would be as good as The Blue Planet (also from the BBC). It’s interesting, but not as engrossing and not as slickly produced. It features an explorer, an environmentalist (we are reminded fifty or sixty times per episode that he is the grandson of Jacques Cousteau), a maritime archaeologist, and an oceanographer/marine biologist with an incredibly annoying voice and lots of piercings.

Unlike The Blue Planet, this series is about the people and their reactions to the ecosystems and relics they encounter, rather than about the ecosystems themselves. The program is poorer for it, as none of the presenters are particularly articulate or (it seems) deep thinkers. There’s a lot of “Wow! That was amazing! Oh my God!” and similar verbiage.

In an attempt to add drama, there’s a “crisis” of some sort in each episode – the weather turns, or a diver’s air runs low, or a dangerous predator makes an appearance, and “expedition leader and explorer Paul Rose is WORRIED.” Once he’s gotten over that and unfurrowed his brow, everything turns out to be fine.

All that said, for the ocean addict, this is a fascinating production. Tony and I were insanely jealous of the boat that the cast and crew used to get around, and the footage of the crew actually doing various dives was very interesting. There are some incredibly huge octopus, which really thrilled me, and some cool wrecks and reefs. In all I would recommend it, but only if you already own The Blue Planet and are forewarned of the difference in format.

You can get the DVD box set here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here. The official website for the production is here.

Documentary: Nature’s Great Events (BBC)

This is another BBC production, beautifully produced and made in the same format as The Blue Planet (no visible “presenters” or other fame-hungry wombats getting in the way of the actual spectacle of the natural events).

Nature's Great Events
Nature's Great Events - a BBC production

This series covers six spectacular natural events. As a diver, the most thrilling one for me was the sardine run off South Africa’s south coast. The camera work is unbelievable. It was filmed over a few years – ordinarily one wouldn’t be so lucky as to see this much all in one season. Tony and I recently attended a slideshow of photographs taken at this year’s sardine run, followed by the showing of a short (seven minute) film clip by Mark van Coller of Earth Photos. The photographs were spectacular, but that little film clip totally stole the show, and gave a glimpse of the speed and the drama of the event. Film definitely seems to be the best medium to capture the dynamism of this spectacle.

The salmon spawning in Alaska and the ice melt in the Arctic are beautiful, but it’s the plankton bloom in Alaska that also really captured my imagination. You see groups of whales feeding on the organisms, as well as sea lions and killer whales attracted to the feast.

Also included is the flooding of the Okovango Delta, and the animal migration in the Serengeti. As one has come to expect from the BBC, the camera work is impeccable, it’s seamlessly edited, and the narration is professional, non-intrusive, and adds to the overall production.

The official BBC site for this show is here. You can buy the DVD set at Loot.co.za or Amazon.com.

Documentary: The Blue Planet (BBC)

The Blue Planet
The Blue Planet - a BBC production

This BBC documentary is an exploration of the world’s oceans, from tropical to beneath the ice. It provides insight into the fragile ecosystems, the tides and currents that influence and sustain them, and the unseen behaviour of the creatures and organisms inhabiting the seas. The camera work is incredible (Tony and I spent a LOT of time trying to figure out whether scuba divers or remote cameras were used at certain points) and there is a special feature on how they filmed the series.

There is footage of blue whales (I nearly fell out of my chair), breeding coral, bioluminescent creatures, and everything in between. If this series doesn’t make you want to be a scuba diver, I don’t know what will!

As with Sylvia Earle’s magnificent Ocean atlas, we were left amazed by how little of the ocean has been thoroughly explored, and totally impressed with the diversity of life in the parts we have managed to get to!

It’s wonderful viewing for when you’re sick in bed, want to dive but can’t, or just need something beautiful and soothing (mostly – the killer whale bits aren’t soothing) to feed your soul. The official BBC site for the documentary is here.

You can get the DVD box set here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.