So it ended. The live specials of Blue Planet came to an end on Sunday, and my gosh, it was worth the hype.
We had four live hour-long episodes, seeing Chris Packham, Liz Bonnin and Steve Backshall covering all corners of the world. Chris was on the lookout for the phenomenal masses of whales: Humpback, Blue and Great. Liz was exploring the coral reef in Australian waters, looking for coral and birds of the seas (Noddy Terns and Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters) and releasing hatchling green turtles into the deep blue (we will come back to *that* incident), and Steve was showing us that sharks are nothing to be afraid of; humans are the dangerous ‘monsters’, not those incredible animals, whether they are Great Hammerheads, Caribbean Reef, Tiger, Blacktip or Silky sharks.
The Blue Planet series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, achieved unprecedented success. Partly because of Attenborough’s ability to capture an audience, and partly because the shows played heavily on the inquisitive minds of a nosey nation. During the series we began to learn that actually, we know very little about the waters that cover our planet. The waters are hiding secrets we don’t even know are being hidden! There is a world down below the surface, and deep below the sea bed limit that human expeditions have explored, and honestly, I am glad. I am glad that as a species we have not been able to access their worlds. I am glad that there is still life going on, uninterrupted by the actions of humans. Almost, anyway. Our actions are starting to kill those eco-systems that we can’t see. Plastic use, oil spills, chemical spills, hunting, fishing; all examples of ways that we are threatening the life that has been flourishing at the bottom of our oceans for millions of years.
Witnessing whales was wonderful, truly. Despite being on the other side of a screen, on the other side of the world, I felt like I was there. Their calls, their tail ‘slaps’, their demand for attention not only shocked me, but showed an entire nation that there is so much that we do not realise about these animals. They are gentle, despite their monumental size, and the excess of food that they consume during the months before they embark on migration journeys covering thousands of miles. The three main species that we got to know were the Blue Whale, Gray Whale and the Humpback Whale, and I could not pick a favourite, even if I had to.
They are such fascinating animals, but they are not only facing the dangers of plastic pollution, as we have all seen too many times, with photos of their stomachs being emptied of tyres, bottles, sanitary waste and goodness knows what else, but Humpback Whales are now at risk from noise pollution, as well. The increase in ships that are crossing the international waters is disrupting the calls of male whales, who have to fight to win the chance to mate with the female. It is only the males who sing, and if they cannot be heard, the future for this species could be in doubt. Scientists are continually trying to figure out what that will mean for the animals, but we cannot predict the patterns; we are in risk of seeing another creature become extinct because of us.
The turtles that are being monitored along the Great Barrier Reef are living in conditions that they have never had to experience before. In addition to predators (yes, we all saw Liz Bonnin ignore the seagull as it sauntered along for a breakfast of hatchling seconds after it was popped back up on its legs, and yes, we all cried, and yes, we all hated that seagull, but yes, that is a natural predator that humans cannot prevent, and instead we should return our focus to preventing the dangers that are caused by human activity: the ones we can and should do something about), turtles are now having to negotiate their way around plastic-filled oceans. Accounts of turtles being starved to death as they cannot escape from a sandwich bag, or being subjected to incomprehensible amounts of pain with plastic wire tangled around their shells and necks, or being trapped in the plastic rings that beer cans are attached to, for no reason at all, are becoming all too common.
The corals on which they feed are dying out, due to ‘bleaching’. This living microorganism (who knew coral is such an interesting animal?) is unable to function in the oceans as they are, and turtles are starting to pay the price. They migrate to oceans thousands of miles away, yet coral is dying all over the world, the Great Barrier Reef is just one example, unfortunately. The conservationists that are working to monitor these graceful animals are hoping that they will survive, but with an average survival rate of 0.1% who make it to maturity, the future of the green sea turtle is hanging on by a very fine thread.
Whilst Chris Packham and Liz Bonnin stayed on the shores and on the boats, Steve Backshall of ‘Deadly 60’ fame, (my personal favourite) literally dived in feet first with one of the most feared animals in the world, the shark. But there was not just one shark species that he had a play with, but five! Backshall fought those international fears and refused to suggest some truth in the media’s presentation of these marine predators. In fact, one of the most notable and recognisable sharks, the Hammerhead, has never been responsible for a fatality, since records began in the 16th century.
One thing I can say is that I now believe a friend who has been a lover of sharks for many years. I never doubted they had the right to prowl the oceans as they pleased, and although I would still never try and stop them, I am happy to say that I can understand they are playful and friendly just like my own puppy was, some nine years ago. I may not opt for a shark bean bag (yes my fabulous friend adores hers), or demand one as a pet, but I will give them the love and respect that they deserve. Yearly, the human race is taking 100,000,000, sharks from the seas. Each year we are losing more sharks than one and half times the population of the United Kingdom! Why? For their fins. For their meat. For sport. For money. At what point are we, as a strong united front, going to say “stop”? The sharks that get caught in fishing lines are a by-product of your Friday night fish and chips that you don’t know about! The sharks that escape are left with hooks in their mouths and fins, vastly diminishing their chance of survival in the wild. Unfortunately, sharks are now becoming reliant upon the nurseries that Backshall was seen diving in; they are learning to identify humans separately from their food sources, and scientists are learning about their individual personalities. But it should not have been allowed to get to the stage, where one of the strongest animals in the world is reliant on a human to protect it.
So what is next?
Unfortunately I do not have the promise of a future series, or the chance to hop on a plane and go and track down that seagull, but I do have a message ready to tell anyone who will listen: We are the ONLY ones who can make a difference now. The oceans are our ‘backyards’, as Steve Backshall explained. Every time you opt for a plastic straw, rather than investing in a paper, pasta or metal straw, that is one more turtle who could suffocate. Each time you order that fish and chip shop tea, another shark could be hooked out of the sea. Every time you order something that must cross oceans to get to your front door, that could be a missed opportunity for a new baby whale to be introduced into the world. We are never going to completely stop ordering things online, in our current society, and we are always going to make mistakes, but protecting our oceans should be at the top of our priority list.
One quote that made me remember the reason why I always endeavour to remember my reusable shopping bag is: “Life will bounce back if we can give the oceans a chance.” Too many people argue “but I won’t make a difference”, but they never consider that they are part of a whole population of people trying to save the oceans that surround us. One person’s actions can make a difference. We need one person’s actions to keep making a difference. The ocean needs everyone’s actions to make a difference, if they are to survive, as we know them.
To get more information about the plastics that can harm the marine eco-systems and those that can be recycled, call 03003014144 or visit: https://www.open.ac.uk/request/publication/publicationrequest.html?catcode=OZWBPL&redirectUrl=https://www.open.edu/openlearn/blueplanetlive to order your free booklet.
The series is available on the iPlayer to catch up on, and if you didn’t see it live, I would highly recommend you do watch it. I have learned so much about the oceans and what I, as an individual, can do to help them survive.
All statistics have been taken from the live shows, unless otherwise stated.
(Disclaimer: these animals are meant to be free, in the wild and enjoying their lives, like any creature on this planet. Even if you are scared or in love and “want one right now”, they are protected species and should not be taken away for human pleasure and entertainment; this is one of the fundamental messages that Blue Planet Live hopefully got the world to understand).