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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Documentary Review: The Blue Planet - Seas of Life

"Our planet is a blue planet: over seventy percent of it is covered by the sea. The Pacific Ocean alone covers half the globe. You can fly across it non-stop for twelve hours and still see nothing more than a speck of land."

- Sir David Attenborough

When the first public aquariums opened in the 1800s, many milestones were achieved in rapid succession.  One of these was the first ever photograph of a living fish, for the first time introducing many people to a glimpse of life under the surface of the water.  Today, we have far better cameras, SCUBA gear and submersibles, and much larger and more naturalistic aquarium displays with many more species on display.  Still, the vast majority of people will never see the mystery and majesty of life in the ocean.

In an effort to correct this, BBC Natural History Unit (the same studio that produced Life in Cold Bloodhas produced one of the most spectacular documentary series every filmed - The Blue Planet: Seas of Life.  Filmed over five years at approximately 200 locations (and narrated by Sir David!), Blue Planet is the most ambitious, complete overview of ocean life on earth.  Many of the behaviors and species featured had not been filmed before, and the filmmakers crossed the boundary between documenting and discovering.  For example, three years were devoted to solving on of the persistent questions of marine mammal biology - where do blue whales go on migration?  It seems remarkable that, for the single largest animal that has ever lived, we didn't know the answer to such a basic question before, but it just goes to show how mysterious much ocean life is.

The ocean is often treated monolithically, as one entity of unbroken water.  In reality, it is home to habitats and ecosystems as diverse from each other as are the habitats on dry land.  The fifty-minute episodes of the series explore a variety of marine habitats, such as coastlines, frozen seas, and the open ocean.  Some of the most spectacular footage comes from the bottom of the ocean, where scientists and filmmakers use submersibles similar to those used to explore the Titanic to investigate life in one of the most inhospitable environments we could imagine.  The first episode, for instance, features footage of the carcass of a gray whale, having sunk to the bottom of the sea.  Over the course of a year and a half, hagfish, sleeper sharks, and other scavengers reduce the behemoths to bones.

If I have one quibble with Blue Planet, it's that its focus is a little... biased.  Watching some episodes, it would be easy to get the idea that the sea is almost exclusively full of mammals.  Whales, dolphins, and seals dominate the series, with penguins, polar bears, and sea turtles probably getting more than their share of screen time as well.  Among the fish, it's the sharks that dominate.  And don't get me wrong, those animals are cool, but for me the real pleasure of Blue Planet and its sister series (such as the famous Planet Earth) is the chance to discover something brand new, something incredibly unique.  I mean, there is a creature out there with a Latin name that translates to "Vampire Squid from Hell?"  Can we please talk about that one a little more?

One modest quibble aside, I absolutely love this series.  Its beautiful shot, sometimes moving (especially the scenes of a successful attack of an orca pod on a young whale), and, like the ocean itself, flows effortlessly and clearly from episode to episode.  Because so much ground (... or water) is covered in the series, sometimes I feel like the viewer doesn't get a chance to learn too much about any one topic or animal before being ushered along to the next one.

That's okay.  There are millions of species scattered across seemingly endless amounts of ocean, too much for any one series to cover.  The Blue Planet, I like to think of, is something of a teaser... and invitation to dive in for more.

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