by Sarah Marshall, The Telegraph, October 30, 2017
We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about life in the depths of our oceans, hence the appeal of wildlife documentaries showcasing a cast of bizarre marine creatures straight out of science fiction. The highly-anticipated new series of Blue Planet II, starting on Sunday, will reveal yet more wonders of the underwater world and perhaps entice viewers to take a leap into the deep.
While executive producer James Honeyborne sees his mission as connecting ordinary people with life beneath the waves, series narrator Sir David Attenborough has another agenda: inspiring us to act now if we want to save our oceans from the devastating effects of plastics and pollution.
“We have a responsibility, every one of us,” he urges. “We may think we live a long way from the oceans but we don’t. It is one world, and it is in our care.”
With this in mind, I have matched suitable ecotourism projects with destinations featured in the series, filmed over a four-year period in 39 countries. If you want to do your bit, here’s what you should see and where you should go – with tips and anecdotes from the Blue Planet II team.
1. A mobula ray light show
Sea of Cortez, Mexico
The high concentration of wildlife in this body of water, between Mexico’s mainland and the Baja California Peninsula, prompted diving legend Jacques Cousteau to declare it “the world’s aquarium” – and it continues to enthrall. Footage of mobula rays creating a bioluminescent trail with their wingbeats was a world first for the Blue Planet II team.
Series producer Mark Brownlow says: “Our cameraman, Alfredo Barroso, was filming in complete darkness. There are a lot of bull sharks out there, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. The mobula rays were bumping into him and with slow light technology we were able to capture the ground-breaking sequence.” Only a handful of vessels have a licence to visit more remote spots in the region, so travel opportunities are rare.
Conservationist and cetacean expert Mark Carwardine (0117 904 8934; markcarwardine.com) leads a 13-day expedition cruise to Baja California and the Sea of Cortez for £4,595 per person, excluding flights.
2. Walrus on ice
Svalbard, Arctic Norway
A gateway to the frozen polar north, this mountainous archipelago on top of the world is the closest we can get to pure wilderness. The Blue Planet II team visited in July to film walrus mothers “hauling out” (ie, leaving the water temporarily) on to sea ice, although warmer temperatures and more open water than usual meant the pinnipeds had to settle for ice bergs calved from glaciers.
“Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40 per cent in the last 30 years,” says assistant producer Rachel Butler. “We were in T-shirts at times which was very surprising to us all at 80 degrees north. Cod were also seen on the depth sounder, much further north than the crew had ever seen them before.”
Mark Carwardine and wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein offer a 12-day voyage to Svalbard aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Russian research vessel equipped to collect data about the marine ecosystem. From £5,499 per person through Exodus Travels (020 8772 3859; exodus.co.uk).
3. Millions of penguins
South Georgia and Antarctica
Hosting the world’s largest colony of king penguins, St Andrews Bay – on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia – offers plenty of story angles. “The sheer extent of the activity in all directions is overwhelming,” says producer Miles Barton. “There are images of extreme beauty as king penguins bathe in the surf line and there are moments of high drama when four-tonne elephant seal bulls collide in battle.”
In the past 30 years, however, glaciers have drastically receded and changes in water temperature have affected the availability of krill, the bedrock of Antarctica’s food chain – so see the region’s wildlife while you still can.
Guests on the luxury expedition ship Hebridean Sky, operated by Polar Latitudes, can take part in citizen science programmes supplying Antarctic data to universities. A 21-day Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica itinerary costs £17,800 per person, including flights, booked through Audley Travel (01993 838 450; audleytravel.com).
4. Coral and critters
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Australia’s greatest tourist attraction suffered the worst bleaching event in human history in 2016, a result of rising sea temperature. Almost 90 per cent of the hard corals around Lizard Island, where the BBC team filmed, were destroyed. However, the reef remains one of the most impressive ecosystems on earth.
“We went there to film a sequence about coral groupers hunting with octopus and tuskfish,” says programme researcher Yoland Bosiger. “Research shows their behaviour is so sophisticated that some aspects of their intelligence might rival chimpanzees.”
Cooler water at the southern tip of the Barrier Reef means that islands such as Lady Elliot have suffered only minimal damage from bleaching. There, a sustainable, solar-powered eco resort offers excellent opportunities for snorkelling or diving with loggerhead and green turtles, manta rays and (in winter) humpback whales.
Discover the World (01737 214 250; discover-the-world.co.uk) offers an 11-night Southern Reef Explorer holiday from £2,158 excluding international flights.
5. Diving safari
Land mammals have justifiably made South Africa famous as a wildlife destination, but the country’s coastline is also worthy of a safari. “We have filmed things that are not even described scientifically yet,” says executive producer James Honeyborne, referring to the team’s footage of a common octopus using shells as body armour in defence against sharks. “That was brought to us by a naturalist who spends his days swimming in the sea off the Cape,” Honeyborne adds. “It is such an astonishing, unexpected new behaviour.”
Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) offers a 14-day marine conservation diving holiday at iSamangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu Natal – South Africa’s first Unesco World Heritage Site. Guests will monitor species such as turtles and mantas, and collect data to identify migratory patterns and population densities. From £1,195 per person, including dives, equipment and PADI courses, but not flights.
6. Dolphins and dugongs
Shark Bay, Western Australia
Producer Kathryn Jeffs was stunned by the amount of wildlife thriving in this Unesco World Heritage area, where iron-red sands swirl into turquoise water. “Dolphins literally swim right up to your toes on the beach while turtles, dugongs and rays can all easily be seen daily in very surprising numbers,” she says.
They are all attracted to the sea grass meadows growing on wide expanses of shallow sandbanks – as are predators, such as tiger sharks. “They are in fact protecting those meadows from being over grazed,” Jeffs explains. “By keeping turtles on the move, sharks are the unlikely heroes.”
Audley Travel (01993 838 450; audleytravel.com) offers a 16-day Western Australia Less Travelled self-drive itinerary stopping at Shark Bay for £4,065 per person. Once you’re there, Wula Guda Nyinda Eco Adventures – sensitive to both the environment and the Aboriginal custodians of the region – runs one-day kayak and cultural tours for £118 per person.
7. Nesting turtles
Social media almost scuppered the team’s first attempts at filming Olive Ridley turtles in Ostional, a village on the Nicoya Peninsula. “Access to the beaches is controlled during the turtle nesting season,” says producer Miles Barton, “but sometimes these rules are ignored. That’s what happened in 2015 when huge crowds descended in response to celebrities posting selfies with the turtles.”
However, improved regulations have created a wildlife success story, with lots of positive input from the local community. “The sheer number of turtles arriving on the beaches during the ‘arribada’ is extraordinary,” Barton explains. “It’s reminiscent of a Hollywood war movie of the D-Day landings.”
Help baby turtles safely reach the sea by participating in a voluntourism project with Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com). A seven-day stay at a rustic beach camp with bucket showers in the Guanacaste region costs from £879 per person; flights cost extra.
8. Whale sharks
Ecuador’s treasured archipelago is the place to head for unparalleled insight into the natural world – above and below the surface. For Blue Planet II, suction cameras were attached the back of whale sharks, visualising the ocean from the eyes of the world’s biggest fish. Other dramatic footage shows silky sharks and blacktips rubbing up against pregnant whale sharks.
For series producer Mark Brownlow, however, one sequence in particular stood out – “sea lions herding massive, 40kg yellow fin tuna to drive them on to the beach,” which he describes as “absolutely spectacular”.
Ecoventura’s dive boat Galapagos Sky offers the possibility of in-water experiences with whale sharks, sealions, and hammerheads – and the company’s eco credentials are strong. They are carbon neutral, use only biodegradable toiletries onboard, and donate to the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund.
Scuba Travel (0800 072 8221; scubatravel.com) is offering a seven-day trip on Galapagos Sky for £5,595, including all dives and international flights.
9. A turtle spa
Even veteran Sir David Attenborough is amazed by sequences from the Blue Planet II series – including one of a turtle having parasites removed at Turtle Rock, a cleaning station on a reef at Sipadan, off the coast of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). While composing commentary for the scene, in which the turtle sits back with its eyes closed, Attenborough wrote: “It’s difficult not to think that this animal is enjoying a bit of a facial.”
It’s a line that made it into the final script, thanks to its scientific accuracy. “Recent work has shown that the [turtle’s] levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in the body when you get stressed, actually were reduced,” Sir David explains.
Dive Worldwide (01962 302 087; diveworldwide.com) offers a 15-day land and liveaboard trip, including seven days’ diving, for £2,395 per person including flights.
10. Free diving with mantas
Photo by Andrea Izzotti/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
In Hanifaru, where banks of coral form a funnel-shaped lagoon, the incoming tide concentrates large clouds of plankton, attracting up to 200 manta rays at a time. In another television first, the Blue Planet II team managed to film a “cyclone” – a phenomenon where more than 50 mantas spiral to create a vortex that catches their prey.
Surprisingly, manta rays are not specifically protected by Maldivian law – even though they are one of the Indian Ocean’s greatest assets. To monitor numbers, the Manta Trust ( mantatrust.org ) has a research station based atFour Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, where guests can shadow scientists for a day, free diving and learning to take identification photographs. They can also sign up for the Manta-on-Call service, to be rushed by speedboat to where a sighting is made.
Carrier (0161 660 6903; carrier.co.uk) offers a seven-night half-board stay at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru from £4,430 per person, including flights.
Blue Planet II starts on Sunday at 8pm on BBC One.