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Pop CultureNovember 27, 2017

A love letter to the astonishing weirdness of Blue Planet ll


Elle Hunt thought she was alone at sea in her love for Blue Planet back in 2001. In 2017, it would seem the whole world has taken the plunge. 

I would like to begin with an apology to the couple I interrupted at The Love Walk Cafe in Camberwell last week.

I’m so sorry; you were halfway through your lunch, after all, and you were just discussing last night’s telly, that amazing scene – one of many, as you said! – where an eel goes into toxic shock, tying itself in knots after having been poisoned by a briny pool on the ocean floor.

You weren’t to know you were under intense scrutiny from the neighbouring table. Not until I leaned over, my scarf skimming my plate, my cheeks flush with excitement and my superior understanding of deep-sea chemistry.

“Actually, it only resembles an underwater lake.”

I got carried away, I admit it. I am just so excited that I’m not the only person talking about Blue Planet anymore.

My love of nature documentaries was instilled in childhood. Two decades ago, a Sunday night wildlife documentary was my family’s ritual to end the week – an opportunity to pause to reflect on the marvels and mysteries of the natural world, far removed from the tiresome mundanity of work and primary school that lay ahead.

My preferences for habitats and species were honed then. Monkeys? Hard pass. Elephants? Would watch if it was on, but wouldn’t stay in especially. Birds? Only if there’s a high crow quotient. Reptiles? Now you’re talking.

But as a child, no subject fascinated me more than the sea – and, within its boundless expanse, the Open Ocean, Coral Seas, The Deep, Frozen Seas, Coasts, Seasonal Seas, and Tidal Seas. So went my ranking of most to least interesting (but still very interesting) episodes of Blue Planet, eventually reached after repeat viewings since its first broadcast.

It was September 2001; I was 10 years and six months old. The last vestige of my childhood innocence gave way in the first episode, when a pod of orcas drown a grey whale calf – carried by its mother for 58 weeks, one of the longest gestation periods of any animal – only to eat its lower jaw and tongue.

The clip appears dated today, but it was the first time such a hunt had ever been caught on camera – just one of the unparalleled feats of documentary-making achieved in the seven years the series took to film. I was transfixed.

A fish eats a bird in Blue Planet 2

Someone in my family later bought my dad the box set for Christmas, probably at my suggestion, because when I moved out of home nearly a decade later, I took it with me. For many years it was the only DVD I owned. The difficulty lay in getting anyone to watch it with me.

Once I had a friend over and a hangover that could only be soothed by my favourite episode, Open Ocean (it’s a cliche, I know, but I’m just a sucker for a bait ball). During a lull in the conversation, I just put it on, giving them a choice between watching it or physically leaving the room. I suppose some might describe it as evangelical.

“Do you remember ever watching The Blue Planet at my flat,” I messaged three likely candidates, “or have I fabricated the memory to disguise the inherent sadness of watching it alone?”

“That definitely happened,” replied one.

“Probably more than once,” said another.

“I was there,” the third messaged me back. “I think it was the only time I was ever in your house.”

But now Blue Planet 2 is on, and I don’t have to bully or cajole anyone into watching it with me: they are doing it of their own free will. And not in the very technical sense that they have chosen not to physically leave the room.

The series premiere was seen by 14.1m Britons in the week following its broadcast last month, beating Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor to be the best-watched British television show of the year so far.

Subsequent episodes have come close, as people marvel at fish working together, using tools, eating birds, changing sex, looking up through their translucent heads. Many of these astonishing spectacles are new not only to film, but to science. It is remarkable evidence of how much we’ve learned about marine life in the past decade, and – excitingly, it stands to reason – how much we’ve yet to find out.

These fish can change sex

Every Sunday night the hashtag trends on Twitter; the next day, it’s the go-to topic of small talk with service professionals and colleagues you don’t know very well. A conversation that I’ve been trying to force for 16 years, with anyone who expressed even a passing interest, is now as likely to be instigated by a stranger in the queue at Sainsbury’s.

I am thrilled, but I am under no illusion: my weekly windows of #BluePlanet chat are numbered. Here in the UK, there are just two episodes to go; I intend to make the most of them.

Anyway, I know what Dad is getting for Christmas.

Blue Planet 2 airs Sundays on TVNZ1 at 7.30pm

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