A different view on Blue Planet II

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David Attenborough and his many nature documentaries are lauded as inspiring millions of people. The entire team at Blue Planet (a nature documentary based in the ocean) and Planet Earth (a nature documentary based on land) is applauded for bringing wildlife into people’s homes and leaving them in awe. But what are they actually achieving and do they do the natural world justice, considering humans are leaving it on the brink of destruction?

Blue Planet II is the latest nature documentary by the BBC. Filmed with the most advanced underwater cameras, it brings viewers into the most unexplored areas in the world where the most extraordinary creatures live. It showcases whales in all their glory, seals fishing and sharks breeding. It is an incredible television feat that entertains millions of viewers and sells worldwide, making the BBC a lot of money in the process. Blue Planet II was filmed over many years and supposedly goes across the globe to represent all areas of the ocean. Yet it has managed to miss the most prevalent thing happening today across all oceans: the capture and killing of the species living in it by humans. Blue Planet II is the digital zoo of television - entertainment with good public relations and little effective conservation.

An injustice to the animals

There are countless examples in Blue Planet II where fish and mammals are filmed interacting with their natural environment but never is the interaction with humans considered. Humans have had such impact on these animals that they now must be considered to be a part of their story. There are only fleeting mentions of how damaging plastic can be, or how coral reefs are being bleached, but never is a human shown killing an animal. Depicting the life stages of these animals without showing the hundreds of billions of lives cut short by human interference is a betrayal.

How can you accurately reflect the life of a seal without mentioning the 217,800 seals killed in just one year in Canada by seal hunters, or the 90,000 killed in one year by hunters in Greenland? In Canada, hunters can legally kill seals that are just 14 days old. A government report states that 98% of seals killed are under 3 months old. They are killed with a club and a spike and dragged on to boats. If you are a seal, there’s a very good chance you will be beaten to death by a human. Yet coming away from Blue Planet, you would be forgiven for thinking they live according to nature in their natural habitat.

In the first Blue Planet documentary which aired in 2001, sharks were shown visiting the shores of a small island to have their skin cleaned by small fish, a truly amazing spectacle. Approximately 100 million sharks are caught and killed each year. The sharks are either caught for their meat or as bycatch, picked up by giant fishing nets used to catch the very food the viewers of Blue Planet are eating. A billion sharks have been killed by humans over the past 10 years.

Given how common the occurrence is, the Blue Planet crew must have at some point, been in scenarios where they have seen humans killing fish or mammals. Not including this in the final show feels like a glaring omission. The viewer certainly comes away being entertained by skin cleaning but is left completely ignorant to the mass extinction of sharks at hands of humans.

Blue Planet II is the equivalent of being a journalist who is dropped in Syria and reports back that Syria has lovely parks, completely ignoring the war. If you are portraying an accurate reflection of the oceans and how animals behave, you cannot ignore the impact of humans on the very animals you are filming.

The state of our planet

There is little evidence to support the notion that nature documentaries which ignore the threat of humans will inspire their audience to take conservation seriously. The 2016 Living Planet Report showed a 58% decline in vertebrate population abundance worldwide between 1970 and 2012. Between 900 million and 2.7 trillion animals are taken from the oceans each year by human-beings and thanks to the use of giant fishing nets, nothing is safe. Whales, sharks, dolphins and anything else are taken up by these nets, where they will often suffocate to death.

The ocean is a complex ecosystem, the animals living there give and receive. Whales, for example, eat fish but excrete waste that feeds phytoplankton, which feeds zooplankton, which feeds the fish. Eighty percent of the world's oxygen comes from phytoplankton. Not only are warming oceans reducing the numbers of phytoplankton, the fish and mammals taken from the ocean are too.

With rising sea temperatures and pollution, even fish at the deepest darkest areas of the ocean, where no human ventures, are not safe. Excrement from the more than 50 billion animals used for human consumption is not treated and goes directly into rivers leading out to the ocean. The excrement causes ocean dead zones - entire stretches of ocean where nothing lives.

The digital zoo

Take a look at Twitter the next time Blue Planet airs, you'll see viewers are utterly awe-struck, a reaction not too dissimilar to when people visit zoos. You will hear that "animals and nature are incredible" and how loved they are. Blue Planet is the digital zoo of television. If we strip back the glossy editing and expensive camerawork, we have to face the reality that is simply a form of entertainment which achieves next to nothing in relation to conservation.

Seals are clubbed to death to protect fisheries; sharks and whales are caught for meat or by accident in fishing nets, and we’re polluting the oceans with the items we buy. Nature documentaries are happy to show the lion catch the deer, the shark catch and kill the tuna, but will not show the biggest killer of them all – humans.

Viewers need to demand to see the truth. Shows like Blue Planet are not commissioned to teach viewers how to save the natural world but to entertain a mainstream audience. It is up to viewers to turn off the television and speak out loudly, or the oceans will die and no one will notice. Blue Planet II will become nothing more than a testimonial of how beautiful the wild once was.

Andy Davidson

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I think your point is right. I always wondered why these documentaries don't show the real thing. I think it's because of funding. As these funds gets originated from these fishing companies or meat companies. Or the usual way, the documentary team just choose to ignore the right fact. It's very important for people to develop their imagination and look for truth behind this beautiful yet untrue documentaries.

Chris Packham has said the same thing about wildlife documentaries, that although they are intoxicating they are not showing the public the truth that 'wild' life (my quotations, not his), are on the brink. However, saying that the initial truth is that the public have been conditioned by years of cultural anthropocentrism, so it's also important to demonstrate how wonderful non-humans are and that they also have their evolutionary adaptations, to help the public understand that humans are wrong and must stop this tyrannical behaviour. Now all these viewers will already have a different view of the octopus after the fourth episode. We cant' get the public to think differently about non-human animals until we reverse the cultural conditioning. But I do agree, there's no point in showing the above without balancing it with the truth about what humans do to other animals.

You only protect what you value, and therefore seeing the sheer joy and beauty of nature is a crucial element of getting people to care about it. I work in a school. If I show films that mostly show how we kill and destroy the natural environment, only a small handful of students come, typically the ones who care about these things already. If I can show an episode of Blue Planet II and say "you will enjoy watching this, this will be great entertainment, you will see stuff that is funny and stuff that is breathtaking", then I get a much larger audience, students seeing the beauty of the ocean who would never come to watch a film that is mostly about death and destruction. And seeing the sheer and utter beauty of the natural world has to be the foundation of getting people to care about it. Everything else, talking about overfishing, plastic waste and all the rest, only makes sense once there is a true sense of there being something so beautiful that it's worth protecting. So, please, David Attenborough, stick to simply showing how utterly beautiful this world is.

Thanks for the great comment Andy. I too am one of those in awe of the beauty encapsulated by that hour of telly, but every scene makes me despair for what we have done, and continue to do, to our planet. These programme makers are at the mercy of the big money, mainstream broadcasters they produce for, and sadly we cannot afford to believe the veneered reality they present to us. Independent film makers show the truth, such as Ali Tabrizi with Seaspiracy on YouTube. My hope is that people watching today will be inspired, will have their hearts touched in some way, as I did watching the nature documentaries of the 60s and 70s. Those animal programmes back then did give me my deep love and empathy for the planet, from my childhood home in London where we had Regents Park and the local pet shop as our only contact with animals. I have to remain hopeful that the new generations coming through today are educating themselves in a different way, and that they will not be too late to repair some of the damage those before them have done.

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