It’s the marine-life TV series no diver will want to miss, but what was it like to be a scuba-diver working on Blue Planet II, capturing never-before-seen animal behaviour? Rachel Butler has been living the dream, as she tells STEVE WEINMAN
SOMETIMES IT’S A SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH STUDY or a diver’s tale from some remote location that sparks the idea for a sequence in a TV wildlife documentary. After that, a rigorous research process is followed before mounting the shoot.
Yet that was not the case with a segment on Galapagos sea-lions beaching yellowfin tuna that looks set to be one of many must-see moments from Blue Planet II, the long-anticipated sequel from BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit about to hit our screens after a 16-year gap.
This particular story started with a rumour heard in a bar and will end in a scientific study, as producer/director on the series Rachel Butler explains.
“Our cameraman Richard Wollocombe said: ‘I heard about this from a fisherman over a beer and it sounds really interesting – shall we give it a go?’ We thought, no Rich, we need a bit more to go on that.
“So he sent out one of his camera-assistants, who camped on this remote island in the middle of nowhere and came back with one crude GoPro clip and a couple of stills.
“So we knew this was happening, though not to what extent, how frequently or exactly where, but we just thought: what an extraordinary behaviour!
“Galapagos sea-lions are intelligent but normally quite slow, social creatures, and here they were chasing down and not just biting the fish in mid-water but beaching them – these 60kg tuna fly straight through the air and land on the volcanic rock!”
It took three days to reach the small bay at Isabella Island and camp at the base of an active volcano. “Sure enough, on the first morning there was a live tuna and a sea-lion eating it. Over the next month we got to know this band of sea-lions. The star of the show we called Tagboy – he dived just about every day, seemed to be the ringleader and had loads of energy.
“Sea-lions are fast, tuna ridiculously fast and also with all that blood in the water the Galapagos sharks were quite frisky, so it was a challenge to film under water. We had started by putting static cameras all round the bay but eventually we took the plunge. We did it on snorkel with shark suits, just in case, because an evacuation would have taken 24 hours.
“It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, and I went from being quite sceptical to being so proud to be the director who brought home these precious rushes of something we knew had never been filmed before and was new to science. How wonderful is that in this world?”
Sixteen years earlier I had visited the NHU in Bristol to talk to the makers of the first series, and it was interesting now to meet a representative of the BBC’s new generation of diving film-makers.
Rachel was involved with a number of ground-breaking underwater sequences on Blue Planet II.
She had been in the studio until the early hours of the morning, involved in the final stages of editing the series.
“I always thought that post-production would be less busy than the filming, but I think it’s been more crazy than a shoot!” she says. “But it will all be worth it.”
Since the Census on Marine Life at the start of this century, scientists have been focusing on the oceans, their multiple findings rapidly disseminated through the Internet. “It’s been so much easier to get to the stories than it would have been for the first Blue Planet team, because the information out there is so much greater,” says Rachel.
“And then there’s the technology – crikey, they were putting normal topside cameras into housings and making rebreathers out of Hoovers back then! Straight-scopes and high-speed cameras and Red Dragons were only available for topside use at that time, and we’ve taken all that under water.
“We’ve got better diving technology as well. Most of our diving’s been on rebreathers when it’s right for the subject – obviously you don’t want to use them when you’re in very shallow water or jumping in and out with whales.”
We’re all hyper-aware of the degradation of the oceans nowadays, too. That was apparent when Executive Producer James Honeyborne set out to get the series commissioned, six years ago. “It really seemed that our oceans were under greater pressure than they’d ever been in human history, and more than ever the time to show people how amazing ocean animals are, but also to emphasise that if they don’t do something soon, they won’t be there.”
This darker theme underscores Blue Planet II. “We wanted to make it contemporary, not just something mentioned in the “Making Of” section or at the end of the film.
“How animals are coping with what’s going on in the oceans is very much a thread running through the series.”
A NEW BEHAVIOUR that had been noted in a 2011 study but never filmed professionally was that involving Percy the tuskfish, and for Rachel, as a diver, it became her favourite. “I’ve dived on reefs quite a lot, and it seemed extraordinary that this island in the Great Barrier Reef should be a hub for science, yet nobody had ever noticed these little fish swimming around using tools!”
The shoot was set up with the help of Alex Vail, a scientist based on the island. “The cameraman Roger Munns and I probably spent about 100 hours in the water with Percy, just watching this tenacious little fish flying all over the place,” says Rachel. “Sometimes he’d take an hour just smashing this clam against the side of his ‘anvil’; other times he’d manage to crack it in a minute.
“It was comical – sometimes he’d try to pick up a clam that was way too big for him, swim a little way and then drop it, swim and drop it.
“At other times he’d be really cheeky and watch goatfish looking for food, and if they found something he’d rush in and take it.
“One time we were filming general views and I was kneeling in the sand in quite shallow water wearing board-shorts and felt a tickling on the back of my leg – Percy was there lifting up bits of coral to see what was under them, and dropping bits onto me.
“Sometimes people ask if we disturb the animals when we film them, and that was an indication for me that he really couldn’t care less!”
Filming Asian sheepshead wrasse in the Sea of Japan required a very different approach. “The fish has a face only a mother could love, with a massive bulbous head, and wobbly chin, like something out of Shrek. We went to Sado Island this May and filmed a dominant male with its harem of smaller females on a shipwreck. It was more like British diving because the water was 12°C – we were in drysuits using rebreathers and spending 4-6 hours a day in the water.
“It was probably the most challenging of all the diving I’ve done on this series because there were quite strong currents, the wreck was at 30-35m, there was a lot of bad weather and visibility was pretty poor. I don’t want to give away too much, but the wrasse goes through a remarkable transformation, and I think it’s going to be a real Gogglebox moment.”
HOW DOES A SCUBA-DIVER get to create Gogglebox moments?
Rachel studied zoology at Oxford, did her Masters in marine biology in Australia and then worked as a divemaster in Indonesia and Philippines. She then spent four years in Australia working as a diving instructor and marine biologist on tourist boats and with James Cooke University.
She devoted four months to work on well-known research vessel Undersea Explorer, “the second-best job I’ve ever had”. On one such trip she watched shark cinematographer Richard Fitzpatrick at work and “something clicked”.
“I’d grown up watching the BBC and adoring everything it had done with David Attenborough but I’d thought that was something other people did. I could take a decent picture but I wasn’t particularly great behind the camera.”
She started working for Fitzpatrick as a runner, logging fish and making the tea. “Just as I was considering going back to England, Richard said: you might want to stay on, because we’re about to go into co-production with a UK company to make a big series.”
That turned out to be Great Barrier Reef, produced by James Brickell and part-presented by Monty Halls, and led to Rachel joining the NHU seven years ago.
In only her second week in Bristol she took part in a Blue Planet II brainstorm, after which she went on to work on the Shark series and started full-time on Blue Planet II more than three years ago.
“It’s very competitive, very hard work and I love it, but never in a million years did I think I’d be working on the next Blue Planet. I’m just a very small cog in a very big wheel of amazing people.”
RACHEL LOVES DIVING IN BRITAIN – just as well, because she needs to keep flying her rebreather every month if not on a shoot, and does so on the South Coast, or at the Vobster or Chepstow inland sites.
“I’m often on the second camera, or filming a Behind the Scenes segment – I produced quite a lot of those for the series – and under water I need to be thinking about the filming, what the cameraman’s doing, and about safety.
“If you’re having to think too much about your buoyancy or your breathing, you can’t do your job effectively.”
The NHU uses various rebreathers. Rachel has become accustomed to a Poseidon Mk6 “because they’re kind of semi-automatic” but was about to do a conversion course to a rEvo “because of the amount of scrubber-time and the fact that you can change your setpoints as you go, which makes it a lot easier”.
An illustration of where setpoint flexibility is useful came when filming a sequence in which a saddleback clownfish is pushing a coconut husk to an isolated anemone to lay its eggs on it.
This behaviour had never been observed before, and will enable a new scientific paper to be written. Rachel and cameraman Roger Munns would be filming for up to 4.5 hours at a time: “We can just be sitting at the bottom of the ocean for hours and hours.” She spent some 650 hours under water altogether while making the series “and only saw things worth filming for a few of those hours!”
Overall Blue Planet II involved more than 6000 hours of underwater filming in the course of more than 125 expeditions across every ocean and 39 countries.
More than 1500 days were spent at sea and 1000-plus hours in submarines, much of the filming taking place in Earth’s most inaccessible and inhospitable regions.
Another mind-boggling sequence was filmed at the same location as Percy’s “castle”, again with the help of Alex Vail. He had studied grouper hunting alongside moray eels in the past, and was encouraged by the team to look for similar behaviour on the Great Barrier Reef. Sure enough, he found that the grouper around his island had gone into business with – octopuses.
“It was incredible to see two totally unrelated species interacting. The grouper turns on its head, flushes white and does this headshake thing,” says Rachel. “It’s obviously a pointing gesture – it’s signalling to this octopus and saying look, I’ve found something here. The only other animals with that sort of cognitive ability are great apes and chimpanzees.”
A UHD underwater straight-scope camera enabled a novel low-angle view of this collaborative activity.
“We were able to get that Honey I Shrunk the Kids-type look and get right inside the coral. For sequences in which the octopus’s rubbery legs come into the matrix of the reef and look into every single nook and cranny, it was incredible.
“There’s no hiding place when you’ve got the brains of a grouper and the brains of an octopus teamed up together. It’s terrifying! That sequence really showcases the way our cameras have moved on, and will give our audience a look unlike anything they’ve seen before.”
I ASK ABOUT THE USE of onboard cameras. Rachel had helped out on a sequence in Norway in which cameras were placed on orcas’ backs using suction cups, and at Sipadan in Borneo she had directed a sequence at Turtle Rock “where the turtles are queuing for the spa”.
She worked with a scientist called Nick Pilcher and an animal-tracking device manufacturer that had recently added an HD camera alongside an array of sensors to measure water conditions.
The BBC helped to fund one of Pilcher’s expeditions in return for use of the resulting video data.
“These turtles are used to divers and so benign. I filmed for a Behind the Scenes, and Nick just swims along behind a resting turtle and gently pushes these suction cups onto its back.
“Nine times out of 10 he got great science but we didn’t get great pictures because the camera was slightly off or down or up – but that one time in 10 you got a turtle’s view of the ocean.
“There were some behaviours, much to my cameraman Roger’s annoyance, that the turtle was filming better than he was!”
New UHD low-light cameras were used in Mexico to capture shoaling mobula rays leaving bioluminescent “sea sparkles” in the wake of their wings.
“When we were first looking at this seven years ago I remember James asking me about filming bioluminescence and I said there were no light-sensitive cameras that could pick it up – you can barely see it with your eye, let alone record it on camera.
“Then we did a trial in Costa Rica about two years ago and ended up filming the mobula rays and the bioluminescence, and it was hilarious. Just the little light on the front of the camera that tells you it’s on was enough to blind us, and I’m there furiously kicking my fins, the cameraman doesn’t know where I am, and you could hardly see anything.
“Yet a year later these two new light-sensitive cameras came out and Sony & Canon said: try it. I think we’re at the breaking edge – there’s so much we know is out there but just don’t quite have the technology yet to film.”
SOME DOZEN NEW scientific studies are already underway as a result of Blue Planet II, from the sea-lions and grouper mentioned to mobula targeting lanternfish, small sharks rubbing up against whale sharks and, in the deep, methane volcano eruptions.
“We hope this series will open the door to even more studies, and our footage is always available,” says Rachel. “But it’s probably the rare occasion when we find something that the scientists don’t know about – we couldn’t do anything without them. It’s a wonderful partnership.”
The NHU team know what they’re doing and scary moments seem rare.
“I did a shoot in French Polynesia in the middle of the Pacific, diving on the sharkiest reef in the world and filming the grey reef sharks predating.
“I have a healthy respect for sharks; I’m not scared of them because I’ve worked with them and know you’re far more likely to be killed by a dog, but it’s still hard to stop that little voice in your head from when you watched Jaws as a little girl when you’re completely surrounded by 700 grey reef sharks.
“And also there’s that Google Earth moment when you pull out from yourself and think: My gosh, we’re 4000 miles from the nearest continent.
“If anything should happen you always know it would be very hard, because you’re such a long, long way from home.”
The little girl in Rachel had surfaced again at the final mix the previous night, she told me.
“I was watching our beautiful images, knowing that blood, sweat and tears had gone into every single frame. There was a push forward through the coral reef where the octopus came down and we reckoned we’d spent a good 60 hours on that one shot, because you just have to hope that at some point the octopus will hunt near to you.
“So watching it on the big screen with David Attenborough’s voice and Hans Zimmer’s score – I’m 33, and I called my mum on the way home and went: ‘Mum! It was so wonderful!’”
Matty Smith / BBC
Rachel Butler / BBC
Richard Robinson / BBC
Jason Isley / BBC
Alex Vail / BBC
Appeared in DIVER November 2017