'Blue Planet' dazzles with help from cutting-edge technology

BBC America’s “Planet Earth: Blue Planet II” has been generating buzz, and big viewership, for its stunning imagery of underwater life from around the world.

Series executive producer James Honeyborne says that some of those images (and accompanying audio) would have been impossible to capture five years ago when the series started production.

“There’s been a generational shift in science and technology,” Honeyborne says. “There are things we saw and couldn’t have filmed [in 2013]. Camera-sensor technology has moved on a really long way, for example, so we’re able to film in low-light conditions.

“In the first episode we have mobula rays swimming through bioluminescent plankton at night — we always wanted to film that, but we had to wait for 2016 for the technology to be good enough.”

A green turtle near Borneo, Malaysia.Courtesy of BBC America/Jason Isley

Like its 2001 predecessor, “Blue Planet,” the eight-episode “Blue Planet II” is narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Its Jan. 20 premiere snared nearly 4 million viewers (across BBC America and four sister networks) watching the BBC’s first-ever series shot in ultra-high-definition. “The move to digital helped us a lot,” says Honeyborne. “For example, we can film half in the water and half out to get a lovely split image. Beforehand, on video, we couldn’t expose above and beneath the surface [of the water] at the same time. The cameras weren’t sensitive enough.

“Now we can film in low-light conditions,” he says. “We have probes that gobble up the light, but cameras are now sensitive enough for us to take those probes into the cracks and crevices of the coral reef.”

The series has also taken advantage of state-of-the-art audio technology.

“Lots of the cameras we take underwater have microphones in them, and we’re able to capture sound underwater,” Honeyborne says. “We put microphones with cameras on the back of deep-diving sperm whales, and you can hear a mother sperm whale as she’s talking in click language to her baby. Then she goes on a dive and starts to use her hunting clicks, which are like submarine sonar. Without those sounds it wouldn’t be such a meaningful experience.”

Viewers have responded to the series’ spectacular and, in some cases, unprecedented images — including the episode in which underwater cameras and mikes captured a tusk fish using its mouth to repeatedly (and loudly) bang a clam against coral to break it open for food.

“That’s the first moment in the series where you get to look at a fish and start to wonder about its character and intellect and realize maybe there’s more to fish than, perhaps, we previously thought,” Honeyborne says. “We were able to film that because we use a diving system that’s different from scuba: We use rebreathers, which recycle air and don’t release bubbles, and if you don’t release bubbles you don’t release a startling noise or the bubbles themselves that keep fish on edge. It allows [the fish] to really relax and literally become part of the reef itself.”

The rebreathers also allowed the “Blue Planet II” divers to remain underwater for four hours at a time (the series encompasses 125 expeditions to 39 countries and roughly 4,000 dives). “That’s 6,000 hours underwater,” Honeyborne says. “This series had to be big in its ambition. What we really wanted to do … was to connect people to this other world. For many of us the oceans can appear alien, cold, remote, dark, scary and slimy.

“What we wanted to show was that down there are worlds that mirror our own — with creatures that are every bit as fascinating and sophisticated as what we see on land.”

“Blue Planet II” 9 p.m. Saturday on BBC America

A southern elephant seal roars in challenge to a rival in South Georgia.

BBC America

Blue Planet II_EP07_Our Blue Planet_Episodic Iconic

A superpod of sperm whales gather off the coast of Sri Lanka.

BBC America

Blue Planet II_EP04_Big Blue

The wandering albatross is the largest of all seabirds.

Chris Fallows

Blue Planet II_EP05_Green Seas

A common starfish rises up to spawn in coastal waters close to Bergen on the west coast of Norway.

BBC America

Blue Planet II_EP01_One Ocean_Screengrabs

Bottlenose dolphins surf in the Wild Coast region of South Africa.

BBC America

Blue Planet II_EP02_The Deep

A fangtooth fish in the Gulf of Mexico

Espen Rekdal

Blue Planet II_EP03_Coral Reefs

A school of bigeye trevally gather at the outer edge of the reef wall in Sipadan, Borneo, off the coast of Malaysia.

BBC America

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