Blue Planet II's lasting legacy
Date posted: 28 September 2018
BBC One returns to marine conservation on Monday October 1st with another big documentary, presented by biologist Liz Bonnin, on the effects of plastic on marine life. Meet Commissioning Editor Craig Hunter.
Following on from the phenomenal success of Blue Planet II, we caught up with the BBC’s Craig Hunter, the Commissioning Editor of the next big marine film – a major documentary on the effects of plastic – for BBC One.
Tell us about the concept for the next film. We wanted to offer the audience a truly definitive picture of what is happening to the planet and the natural world right now because of plastic. It will be a 90-minute special made by Raw TV for BBC One, a signal of how committed the BBC is to showing the realities of our changing planet. It’s now very much in the public consciousness that plastic is a global problem. Perhaps less well known is what’s being done to tackle it. The film follows in the footsteps of scientists doing ground-breaking work as they study the problem worldwide, and showcases the very latest science which might unlock solutions in the future.
Is this commission a direct response to the Blue Planet series? Although we were already considering an environmental film on plastics, Blue Planet II was absolutely the trigger for us to commit to a feature length documentary. We’re delighted to be able to really hit home with an in-depth, definitive science film to follow-up on the success of Blue Planet II.
Who is presenting this one? Liz Bonnin. She absolutely jumped on the chance to make the programme. As a conservation biologist she already knows the subject inside out. Her powerful, emotional presenting style makes it clear this is part of our story, and not just happening somewhere else far away.
What can we expect to see on screen? One of the most shocking sequences we’ve filmed, which brought Liz to tears, is of shearwater chicks on Lord Howe Island, close to Australia where Liz filmed with scientists from University of Tasmania, Lord Howe Island and the Natural History Museum. These birds spend a lot of time at sea. They only come on land to breed and raise chicks. To feed them, like other seabirds, they regurgitate their food. It is clear that what’s being passed to the chicks is volumes of plastic, which the chicks then swallow. The chicks become emaciated, not building up body fat, not growing in the way they normally should. When they fledge, they can’t take off from the water’s surface, and many die.
Is it possible to make the link directly to plastic in everything you’re filming? It is completely conclusive in a lot of the cases that the deaths of animals are linked to plastic. The effects can be seen on some of the biggest animals on the planet and some of the smallest, too. Scientists in the Arctic, including Dr Amy Lusher (Research Scientist at Norwegian Institute for Water Research – NIVA), are looking at the effect of microplastics in this remote part of the planet. Copepods, krill, and other tiny plankton are eating the material, and dietary effects are visible right through the food chain, up to the health of walrus, for example. We’re focusing on international stories where a lot of work is being done – in Svalbard, America, Indonesia, Australia – though it is important not to point the finger at any particular country as this is an international issue. When we look at one river in particular, said to be one of the most polluted in the world, we can put that in context with the picture around the planet. We’ll be talking about the global scale impact of individual cities across the planet.
What challenges have you faced? Almost all of the researchers we’ve worked with were doing their fieldwork in summertime. It leaves little time to edit before our autumn broadcast. But it shows we’re absolutely at the cutting edge, with brand new and very fresh discoveries. We won’t be telling a story that feels samey or familiar.
Any positives? The main positives come from how ingenious the scientists are being, how quickly they are responding to the problem, and the solutions they come up with. I can’t talk about these as they’re largely unpublished, but the methods that we’ve filmed, the seemingly small things they are doing, will eventually make a difference on a big scale.
Why hasn’t the BBC shown films like this before? We’ve never shied away from putting environmental issues into programmes, but our audience’s appetite for them has grown exponentially in recent years. Our viewers are demanding it. On the BBC Plastics Watch webpages you’ll see clips by viewers showing how they are changing their own habits, with really personal stories. It’s been a long time coming but now people are willing to change their habits in small ways that could have a lasting impact on the health of our planet.