Big Blue Live

So this is when I am at my happiest.
I haven’t got a fetish for rhinos – I have been into animals for as long as I can remember these Northern White Rhinos – and this is a rather poignant photo – As those are last three NWR left on this planet.
I’ve been making wildlife films for over 20 years and I thought that the best thing about being a wildlife film-maker would be seeing exciting animals like this all over the world.
This time last year I was in Monterey on the trail of one of the most exciting animals on the planet, but instead of feeling just happy….I was worried…in fact I was a little scared.
You see I had just been put in charge of probably the most ambitious project the BBC Natural History Unit had ever undertaken
It was a television series called Big Blue Live – this was a joint project between the BBC and PBS. It was series of 3 live tv shows for the BBC in the UK, and here in the US, 6 live TV shows for PBS
The main selling point of this series – indeed what we had promised the heads of programming BBC and PBS – was that we would broadcast a blue whale on LIVE TV – something that had never been attempted before let alone succeeded.
There are lots of very good reasons why this had never been attempted before
First off for there is a huge difference between live tv and pre-recorded tv
Almost all of the wildlife shows that you watch are pre-recorded
Animals do not follow a script, nor do they act on cue.
An hour long show involves 100 or even 200 days of filming
On a live show, you have one single hour…..
Second reason is that Blue whales are really hard to find
Ok, so they are the largest animal on the planet, but that’s a pretty big ocean out there.
Monterey bay is one of the best places in the world to see blue whales, but try asking any of the whale watching companies and they will tell you that July & August are good ….. in some years – but you gotta get lucky,
Third reason is that blue whales spend 85% of their lives underwater and out of sight. They dive for over 15 minutes at a time, and then come to the surface only to catch their breath for a couple of minutes before diving again.
And yet here I was, having been put in charge of a project, that had promised we would film a blue whale live between the hours of 11 and 12 oclock on the 30th August 2015, which is when we were due to go broadcast to the UK…..
Oh, and top it all, I was being told repeatedly that the BBC commissioners and folks at PBS were more excited about big blue live, than any other programme on coming up in the whole of that year…..
So why on earth were we attempting this, why was I putting myself under such pressure.
Because the story that we were trying to tell was so important.
See Blue Whales were just one part of the greatest conservation success story on the planet
Not so long ago Monterey Bay was in a very bad way
Monterey used to be the largest fishing industry in the world. Cannery Row was named after the factories that processed half a million kg of sardines every day.
But by the 1960s this fishery had collapsed – when I was born – Monterey Bay was dead, the entire ecosystem was devoid of life
California sea lions had been hunted to less than 1200 animals
ELEPHANT SEALS hunted for their blubber. Had been declared extinct in 1885
SEA OTTERs Officially the worlds furriest animal. hunted for their fur had been declared extinct by 1900.
there were only 1,200 Humpbacks left in the whole of N Pacific.
And Across the world, the Blue Whale population had been hunted from a third of a million animals to just 1,000.
But what is extraordinary is what happened right here in Monterey
It started just offshore of what is now Stanford University Hopkins Marine Labs.
In 1931, a lady called Julia Platt, got a few rocks, and 11 acres of seabed protected. That may not seem like much. But this was the world’s first marine reserve. And It was a start of one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
It turns out that a few elephant seals had survived after all, and by 1975 the first returning ele seal pup was born at the north end of Monterey bay at Ano Nuevo. last year more than 200,000 bred in California.
1936 a small group of 50 sea otters was discovered just south of here and immediately protected. In 1959, the first sea otter returned to Monterey Bay. Now there are nearly 3000 of them.
And there are over a quarter of a million California sea lions.
On Oct 20th 1984 – one of the largest canneries on cannery row opened its doors once more – this time as the Monterey bay aquarium – dedicated to inspire conservation of our oceans.
1992 NOAA created the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary – one of largest marine protected areas in the world.
Today there are 20,000 Humpbacks in the north pacific,.
and some 2000 blue whales in California alone.
And what’s more they are all returning to Monterey Bay in record numbers, and the ecosystem has recovered beyond anyone’s expectations.
The story of Monterey Bay should be an inspiration to the rest of the world.
what better, more dramatic way to show just how well all these animals are doing, than to show a blue whale on live TV.
I understood why…., but last February, here in Monterey, I was wondering HOW on earth we were going to do this….
One things was for certain, I wasn’t going to do it on my own….
I needed help….And when I came here, this time last year I found it….
We reached out to Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their mission to inspire conservation of the oceans was so closely aligned to our story that we formed an incredible partnership together
The aquarium became our base and studio.
we were able to plug in to an incredible network of contacts and help that proved invaluable time and time again
It was where we set up our operation centre. This is the scanner truck. This is where all the live feeds come in from all across the bay..
We were given office space. We became colleagues, co-workers and friends. People from BBC, PBS, Aquarium all sat next to each other. Walking in You would be hard pushed to work out who worked for who. Problems became joint challenges.
Our other key collaborators was NOAA. Their mission is to understand and protect the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is also very closely aligned to our story. We were given extraordinary levels of assistance.
We were allowed to use this wonderful research vessel, the fulmar, and her wonderful crew.
for me the real demonstration of this relationship was when we attempted to broadcast live from underwater at Lobos rocks.
These rocks are a haul out site for sea lions. Below the waves is some of the best kelp forest.
but on the day of the broadcast,. I got a phonecall from my producer on board early morning, a few hours before we were due to go live. conditions were not good
While trying to get the boat in to position, they had snapped not one, but two anchor chains.
Now any crew on any other boat I have been on, may have shrugged their shoulders and said, well we tried. But this NOAA crew would not give up, and were determined to make this work. They not only retrieved and repaired the anchors, but they managed to get the boat secured.
Now before I show you the clip, I want to explain the technical challenges of getting a signal from here. The signal with sound and vision is going by line to the surface and to a small RIB boat. Its then being transmitted wirelessly to the Fulmar, then bounced to a satellite truck that is parked over a kilometre away on the mainland. The signal is then being sent via satellite to our hub at the aquarium.
That’s quite a lot of room for technical faults. Indeed we did have one failure which was the comms. The host Steve Backshall was unable to hear the studio, so he had to be cued by banging a wrench on the hull of the boat above.
It was a challenge enough to get sea lions, they at least are there all the time.
During the first two shows we also managed to film Great White Sharks and Humpbacks all live and all the excitement that brings.
But where was our Blue Whale?
There had been no sightings of any blue whale for 10 days
It seemed fanciful that the script read cut to Live Blue whale TBC (to be confirmed)
Then in the late afternoon, we did get a report from the coast, of a possible blue whale tentatively identified from a much larger water spout seen some distance away.
It was a long shot, and it was a long way away,
We hastily arranged a satellite truck for the next day, managed to arrange permission at the last minute to park satellite truck in front of Monterey peninsular golf course which was the nearest point on land to the whale sighting
And Nancy Black from Monterey bay whale Watching offered to go down there first light to look for the whale.
The following day we eagerly awaited news, but nothing. There were no sightings during rehearsals, and no sightings as we started our third and final UK show. We were all disappointed.
Then – and you couldn’t make this up. 15 minutes in to the show we get a text from Nancy and she has found the blue whale. In the middle of the show, we get our helicopter to leave the humpback whales he was filming at moss landing, and head over 20 miles to where Nancy was.
The problem we now have is not only a race against time – Blue whales are only at the surface every 15 minutes – but Gareth our engineering manager has looked at the coordinates, and the whales location is right on the very limit of being able to get a signal from the helicopter to the satellite truck.
For all the advanced technology we were using, this part of the chain relied on a person, called Gregg Sheer from 3G communications, back at the golf course pointing a receiver in the direction of a helicopter he can’t see.
When it finally came through, it was in the middle of an interview with Dorris Welsh from Sanctuary Whale Cruises, and as you will see her 15 minutes of fame were somewhat cut short
This was steve’s face the moment the cameras left him!
Big blue live was watched by over 10 million people on TV in the UK.
on PBS it was the most talked about factual programme online.
Combined, That clip from the blue whale and others reached 1.9 billion people
That’s a lot of people who now know about the inspirational story of Monterey bay and the importance of ocean conservation.
What about me, well do you know this is as close as I ever got to a blue whale – this was image that popped up on the screen in front of me in the truck. I have never seen one in the flesh
But the more I do this job, the more I realise that there is something about this job I enjoy even more than seeing with wildlife –
and that is the priviledge of collaborating with people especially outside the production team – I’m talking about scientists, researchers and people form all walks of life who help us make our films.
Mike, Thank you for inviting to come back to Monterey bay
Because I really want to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to the community of Monterey bay, to MBA, to NOAA, to everyone who helped us here and in the wider California community.
It was the most remarkable team I have ever worked with
If there is anything I can leave you with it would be this
Be as brave, be as bold, be as daring as you possibly can be. And then go and find the people who are as passionate about the subject as you are, and they may just help you turn your fanciful dreams into reality