At the age of 92 Sir David Attenborough finds himself an Emmy nominee, in the category of Outstanding Narrator. But he’s not the oldest contender in the field. That honor falls to 96-year-old Carl Reiner, recognized for his work on the documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.
Attenborough’s nomination—the fourth of his career—comes for his narratorial efforts on the BBC America documentary series Blue Planet II, a vibrant exploration of the abundant life teeming throughout the world’s oceans.
“The man is everything that you would expect, or hope, and even more,” raves Jonathan Smith, producer of two of the Blue Planet episodes. “And not only can he deliver the narration so wonderfully, but his inherent knowledge of natural history is just extraordinary. I think that really shines through.”
What also shines through in Blue Planet II is the extraordinary lengths the filmmakers went to capture aquatic animals below and above the surface of the seas.
“Over four years in production, the Blue Planet II teams mounted 125 expeditions, visited 39 countries, and filmed on every continent and across every ocean,” BBC America boasts. Smith adds, “We spent over 6,000 hours underwater, of which 1,000 hours were in the deep sea…One of my favorite [statistics] is that we’ve apparently accumulated over a million feet of diving depth through the series.”
Blue Planet II is a sequel to the original series which came out in 2001. In that interim technology has advanced so fast it allowed cinematographers to record unprecedented footage. Smith cites the example of bioluminescent plankton.
“These tiny plankton emit a very vivid light, a light that we can see with our eye, but we’ve never really been able to capture on camera before,” he explains. “And it was only in our last year of filming that a camera came out that we thought may just be able to do it. And sure enough we managed to capture what, for me, is one the most beautiful underwater ballet and light shows that I’ve ever seen.”
Among the other exceptional creatures who populate the series are leaping blennies—a type of fish that feel safer on land than in water; giant trevally fish that “fly out of the water to snatch seabirds in mid-air,” and the kobudai fish that can transform from female to male.
Smith likewise marvels over the tuskfish that will snare a clam and repeatedly bash it against a coral anvil to break it open.
“It’s a fish using tools,” Smith exclaims. “It’s unprecedented.”
Whales, dolphins, orcas and other marine mammals also swim through Blue Planet II. There is touching footage of walrus mothers in the Arctic desperately trying to protect their young by huddling with them on stray chunks of ice.
“What they have are those iconic whiskers on their face, and that’s how they feel and they’re very tactile, those whiskers. And so when the mum would get her pup onto the ice the first thing she’d do, to us, it looks like kissing it,” Smith explains. “She’s imprinting herself on it as she is calming it and honestly that was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in nature.”
Blue Planet II is competing for five Emmys overall, including two for cinematography and one in the category of Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. Some of the episodes touch on threats to marine life, like the huge amount of plastic dumped into the water, and coral bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures.
“We witnessed the biggest coral bleaching event that the Great Barrier Reef has ever seen, and certainly in the history of humanity,” Smith notes. “We put down time-lapse cameras to capture the bleaching as it occurred in front of us over a two-week period.”
Smith admits witnessing the threat to oceans “can be very saddening, and certainly the more aware you become of the massive array of challenges that are facing our oceans and its wildlife, it can be disheartening at times.”
Despite that, the producer remains positive about the future, in part because of what Blue Planet II has done to make people aware of the magnificent beauty of the oceans and its life forms.
“I don’t think it’s too late [for the oceans] on so many levels,” he states, adding that the series has kickstarted a global conversation about the fate of this natural habitat. “To know that people are having the conversation and starting to increasingly take heed, for me that just gives me optimism.”