14 million people in the UK tuned in to watch Blue Planet II on the 29th October 2017 – the largest TV audience of the year and a record-breaking viewership for any nature show. In attracting such a large audience, Blue Planet II has engaged an island nation with its greatest asset – the ocean.
Keywords: ocean conservation, nature documentary, Blue Planet II, public engagement
On the 29th October, 14 million people tuned in to watch a sun-kissed Sir David Attenborough welcome us all to a new world beneath the surface of the seas. The 91-year-old national treasure stood stable, facing the camera, his boat bobbing along a great expanse of ocean. “The oceans,” he proclaims, “invoke in us a sense of awe and wonder and also sometimes fear.” With the enthusiasm of a great explorer, he promises us the discovery of new underwater frontiers, and with revolutionary technology (see figure 2), the ability to uncover creatures and behaviours far beyond what could have been imagined just one generation ago.
Alongside these discoveries Attenborough unveils the ‘uncomfortable fact’ that the health of our oceans is at risk. There has never been a more crucial time to reveal what is going on beneath the waves. With so many people tuning in on a Sunday night, Blue Planet II was the perfect platform to propel ocean conservation into the mainstream.
Blue Planet II follows some 16 years after the original record-breaking documentary, Blue Planet. A lot has happened since 2001, and our oceans are changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history. The water is warming, the oceans are becoming more acidic and we’ve been using our seas as a dumping ground for anything from abandoned fishing gear to radioactive waste. The United Nations estimate that 80% of the world’s fish stocks are exploited or overexploited and we’ve lost nearly 90% of our largest fish. The oceans are inundated with 8 million tonnes of plastic every year, killing 1 million seabirds annually and having knock-on effects all down the food-chain. The BP oil spill in 2010 pumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the water and the Great Barrier Reef was declared ‘terminally ill’ just last year. The number of dead zones – areas of ocean starved of all oxygen – have quadrupled since 1950, a result of algal blooms and warming waters. In short, the oceans are in deep trouble. So will Blue Planet II be a life-ring for ocean conservation?
From films like A Plastic Ocean to Chasing Coral, Blue Planet II is just the latest saga in a long line of ocean documentaries. The general public have been flooded with information about the state of our seas in recent years, but never before has a nature documentary attracted such a large audience. Its success is in the story. Filming off every continent, Blue Planet II is a masterpiece in storytelling. Phenomenal photography, a suspenseful score and Attenborough’s careful narration combine to create edge-of-the-seat drama. The BBC have showcased our oceans as never before. Engaging with people on such a large scale, Blue Planet II could be the catalyst for everyday action on ocean conservation.
But not everyone agrees. Some critics argue that by celebrating all this wonder of the underwater world, the BBC is downplaying the real-world threats facing our oceans. However, many would counter-argue that the first step in engaging with conservation is an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world. Next comes the will to protect it. The BBC has been careful to ensure every episode shines a light on some of the greatest threats facing ocean inhabitants and even dedicated its entire finale to the subject. And beyond the television series, the BBC launched #OurBluePlanet, an online platform to get people talking about the ocean. Spearheading the conversation is Sir David Attenborough himself, who called on the world to take action against ocean plastics.
With all this talk comes action: nurseries have banned glitter, UK County Cornwall are gearing up to be the first county to ban plastic straws and UK politicians have since called for evidence on whether a tax on the most environmentally damaging single-use plastics could help turn the tide on plastic pollution. Theresa May, in the first major environment speech by a Prime Minister in 15 years, directly mentioned the public’s reaction to Blue Planet II when launching the UK’s 25-year environment plan.
The 25-year plan includes a pledge to end “all avoidable plastic waste” by 2042 and hints at the prospect of plastic free aisles in supermarkets – an initiative petitioned for by grassroots organisation A Plastic Planet. Plastics campaigners have been keen to ride the wave of public attention garnered by Blue Planet II. Indeed, a petition by UK campaign group Final Straw to introduce a 5p charge on single-use plastic straws has gained thousands of signatures since the first episode of Blue Planet II screened.
The documentary series was launched in a momentous year for the oceans. At ocean conferences, such as OurOcean 2017, pledges were made by corporations and countries to address ocean issues. In late 2017, UNESCO launched its proposal to make 2021-2030 the ‘International Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’. The UN also announced the creation of an international “Treaty for the High Seas”, the first agreement of its kind to protect areas of ocean outside of national jurisdictions. While many of these pledges were in the pipeline long before Blue Planet II aired, the accessibility of this documentary has tapped into the public and gained their support – crucial for successful conservation.
The series’ legacy was officially recognised at the National Television Awards in January 2018, where the Blue Planet II team were awarded the ‘Impact Award’. In his acceptance speech, Sir David Attenborough said, “If our television programmes have helped stirred the consciences of people around the world – and that we are going to do something to protect this beautiful world – then all of us will be very pleased.”
The impact that Blue Planet II has had to open the dialogue on our oceans has been unprecedented. Perhaps never before has a television series had such a profound and direct effect on people and policy. The challenge now will be to harness this public energy and maintain public attention long enough for it to invoke meaningful action. Blue Planet II has facilitated a wave of change for our oceans. When it comes to ocean conservation, it’s time to seas the day.
Kat Machin is studying MSc. Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. She also leads the plastics awareness campaign Final Straw UK, calling on individuals, businesses and the government to take action on plastic pollution. Follow her on Twitter: @katmachin