The Perilous Reef, feature story // 7 June 2011
THE PERILOUS REEF
Three screens are flashing images of blueness at me. Blurred smudges of azure, navy, royal and aquamarine are punctuated by snatched glimpses of fins, smatters of pink, smears of bright yellow and the white fuzz of foaming water.
I’m in the BBC’s Far North Queensland editing suite near Cairns – a windowless, empty room besides the bank of computers ahead – and series producer James Brickell has sat watching the stream of moving images for a solid eight hours. Where my untrained eye sees montages of colour and watery action, James sees minutiae of the natural world: a coral polyp unfurling, a feather star feeding, a fish cleaning a shark.
The room – the antithesis to the material we’re watching – is not a far cry from those in James’ usual work environment, the tardis-like halls of the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol. From those Georgian buildings, he has worked on some of the most talked-about crowd pleasers in the NHU’s history, including Really Wild Show, Big Cat Diary and Wildlife on One and is quietly famous as the series director of hit children’s show, Deadly 60, and producer of Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood’s ‘Snakes’ episode. From rappelling into ‘hellish’ caves in Borneo and having his hand lacerated by piranhas in the Amazon, to confounding scientists by filming never-before-seen jumping snakes in Singapore and working with naturalist and ‘living icon’, David Attenborough, James has seen more than his fair share of the extraordinary.
The location, though, is what makes this project so special. Not far from here, beyond the lazily leaning palm trees, vinegar-stationed beaches and shark baits lies the Great Barrier Reef – the subject of the BBC team’s project and the single most challenging story James has ever been asked to declaim. Never before has a ‘blockbuster’, big budget, comprehensive series about the GBR been made and the story has never been riper for telling.
The rub – yes, even in paradise, there is a rub – hinges upon logistics and the all-pervading infectious air of concern from scientists and those who know the reef best: the Great Barrier Reef lies precariously on a knife-edge, teetering between survival and irreversible destruction.
A national icon, a World Heritage area, an internationally renowned tourism honeypot and a ‘natural wonder of the world’ – no wonder the GBR, the world’s largest reef, is held so close the hearts of so many Australians.
“Everyone feels ownership of the reef. It’s an object with a personality – albeit a very big object with a very big personality. Everyone I’ve met, from dive operators to marine biologists to tourists want us to do really well. I feel a huge responsibility to tell the truth about what is happening to the reef – that weight of responsibility to those people is a new thing for me” James tells me. “I want to show the reef at its best so the world can see it’s most dramatic, beautiful, violent, awe-inspiring best.”
Easier said than done.
At nearly £1 million per episode funded by the BBC, Channel Nine and the Discovery channel, the three-part Great Barrier Reef series’ production is a global affair. 19 natural history and production experts, all leaders in their fields, come from five different countries and Brickell and his family have been plucked from England’s West Country and posted to Far North Queensland for a full year.
No stranger to capturing the raw, chaotic beauty of nature on film at the behest of the elements, filming the GBR has been an eye-opening experience for James’ team.
“When you make a wildlife film you’re trying to control as many elements as you can” he says. “You can do your best research but ultimately you can’t control animals and you can’t control weather. In the sea, you’re dealing with light, tides, lunar activity, weather, swell, currents, underwater equipment, access, restrictions, park authorities, seasons”, and, let’s not forget, the wettest Queensland spring on record. “Just to get a cameraman into clear water in good light with minimal currents, no waves and with the animal behaving well – that is very, very rare. Most of what I do is a compromise. The camera breaks, the light changes, the animal won’t cooperate, the swell changes. There are many, many more ways a shoot can go wrong than go right.”
The technological wizardry alone is bigger, better and more unique than anything that has gone before. Whole pieces of submersible kit have been invented to allow the team to reach as far as possible beyond the usual horizons of ocean cinematography.
Richard Fitzpatrick, marine biologist, principal underwater cameraman and the team’s resident shark expert – or as James put it, “basically a walking encyclopaedia of the GBR” – has built an underwater ultra-high speed camera that, as a world first, allows the team to record, store and review footage underwater.
A Cineflex camera – unusual in natural history filming, but at home in Hollywood – has been hired, according to James, at “crippling, eye-watering expense” and means that the team can document the whole reef from the air, capturing ever-elusive natural shots of animal behaviour.
Dealing with tiny depths of field is part and parcel of the rigours of natural history filming. An almost imperceptible 1mm movement of an immensely rare tropical sea dragon, for example, throws footage of the delicate creature entirely out of focus. In the end, it took 120 minutes of footage to produce what will eventually form a 1-minute clip in the film. The feeding sequence the team sought took just three frames of a 600-frames-per-second-clip.
Using specially-adapted remote cameras, it took two weeks to capture a usable shot of a dwarf Minky whale (incidentally thought to be the only whales to seek human contact) swimming next to the reef. The cameras, attached to rocks, recorded more than 100 hours of footage and yielded just five seconds of action.
“Painstaking, involved and without instant satisfaction,” James says the specialist time-lapse photography of the reef has, thankfully, allowed the team to show coral as a metropolis, a cityscape through which fish travel on ‘super highways’.
“To be able to visualise the life of coral in a way that’s never been seen before and using all the technologies we have available is truly astounding.” James tells me. “The reef is like a city in every way – all the bizarre creatures that have different functions on the reef. There are cleaners, builders, gardeners, demolition experts and a vast range of hunters – every creature has a different job and a different niche in which to survive. You get these weird marriages of convenience where two or three animals live in a partnership in which both a key to the success of the partnership.”
Coral itself could not survive without the symbiotic relationship it has with zooxanthellae algae. Rising levels of seawater acidification and sea temperatures can destroy this relationship and the coral bleaches, or dies, without the algae.
“Our experiments have ranged from utter disasters to absolutely stunning footage” James admits. The team has filmed, for the first time, a gall crab’s bluffing survival tactics. They’ve seen Christmas tree worms unfurling and crabs with anemones attached to their claws.
“The reef has a Jekyl and Hyde personality. It changes at night, sounds and sights alter and the whole cast of characters changes completely. It’s a beautiful city with a dark underbelly. I think it’s a miracle that any fish survives 24 hours on the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, they do survive because they all seem to know their place.”
Something, perhaps, we, as custodians of the reef, could learn from. It’s no secret that the GBR – almost flush with sugar cane plantations, sitting in slowly acidifying water, at the mercy of climate change, commercially fished and on the pathway of liners from SE Asia – is under threat. Indeed, renowned reef expert, Dr. Charlie Veron, maintains that coral reefs will be a thing of the past in just 50 years’ time.
James’ children have swum with lemon sharks, scrambled through dense rainforest and played with stag beetles the size of limes during their humid Australian break from Bristol. By the time the reef is expected to perish, they and their peers at the local infant school, where outings to the beach are the norm, won’t have yet turned 60 years old.
It’s clear that the GBR’s loss – and the hole it would leave in its wake – is too much for most to accept. The series, due to air in 2012, is hoped to educate as much as inspire. No mean feat. Still, Brickell shrugs and smiles, “It’s business for me.”
He shows me a freshly edited promotional clip, bursting with the perilous beauty of the reef. It speaks volumes. The production taking shape in this quiet BBC outpost is both a call to arms and a salutary lesson: all this, one day, could be but a film.
Words, Daisy Dumas; images, courtesy of and many thanks to James Brickell at the BBC.