An ambitious BBC natural history series provides a definitive guide to the natural history of our oceans. FRANCES GRANT talks to the film maker who spent three years on and beneath the world's oceans.
English diver and film-maker Andy Byatt relinquished a great prize to give up three years of his life to work on the BBC's astonishing documentary series on the wonders of the ocean, The Blue Planet.
"I made the ultimate sacrifice because I was offered a job in New Zealand where I've always wanted to work," says the Scotsman, on the phone from his home in the English city of Bristol. "But after months of agonising I had to do it [The Blue Planet], I had to make a film about a habitat I truly loved."
Byatt and his team worked for three years to produce three of the series' eight episodes — Seasonal Seas, which concentrates on the temperate seas; Tidal Seas focusing on the effects of tidal movements on marine life; and Open Ocean, the most challenging for a camera crew figuring out the most likely place to film in the vastness of the water which covers seven-tenths of the Earth.
Byatt says there were times when even God did not seem to be on his side. Three weeks into a five-and-a-half-week shoot in the Azores, with nothing on record and a worried eye on his budget, Byatt succumbed to the pressure.
"I went outside and shouted at the sky, 'I don't know if there's anybody up there but if there is I'm trying to do something for the open ocean. I want people to see how spectacular it is and I can't do it — we could do with a spot of help'."
His prayer was answered with a mighty gale, which made further filming impossible. "Whatever I do now I'm not evoking help from the heavens, it doesn't go down well."
The natural history series, narrated by David Attenborough, features some spectacular footage of whales — one sequence shows a pod of orcas killing a grey whale calf after a six-hour battle to separate it from its mother — but Byatt and his crew were after something different from the giants of the deep.
After making two documentaries on whales, he wanted to film fish not often thought of as belonging to the great predators of the deep. "There are many other fantastic fish in the ocean. Marlin are so charismatic and beautiful, and tuna — the world's favourite sandwich filler is tuna. And I just wanted people to see it isn't a tin can out there, it's an amazing animal."
Byatt fell in love with marlin when he read a book on broadbill fishing by Zane Grey. And the fish have repaid him for his passion. "I spent one of my birthdays with a blue marlin. I spent five minutes by myself at the stern of the boat. There you are in this incredible blue world and there are big waves running and huge, 250kg fish. It doesn't really get much better than that."
Byatt was after scenes of the way marlin and tuna hunt shoals of small fish such as sardines which, when threatened, form giant, defensive balls swirling in the water.
The team targeted waters off New Zealand and Venezuela because the El Nino-La Nina weather pattern usually means all the fish action is on one side of the Pacific or the other. "One side or the other has got to be cooking. Sadly the year I filmed in New Zealand it was the other side which was really hot."
In the end Byatt reeled in his most sought-after footage off the coast of Mexico, where he captured a stunning sequence of marlin hurtling in on their prey. "Normally, sardines swim in open formation. Once they come under threat, they close up into a tight, packed ball, and swim in constant spiral. The effect is like a glinting mirrorball. When they are hit by the first marlin, the ball turns into a writhing spectre, imploding on itself. It's astonishing."
The sequence is capped by the appearance of a sei whale. "It just comes in and eats a whole school of sardine between 5m and half a metre from the lens."
Failure to capture the prized marlin sequence in our waters, however, was compensated by some other splendid visual hauls. Two sequences have become part of the tidal episode.
"We did several trips to the Poor Knights There's a fantastic sequence of stingrays gliding on the tide and resting in the arches of the Poor Knights.
"There's a little thing called the demoiselle fish which feeds when the tide's running. You get great swarms of these fish feeding away and the tide sweeps plankton past them. When the tide stops the whole lot just file off.
"It's like an army on the march. You get this great column of these beautiful little fish. They all swim together for safety, it's like a huge rope of fish or column marching back and hiding in the caves that dot the island.
Off White Island, the crew captured another feeding frenzy. "We got trevally, kingi, blue maumau and things like that mass feeding on plankton, just chomping on dense, pink swarms of plankton."
After three years filming for this sweeping natural history of the oceans, it was a little difficult to adjust to life on land, Byatt says. "I know I can't stay out of the sea, so it's just a matter of time before I get back."
Time to explore job opportunities in New Zealand perhaps. As it turns out there is a entire shoal of connections to this country. "I've got about 400 relations down there." •