Blue Planet II Live in Concert is a combination of incredible scenes of our planet's natural wonders from the TV series with the soundtrack performed live by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra as Dr Riley Elliot narrates. April 9-10, Aotea Centre.
'My dad is Canadian and my mum a New Zealander. Growing up on the outskirts of Vancouver, when I was quite small, we were walking the dog when we ran into a black bear. We had to hide behind a fence, and I just thought it was so cool to see a bear. At around the same time, I also noticed bear pits, these big holes with spikes at the bottom. They are designed to kill bears that get too close to the city. I was shocked. Even as a 4-year-old, I knew it was wrong for humans to do something like that to an animal, when we were the ones pushing bears out of what had always been their domain. I was emotionally stumped, and it gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my gut.
'When I was 4 my family moved to Hamilton because that's where mum is from. I kept mice, rabbits, chickens, dogs, and my uncle had a dairy farm, so I spent a lot of time there. My parents saw I had an affinity with animals, a real gift. Animals didn't come to my brother and sister like that, so Mum and Dad bought me books about nature.
'At high school I took up surfing in Raglan and the Coromandel, and those experiences drove my fascination with the sea - you can't bob around on a board and not wonder what's going on underneath you. Then, aged 21, I went spearfishing for the first time and a whole new world opened up, and I started freediving and scuba diving. I went from being a passionate nature kid, to an outdoors man who loves surfing, diving and fishing.
'My fascination drove me to university, where I studied philosophy, geology, geography, zoology and ecology. I chose a plethora of things simply because they were interesting. Over time I narrowed it down to marine science, but never once did I ever ask myself, 'What can I do with this?' Some people might see that as naive, but I just wanted to enjoy my studies, then figure the rest out later.
'To a large extent, at university, people study what their supervisors study, or where there is funding. And in marine biology, especially in New Zealand, where we're so small, the bulk of our funding comes from the fishing industry, so people tend to study things that help the industry catch more fish, or grow things more quickly. There's very little money dedicated to finding stuff out just because it's interesting or important, instead the focus is on how do we spend money to make more money.
'Most of my peers in marine research were studying kina, snapper or mussels, while sharks were seen as a risky project, so I started with bottlenose dolphins because they were the biggest, coolest animal I could find. While studying, I was diving one day in Fiordland, and I saw a shark for the first time. I was so scared, I pressed the button on my BCD [buoyancy compensator device] and boosted up so fast. Then I realised it was just a one-foot school shark, and I cracked up, but I also felt ashamed of myself for having had such a crazy reaction. I'd never seen a shark in the wild before. Why was I so fearful? Jaws was my only lesson and that's a completely fictitious movie, and that's what set me on my path of studying sharks.
'I've had two incredible mentors. The first was my dad, who always told us: don't chase success or money. Instead, figure out your passion then work really hard to do that thing, because you'll need that passion to overcome hurdles. Then, once you've identified your passion, work as hard as you can to be the best you can be, and success will follow.
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'The other excellent piece of advice came from producer Mike Bhana, one of the original shark guys and the first person to put me on camera. He said, if you want to play in this industry, one way is to do crazy s*** and get a whole lot of Instagram followers really quickly. Although you won't be here in five years, either through a lack of credibility or you've lost an arm or worse. And the other way is to move slowly and progress so you're not just a dude who's swimming with sharks. Take time to choose your path, and build credibility. Figure out what you're standing for and ask, 'is the work you're doing making the world a better place?'
'Getting a PhD was the hardest thing I've ever done, not the actual science or the academic challenge, but because there was no support in New Zealand for what I do because we're often too small to study big things that don't generate money. And if you're funded by the fishing industry, you can't do anything to change it for the better, especially if that means catching less. But I managed to get my PhD without conventional funding. Instead, I took the public out to sea with me, in person or through media, to rally support for a nature kid who followed his passion.
'Science is often too slow to keep up with the rate we're ruining things. Jacinda Ardern has described this as our nuclear-free moment but nothing's changed yet. It's tough, I know, but surely the common good should trump everything. If she can't do it - and she is the most passionate, cool and powerful politician - who can? We think we have the best fisheries in the world, but we have a dinosaur system with a handful of big corporates exploiting our resources while we're losing whales and Hectors dolphins and destroying habitat. If someone was to drag a net through bush and catch kiwi and weka and chop bits off them, there'd be an outcry, but that's what's being done every single day in the ocean.
'The first thing I'd do is list all the things we agree on. Rivers need to be clean. Emissions need to be reduced. Fisheries need to be protected. I don't care how much each of those things makes, because we won't have any money to make if we keep heading in this direction. When do we reach the point where we save ourselves, by catching less, farming less and ruining less?
'I am passionate about this, and I don't have a filter that stops me from saying I think New Zealand sucks at ocean conservation. The whole 100% Pure New Zealand brand is such greenwash. We haven't protected 30 per cent of our waters as is scientifically recommended. Our fisheries are not sustainable. I read the documents, the scientific papers. Up until 2014, we were one of the biggest exporters of shark fins in the world, with up to 153,000 blue sharks killed each year, taken from our ecosystem, for shark finning, New Zealand banned finning in 2014 because people stood up for it, which shows the incredible scale of what can be achieved when people are empowered to push for change. The harsh reality is humans are selfish animals, which is why we are so successful. We put our own interests ahead of the collective. But we also have the ability to look forward, to predict, to plan and re-correct, to make the world a better place, so let's do it.
• Blue Planet II: Live in Concert For tickets and show times
• Instagram: @thelifeofrileynz