BBC’s award-winning nature documentary series The Blue Planet first premiered in 2001, taking the world by storm with its never seen before ocean footage of sea life behavior. If you’ve seen an episode of its successor, Blue Planet II (which premiered in late 2017), it almost feels like you’re in a dream-like sequence – a cross between James Cameron’s enchanting fantasy world in Avatar and the terrifying lost space Ridley Scott’s Alien; paired with Radiohead and Hans Zimmer’s bleakly haunting collaborative music score, nature’s deep sea creations are so fascinatingly freakish it borders on fiction.
We speak to Orla Doherty, producer of two episodes of Blue Planet II (The Deep and Our Blue Planet) as she regales her otherworldly experience of discovering methane volcanoes, splitting her home between Bristol and the Pacific Ocean, and being part of the first group of humans to land on a 1000m deep sea floor in Antarctica.
What were the most memorable events or highlights throughout your work in the ocean?
When you are out at sea getting caught in big storms, they tend to stick in your memory quite strongly, and always remind you of the power of the oceans and the sheer scale of it. In the filming of Blue Planet II I’ve had many unbelievable moments: one of it was landing on the deep sea floor 1000 metres deep in Antarctica. No human had ever done that before. We had two submersibles which took us two years to plan and to get the logistics in place. It was the most complicated expedition we ran on the series. It wasn’t just the accomplishment of the moment, it was the natural wonder that we were faced with when we got there. There’s more animal life in the deep ocean than anywhere on earth. It is our largest and most important habitat, and I had the opportunity to explore tiny parts of it.
In The Deep, your team discovered a methane volcano on the ocean floor. What was that like?
That’s my favourite sequence because that was so surprising and so unexpected. Maybe no one will be back down there again and see anything like it with their own eyes, and that makes me very glad that we were there with our cameras to capture it all in incredible detail. To me, it was so magical and beautiful and otherworldly. It’s like being on another planet, but actually here we were in the deep ocean on planet earth. That was an extraordinary day of filming.
There is a lot of methane in the deep ocean, and a lot of our carbon has been absorbed and stored in millions and millions of years. When the temperature change is big enough, it affects frozen methane hydrates and releases a lot of methane in the atmosphere. Not very much is known about it, and it is hard to get data in the deep. But when I was surrounded by methane bubbles erupting, it was a very otherworldly but sobering experience.
What is your favourite deep sea creature you've come across?
One of my favourite animals we worked with was up in the fjords of Norway. I was up there filming for the final episode, Our Blue Planet, and Jonathan [Smith] and his team was filming for One Ocean, the first episode. We were filming in a location where the herring get trapped in the fjords and that brings us a giant flock of killer whales, orcas and humpback whales. It was just a magical world to be in, beautiful, very cold, fjords of Norway where you get very little daylight. We were out there everyday scanning for these whales. I’ve seen an awful lot of whales, but it was something about this setting, this richness of the ocean there right in front of our eyes – all these fish, all these life, all these giant animals coming in to feed on it. It was a very, very powerful place to be.
What challenges did you face when working on the series?
We were at the mercy of the weather and conditions. We had technical challenges, because we’re always trying to push the boundaries of technology and work with technology that was ground-breaking, new, or even create our own technology to capture stories the way we want to.
There are more humans who have walked on the moon compared to walking on the ocean floor. With 21st century technology, how likely will the latter top the former?
Well, it’s extremely difficult. 12 people have been on the moon, and three people have been to the bottom of the sea. That’s a depth of nearly 11 kilometres. And that’s because it’s extremely difficult technologically. There are some extraordinary engineers working on that technology, but it’s so hard that I don’t know when we’ll ever get that balance back. And that just really illustrates how hard it is to film and work in the deep ocean.