Blue Planet II review: the ocean as you've never seen it before

Bird-eating fish, surfing dolphins, rafts of sea otters … there are some extraordinary things going on under the sea, as David Attenborough’s brilliant new series reveals

A man stands at the front of a ship, looking out. DiCaprio? Soon to be joined by Winslet? And Dion: Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you …

Thankfully not, though this will be going the same way – deep down there. This man is older (91) and wiser. He is David Attenborough, of course, and this is Blue Planet II (BBC1). The sequel, 16 years on from the original, now technology has made it possible to go down further, get closer, see clearer, see for the first time whole new worlds. And as the oceans are changing faster than ever before, never has it been more important to understand what’s going in them. It has been more than four years in the making, 125 expeditions, 39 countries, 6,000 hours diving underwater. So spit on your TV screen, rub with a squeaky finger to prevent fogging up, rinse and let’s go …

To South Africa, where bottlenose dolphins surf huge waves just for the hell of it, it seems. Extraordinary footage (filmed by daredevil surf cameramen in inflatable boats, we learn in the diary bit at the end), though I’ve never much cared for dolphins. Predatory, clicky sex pests; their intelligence only makes them more sinister.

They are not the only brainiacs of the sea. On the Great Barrier Reef, a tuskfish smashes a clam that has clammed up against a particular coral, the same one it uses every day. Yeah, a fish using a tool! Remember when we used to make jokes about goldfish and their three-second memories? Well, no one’s making those jokes any more. A bit like Skodas in that respect.

And check these ones out, giant trevallies in the lagoon of an Indian Ocean atoll. They want bird for tea, young tern, snatched from the surface of the water from below. To a tern, a trevally is like a great white shark – just when they thought it was safe … They’re not even safe when they finally get a bit better at flying. The trevally sees it flying above the surface from below, calculates airspeed, altitude and trajectory, probably does a “your tern, no my tern” gag with its mate. Then it launches itself from the sea like a surface-to-air missile and grabs the poor bird mid-air. Like the very opposite of gannets plummeting into the sea to grab startled sardines; maybe these trevallies have seen that footage on previous Attenborough docs, and it gave them the idea. Revenge!

That’s the one, isn’t it, the OMG did-you-see-that racer-snake moment. The best is the one that just misses, the tern somehow snatches life from the jaws of death, is nudged a little higher on to the breeze and just out of reach of the big fish, which very quickly goes from looking pretty awesome to frankly ridiculous as it bellyflops ignominiously back into the lagoon. The usual moan about the music: too much of it, too in-my-face (Hans Zimmer’s score goes into full ballistic Battle of Britain mode). Otherwise, wow.

A walrus mother and calf resting on an iceberg in Svalbard, Norway.
A walrus mother and calf resting on an iceberg in Svalbard, Norway. Photograph: Rachel Butler/BBC NHU 2017

Here’s a sea dragon, a creature surely designed by Dr Seuss. And what looks like an anus that is constantly being fed by its own 10 leafy legs? A sea cucumber, you say, Sir David? Well, I’ve never seen a cucumber that looks anything like that; I’m calling it a cabbage-legged sea arsehole. Bottom feeder, naturally.

And what’s going on here, in the waters off Japan? A big male wrasse called a kobudai, an ugly brute with a big bump on its head, is ha-wrassing a lady wrasse. She’s having none of it, though. And, how about this for a twist, now she’s a he – a trans fish.

To colder waters, where orcas are whacking swarms of herrings with their tails, and sea otters are making themselves into furry rafts of cuteness for their babies, and a mummy walrus – goo goo g’ joob – is looking for an ice floe for her calf to rest up on …

Hang on a second, how did we get here from the wave-riding dolphins and the surface-to-air trevallies? Erm, by sea, that’s how. And that’s it, I think, the only story of this first episode: that there are some extraordinary and brilliant things going on down there, and here it is as you’ve never seen it before. That’s good enough for me. Now say “wow” and “oh em gee” and “did you see” at work and school.

Oh, plus the message that we’re messing it all up, of course, destroying it. Why can’t Mrs Walrus find an ice floe? Because we’ve melted them all. And while that might have been good news for Leo and Kate on a certain ship, for everyone and everything else it’s very, very bad.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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