Our most valuable ally
“It is literally the challenge of our generation.”
Having previously produced The Blue Planet (2001), Planet Earth (2006) and Frozen Planet (2011-2012), renowned wildlife documentary producer Alastair Fothergill’s new groundbreaking project went live on Netflix in 2019. In collaboration with the WWF, Our Planet was met with critical acclaim. Produced by Silverback Films, which Alastair co-founded in 2012 with Keith Scholey, the documentary took more than 600 crew members to create over four years of filming in 50 different countries. We spoke to Alastair about the importance of balancing a sense of urgency with hope and inspiration when creating a nature documentary during the climate crisis.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): What inspired you to go into documentary filmmaking?
Alastair Fothergill (AF): From when I was very little I had an absolute passion for nature. I grew up on the north Norfolk coast and I loved birdwatching. I had a fantastic teacher at school who further inspired that passion. While I was at Durham University studying zoology, the BBC and the Royal Geographical Society were running a competition called the Mick Burke Award. I entered and a group of us went off to make a film about our expedition from the top to the bottom of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. I was lucky enough to be taken on as a researcher for the BBC after university and worked there for almost 30 years.
OM: One of the earlier series you worked on was Reefwatch in 1988. Have you returned to any of the reefs you filmed for that show?
AF: Not specifically – after Reefwatch, which was in the Red Sea, the BBC was considering doing a similar broadcast from the Great Barrier Reef. I did an amazing two week recce and we basically dived almost the whole length of the reef. I haven’t been back but I know that great areas of that reef have now bleached. I almost don’t want to go back, I know it would be really heart wrenching to see that.
OM: The first series of your own that you produced was called Life in the Freezer, which came out in 1993. Was climate change on the agenda then?
AF: It was only just beginning to be talked about in the early 1990s. By the time we made Frozen Planet (2011), which was about both the Arctic and the Antarctic, it was so prevalent in the public conversation that we persuaded the BBC to do a special episode, a seventh episode that dealt with climate change and the effects of global warming in the polar regions. But it’s just gathered speed, and it’s fantastic that it has, because clearly it is the issue of our age. Everything is almost irrelevant compared with the potential seriousness of climate change.
OM: What has been your personal experience of witnessing climate change at the poles?
AF: Obviously global warming is being felt more acutely in the poles than anywhere else on the planet. I have seen it. For example, I’ve seen how the glaciers on South Georgia have retreated up the mountain. We went to a glacier where Frank Hurley took pictures with Earnest Shackleton on their expedition (1914-1916) and positioned David (Attenborough) in front of that same glacier to compare, and you could clearly see that the glacier had retreated up the mountain. If you go down to the Antarctic Peninsula, traditionally there were very few gentoo penguins. They are not particularly ice adapted, but now they are taking over and becoming more common in South Georgia and the Falklands. By contrast, the ice-adapted Adélie penguin has almost disappeared, so that’s a clear example of changes there.
As for the Arctic, I’ve been going to Svalbard for many years – I first went in 1990 and I’ve been back a lot, and the ice conditions in Svalbard have transformed. Over time, you see that evidence. Filming it is a challenge because these are things that have occurred over decades, and you can’t film decades. We went to the Store Glacier in Greenland because it is a very dramatic and visual example of moving ice. It happens also to be the fastest carving glacier on our planet. It’s moving forward up to five metres a day and the Greenland ice shelf is the second biggest ice shelf on our planet after Antarctica, and there are a lot of scientists who are very fearful of what is going on there. When water on glaciers melts it trickles down beneath the bottom of the ice and lubricates it, which is one of the reasons why the glaciers are moving and carving faster. If a lot of the Greenland ice shelf were to go off into the ocean – that would raise sea levels that would flood New York. So that is a serious concern, which is why we went to the Store Glacier.
When we heard what was happening with the walrus in the north east Pacific coast of Russia, it was very clear that we needed to go there. Those mass haul outs of walruses were not happening 10-20 years ago. It’s extraordinary to see 90% of the population of one species, 110,000 walrus hauling out to one beach, walrus that don’t want to ever really come to land. They live on the ice, sleep on the ice, dive from the ice for food. Where we filmed in northeastern Russia, they had no choice but to go to land because their feeding grounds were off that beach. Normally they’d be using ice to get to their feeding grounds, so they had to come to these beaches. That was very dramatic evidence of global warming.
OM: What projects have you come across during filming that give optimism?
AF: The recovery of the humpback whale populations since they gained protected status (commercial whaling was banned in 1986) is obviously fantastic, which is why we featured it. Another one is the increase in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). We showed one in the series, where people have agreed to stop fishing locally and within four or five years the fishermen are catching more fish just outside of the MPA than they did within it. That’s a great source of optimism because if we could get that up to 30% of the ocean protected, it could seriously start to bounce back. The main thing that gives us hope is the resilience of nature. To film hundreds of humpbacks feeding together was very inspirational. One has to get out of bed in the morning. You have to be inspired. I think that nature is the hope. Without it we’re lost but with it we have a very powerful ally.
OM: What are your thoughts on current UK MPA management?
AF: I’m really pleased that the UK has taken quite a strong lead on this, and I would really like to see a larger MPA around Antarctica. CCAMLR, the organisation that manages Antarctic waters, very nearly got a massive new extension to the one that is already there, but it was blocked. Of course, we can always do more, I think we could do more off the UK, but we’ve done quite well. I think we can be proud of what we’ve done, around South Georgia, around islands in the Indian Ocean.
OM: Have you witnessed examples of why we should look to nature for our solutions?
AF: Any cyclical natural system is inspirational. Human society is unbelievably wasteful, and nature just doesn’t do waste. The story we told with the humpback whales, for example. The amazing way that the humpback dives deep and so brings nutrients up to the surface. One of the problems the tropical oceans has is that they don’t have a lot of nutrients because there’s no rough seas to bring it up. What is bringing nutrients up to the surface to fertilise the whole process of phytoplankton and the fixing of carbon dioxide? Well it’s whales and the big fish that dive deep. Then their excrement feeds the plankton that feeds the krill that feeds the whales. You could look at almost any functioning natural system and think: “well, if we could run our economies like this, we would be far better off.”
OM: What are your thoughts on the climate change conversations taking place in politics at the moment?
AF: They’re critical. I think it’s wonderful that as an issue it is going higher and higher up the political agenda. It is literally the challenge of our generation and so I really hope that it continues to become one of the most important issues for our politicians and for our business leaders to address. That’s why we are very keen to encourage communication about these issues with Our Planet project right up to Beijing (UN Convention on Biological Diversity, October 15-28), because Beijing is about biodiversity. The one thing that is becoming so clear to all of conservation science is that, if we have any chance of pulling our planet back, our most valuable ally will be the natural world. There is nothing better than forests and plankton in the ocean to capture carbon. And so, without the support and aid of nature and wildlife we have no chance. When I started in this field nature was a ‘nice to have’. The fact it’s now recognised globally as a ‘must have’ is very good news. Whether we’ll turn it around in time, whether politicians will have the bravery and leadership skills to pull us forward, there is no doubt that what we do in the next 10-20 years will affect the next 10,000 years. We have to be aware that there are a number of planetary boundaries that we are in danger of crossing that are one-way doors. The Arctic sea ice is probably one where we no longer have a chance to pull it back because it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of less ice, more melting, it’s very hard to see that there will be ice in the Arctic in 2040, which effectively means polar bears will go extinct other than the very exceptional animals on the edge of their range.
OM: How did you balance urgency and optimism in Our Planet?
AF: There is no doubt that people sit down after a hard day at work and they want to relax, and they have every reason to. The thing that we tried to achieve in Our Planet was to go into some depth throughout. What I mean is, there had been a tendency in previous series to have the last five minutes of a show say: “By the way, it’s all lost or damaged”. When we started Our Planet we were determined to try and have a more intelligent dialogue and to go into the reasons why different habitats are important and valuable, and explain what the problems are, and also what the solutions are. Take palm oil and rainforests as an example. You can film people cutting down rainforests but equally you can film a mother and her baby orangutans and explain that this might be the last generation of wild orangutans, you look at the adult male, and say, ‘when he was young the forest went to the horizon. Not anymore.’ I think that’s probably a more powerful way of telling the story than focusing solely on the cutting down of the forest to create palm oil. From the very beginning, Keith Scholey and I were determined that we would work with the World Wildlife Fund and that we would also create a very comprehensive website around the series, because there is only so much information that a 50-minute documentary can carry. But the skill of those people who I’m very fortunate to work with, is principally, filming a beautiful pictures and fantastic animal behaviour, so we have to tell the story with the skills that we feel we have.
Photography by Sophie Lanfear (also featured above with the walrus), Steve Benjamin, Jamie McPherson and Grace Frank, courtesy of Alastair Fothergill (pictured above with the penguins) and Netflix. With additional thanks to the Whitley Fund for Nature, for which Alastair is an Ambassador.
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