A green sea turtle swims in the Great Barrier Reef in this image from 'Life on the Reef.' The three-part documentary that focuses on the coral habitat premieres July 22 on PBS. (Photo: Jon Shaw/Eye Spy Productions Trading as Northern Pictures)
It stretches 1,500 miles, is visible from space and is home to thousands of the planet's fish, plant and animal species, many of them endangered. It's Australia's Great Barrier Reef — actually 3,000 individual reefs that make up this World Heritage Marine Park — and efforts to protect it are the subject of the three-part PBS series "Life on the Reef," premiering July 22.
Humpback whales, green sea turtles, tiger sharks and manta rays are just a few of the species showcased in the series, which also focuses on scientists, conservationists, rescue squads and emergency teams that spring into action during cyclones, oil spill disasters and other crises.
Director Nick Robinson, who also served as one of the cinematographers, spent a year gathering 200 hours of footage for the series. He shared his insights about the series and this special place.
MNN: Why is The Great Barrier Reef so important to Earth's ecosystem?
Nick Robinson: As the world's largest reef system, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a Noah's Ark for reef biodiversity at a time where we have already lost about 50 percent of the worlds coral reefs. Many species travel to and from the reef as part of their life cycle. Losing the GBR would mean losing a large number of species from the Pacific Ocean as a whole. If left unchecked, man-made climate change, pollution and overfishing will almost certainly wipe this vital marine ecosystem from our planet within our kids' lifetimes. We humans can decide to intervene to halt the decline, and the motivation to do so is growing stronger every day. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park realistically represents our best chance of preserving a large and functioning coral reef system. It's also the epicenter of reef conservation science, a place where we as a species are learning how to best look after our marine environments. Vital knowledge is being created every day that will hopefully be used in the near future to save the world's remaining coral reef habitats.
What was your approach to the special? What did you want to convey?
We made this series to give people insight into how extraordinary the reef is and how we as humans can help to protect it. We wanted to include the human story that is so often overlooked in wildlife films. We humans are the biggest predator/threat to the survival of most creatures on the planet so we thought it would be appropriate to highlight that friction point. It was also an opportunity to celebrate some of the great work being done to protect the reef and a chance motivate more people to get involved with marine conservation.
The Great Barrier Reef should become a great role model for the creation of other marine parks. It was also the perfect place to look at the complex environmental dynamic of balancing our needs with those of the natural world.
What challenges did you face during the shoot?
The big challenges were logistical. The GBR is huge and much of the coast is hard to access by road so getting where you want to be at the right time of year was a permanent headache. Most of the barrier reef also lies at least twenty miles or further off shore. Weather, boats, camping on islands and finally finding the animals made for some great adventures. In most cases, however, we were following scientists that had a deep understanding of their subjects and that took a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. The creatures were generally where they said they would be and quite accommodating when it came to being filmed!
There are many spectacular sequences—which stand out to you?
I guess my favorite material is all the work we did on Raine Island. It's a restricted access island that very few people are ever allowed to visit because it's home to the largest green sea turtle rookery on the planet. Being on that small island with twenty thousand turtles in a single evening was nothing short of mind blowing. There were tiger sharks, hundreds of thousands of seabirds and some fantastic scientists doing an incredible job trying to find solutions to save this beautiful endangered species. The whole experience of being out there and seeing conservation work being conducted in its purest form was quite inspiring. It was also a place that drummed home the central theme to the series: connectivity.
Why was it important to emphasize the connectivity and conservation aspects?
Connectivity is the foundation of marine ecosystems and the more scientists learn about these environments the more we realize how important the big picture is. When you talk about the necessity of maintaining a marine park the size of France many people might think that's a little overkill, surely it could be a little smaller. Land-based national parks are nowhere near that big, so it's a fair question and we felt it deserved some answers in the series. We opened this series with the story of the east coast humpback whales. They travel thousands of miles every year from the edge of the ice in the Antarctic to calve up in the warm waters around the Great Barrier Reef. They need the Antarctic krill to survive but equally they need the warm safe place to give birth. Compromise either of these habitats and the species is doomed.
The humpback story is similar to so many other creatures in the sea: what happens on the reef has an impact all over the Pacific Ocean. Turtles, tiger sharks, marlin, tuna, seabirds the list goes on and on of creatures that roam the Pacific far and wide in their seasonal migrations. We also chose to open with the humpbacks because they are one of the great environmental success stories. Only fifty years ago these animals were disappearing through whaling. Less than 500 animals survived the slaughter on Australia's east coast. But since protection was introduced for them they have made a steady recovery. Over twenty thousand humpbacks visited the Great Barrier Reef in 2014, majestic proof that when we care enough we can strike a balance between our needs and those of the natural world.
Lizard Island is home to the Lizard Island Research Station, a facility dedicated to studying the Great Barrier Reef and other coral habitats. (Photo: Nick Robinson and Luke Peterson/Eye Spy Productions Trading as Northern Pictures)
Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn't get?
Not really. When things didn't work out we would have another go later on, but some of the best moments just popped up. Things like a cuttlefish laying its eggs or the aerial battle between frigate birds and boobies can be hard to predict, yet they all happened in front of our cameras while we were out looking for something completely different. Having a year to produce the program also meant we could be opportunistic and capture things like a cyclone that trashed a small town and a reef complete with before and after shots. Time was our friend on this series and I think the quality of the program is largely due to the time spent creating it.
What do you hope viewers take away?
I guess the overriding message is simple: This planet of ours is awe-inspiring and provides us with everything we need to survive. Looking after it is an investment in our future as a species. This series is about a small but vital part of our planet's marine ecosystem, but it provides a wonderful micro-world through which we hope viewers will garner a greater understanding of the big picture challenges our marine environments face. We also hope the series gives them the hope and confidence to believe that we humans do have the means to look after our oceans.