Review of Life on the Reef - Green Guide

Life on The Reef captures a year in the life of the Great Barrier Reef

Kakadu was always going to be a hard act to follow.

The ABC series was lauded for the way it captured the natural world at its most beguiling, with breath-taking visuals giving insight into why there is nowhere more primal, frightening and entrancing.

After delivering such an acclaimed series, director and cinematographer Nick Robinson could have been forgiven for putting his documentary production cue back in the rack, but he felt his work was far from done.

Daunting as it seemed, he and his team set out to create another epic series, this one filmed over a year on The Great Barrier Reef.

The result is spectacular, allowing us to be present as the seasons change and an array of bizarre, beautiful and deadly creatures fight for survival. But it's not just about animal life above and below the water. Life on the reef also profiles park rangers, traditional owners, coast guard, scientists, fishermen and residents as they interact with animal life and the sometimes violent forces of nature.

It turns out that marine animals have been getting up to all kinds of drama and mating mischief in Queensland long before schoolies thought they made it fashionable.

In spring, rising water temperatures make the reef prime for reproduction, prompting billions of coral polyps to release eggs and sperm into the ocean. Swept up in the excitement are worms and clams, who eagerly release their own eggs and sperm into this mating minestrone.

Reproductive behaviour can also mean violence, illustrated when Robinson and his team plumb the depths to deliver extraordinary images of shark feeding and mating frenzies.

Tiger sharks travel thousands of kilometres to feed on exhausted green sea turtles, but there's a chance they'll consider taste testing a documentary maker who's in the wrong place at the wrong time. A dropping of the fins and a head wobble can be signs a shark is considering adding you to its menu.

"To watch sharks in the mating process is one of the most incredibly violent things you'll see," Robinson says.

"But we try to be careful. I have no desire to get eaten by a shark and you always have to be aware (when it seems safe) that there could be one that behaves differently to the others. We have a rule when we are working that we get out of the water when there are more than two tigers around because more than two lessens your chances of seeing one coming. I was diving with Jon Shaw. I had a $7 broomstick and he had the camera. Sharks have a good sense of self-preservation so if you give them a swipe with a stick you are usually fine."

There are times though when even a diver as experienced as Robinson begins to question his judgement.

"At one point I decided I'd swim a bit to film a silver tip shark and when I began swimming I thought it was about two metres in length," Robinson says.

"When I got there I realised it was four metres. And it was pretty frisky, so I had to do a bit of back-peddling." It's pretty well documented that crocodiles can also be a bit unfriendly. Plenty of people who've wandered into their habitat have found themselves in the grip of a death roll in some murky river. Filming them on land can be tricky, too.

"I've filmed a lot of crocs and I remember one that had amazing speed and aggression," Robinson says. "It came out of the water faster than I could run, that's for sure. If I'd not been watching, I would not have seen it coming.

"There was another one we were filming from a helicopter. He decided to bite the skid and was hanging off it and we couldn't get away. So this croc was right under my feet and I thought, this is interesting, this helicopter is not going to be able to lift this crocodile."

Life on the Reef, ABC, Sunday, 7.40pm