life on the reef

How we're protecting 'Life on the Reef' - PBS series chronicles conservation efforts in Australia's iconic ecosystem.

LifeOnTheReefGreenSeaTurtleSwimsInGreatBarreirReef.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartA 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.

LifeOnTheReefLionFishSwimsInGreatBarrierReef.jpg.838x0_q80 A lionfish swims in the Great Barrier Reef in this image from 'Life on the Reef.' (Photo: Nick Robinson and Luke Peterson/Eye Spy Productions Trading as Northern Pictures)

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.

LifeOnTheReefLiszardIsland.jpg.838x0_q80 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.

Marine biologist Mark Read in Life on the Reef

Marine biologist Mark Read in Life on the Reef. Mark Read is an optimist. As a marine biologist, he's fully aware of the many threats to the Great Barrier Reef. But he's also inspired by the people, like him, who live and work on it.

"My job is about identifying sensitive areas and making sure they are maintained for current and future generations," he said. "It's about working closely with the people who use the reef all the time - government, non-government, industry, traditional owners, the defence department - seeing whether the activities they are engaged in can be modified to actually make them more ecologically sustainable, while still providing a top-level product for their consumers.

"The interesting thing is that so many of the people that I would be talking to out there on the reef are already some of the best environmental stewards that we have. These are people that are constantly pushing the envelope to ensure that whatever they do allows them to make a living that minimises the impact on the reef. That's one of the lovely parts of my job that I get to rub shoulders with people like that who are just inspirational."

Read, who is manager of species conservation at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority, is one of the characters you'll meet tonight in the ABC's spectacular documentary, Life on The Reef. He's forced to stay in an office in Townsville most of the week, but "any excuse to get out on the water, I'll take it or make it".

"I think we sometimes forget just what an amazing place the Great Barrier Reef is. You're talking about the largest living creature, or assemblage of creatures, on the earth. It stretches for 10,000 kilometres. You can see it from space. One of the things that's unique about the reef is the people who really feel passionately about it."

Read hopes the documentary will make Australians more aware of the threats, which he identifies as climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable fishing practices, run-offs from the land, and the crown of thorns starfish.

"The starfish have been documented over the years as being one of the most significant contributors to the decline of the coral cover over the reef. There's a link between the success of the crown of thorns starfish and the amount of nutrients and sediments and run-off coming off the land."

What's his favourite place on the reef? "As soon as you mention the Barrier Reef, people think of coral, but for me I like the estuarine areas, the mangroves, because they're very diverse and they are places not a lot of people go to and value. I really like spending time there and going fishing."

Fishing? Doesn't that contribute to the stripping of resources? "Not at all - I'm not that good a fisherman. For me it's about being in the environment, so if I catch a feed, that's a bonus."

Capturing Nature's Best

The story of the Great Barrier Reef is told through breathtaking images in Life On The Reef, writes Emma Brown. Occasionally a show comes alone that is important beyond its entertainment value. One such show is Life On The Reef, a three part observational documentary series produced by the team who delivered the award-winning Kakadu last year.

Australian cinematographer Nick Robinson is the man behind the spectacular images captured on film which form the backdrop to the story of our Great Barrier Reef.

Filmed over the course of a full year, the three-part series follows people who live and work in this extraordinary environment.

"We spent a year on the reef following characters who are working to save the reef such as rangers and marine park offices, traditional owners, search and rescue crews, scientists and tourism operators," Robinson says.

"Some of the people we followed are very inspiring."

While the series highlights the environmental issues facing the delicate ecosystem of the GBR marine park it is more about inspiring people to care, rather than harping at them to do something, Robinson says.

Although Robinson thinks that if we continue down our current path with the reef the future for it is bleak, he does believe there are lots of things we can do to keep it.

"Many people have come up to me and asked is it (the reef) dead already? Fifty percent of it is but only a small part of this, about ten per cent, is due to global warming. Other things causing this are things we can change," he said.

One of these things is the Crown of Thorns starfish, a predator that eats coral on the reef, which has been responsible for 40 per cent of coral loss between Cooktown and the Whitsundays in the last decades.

"It would cost about $5 million to stop the outbreak of the COTS which isn't a massive investment to stop the decline in the reef. We also need to improve water quality, control shipping and manage risks," he said.

As the most important marine park in the world, the GBR runs from Fraser Island to Papua New Guinea . At 2,300 kilometres long, it is the length of the west coast of the United States. It is the world's largest living structure and one the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on Earth.

"The reef has a vital role in the whole ocean. Whales come to calf there and changes to it have a wide ranging impact on the ocean."

Set against a backdrop of extraordinary marine habitats, ranging from coral reefs to tropical islands, shallow estuaries to deep oceanic waters, Life On The Reef takes the audience above and beneath the waters as nature adapts to the changing seasons.

Above the reef aerial photography from helicopters show the enormity of the marine park, giving macro coverage, while underwater photography shows some of the best microscopic coverage of the reef ever filmed.

Time-lapse and high speed cinematography is used to stunning effect, capturing the true nature of the area and the bizarre, beautiful and sometimes deadly creatures that call it home.

The series is narrated by Australian actor Rupert Reid who is best known for his roles as Declan in TV show Heartbreak High and later, Jack Dawson on Blue Heelers.

For Robinson, a trained marine biologist, the story of Life On The Reef is something he has always wanted to tell. As a cinematographer who shoots and directs documentaries, the success of last year's Kakadu means more opportunities to work on projects of his choosing.

Kakadu took out a gold medal at the prestigious New York Festival World's Best Television and Films competition and was awarded at a local level in January with a Best Cinematography for a documentary at the AACTA Awards.

As a fly-in fly-out worker Robinson and his other two crew members were often assisted by the Great Barrier Marine Park Authorityy (GBRMPA) and Queensland National Parks.

"They helped us out a lot by dropping us places while their scientists were working - we were very privileged."

For people who are interested in helping the reef Robinson suggests there are many ways to get involved from contacting politicians to joining a reef organisation.

"Volunteer, they need the manpower. Connect with other individuals and you can go out and have a reef experience and help at the same time."

Life on the Reef premieres Sunday 1 March 2015 at 7.40pm on ABC.

Review of Life on the Reef - Daily Telegraph

This one's a no-brainer. Each shot more beautiful than the next, it explores who lives on, in or around the Great Barrier Reef. Irish diver and marine biologis Paddy Colwell likes to kick his fins off and go for a stroll on the ocean floor around Osprey Island.

Bonus points for anyone who can guess the former Heartbreak High and Blue Heelers actor who narrates it.

4.5 stars out of 5

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

Review of Life on the Reef - The Australian

“THIS story has no beginning and no one knows what its end will be,” wrote poet Judith Wright of the Great Barrier Reef in her 1997 book Coral Battleground. Though written more than three decades ago and focused on documenting that era’s campaign to protect the reef from oil and gas mining, that line and the rest of Wright’s insightful book remain just as relevant today. The remarkably diverse natural wonder is the focus of this stunning three-part series. It comes from the team behind the 2013 award-winning documentary series Kakadu, the four-parter following the heavily armed rangers who patrol the flood plains and ancient sculptured escarpments of Australia’s largest terrestrial park. Much of Kakadu was filmed with hand-held cameras by embedded fly-on-the-wall operators travelling with the ranger units. The storytelling was driven largely by the commentary of these units, who turned back to chat or comment to camera, and by the actions of those with whom they came into contact.

Life on the Reef, narrated with just the right kind of weathered-voiced Queensland insouciance by actor Rupert Reid, is more cinematically conventional but has the same understated, but deeply held, politics at its heart. The reef is still under attack, now from increased threats of climate change and approvals of projects such as the Carmichael coalmine.

A World Heritage site since 1981, the reef is famously the only living structure that can be seen from space. Described by astronauts as “a thin white line in the blue ocean”, the reef covers a total area of 344,400sq km — larger than Switzerland, The Netherlands and Britain combined. Like Kakadu, Life on the Reef focuses on the aesthetic beauty of the subject but also significantly on the people who call it home.

There’s an Aboriginal family that has lived off the sea for generations; an enthusiastic diving instructor and naturalist from Ireland; a critical flight paramedic for Queensland Ambulance Service; and a team of scientists desperately trying to protect the nesting ground of the endangered green sea turtle. These people are described by our soothing narrator as those seeking the “crucial balance between economic and ecological”, though the series is not afraid to get a little bit more political.

We are reminded that a thriving ecosystem such as that of the incredibly diverse reef is extremely delicate. Biologists calmly explain the innumerable conditions that must be met for coral growth and species survival. These explanations are accompanied by soaring overhead shots of the picturesque coastline and islands, and remarkable underwater scenes of the brightly coloured fish and coloured coral that thrive beneath the surface.

The photography of series director Nick Robinson, Luke Peterson and Jon Shaw is spectacular, much of the filming done in challenging environmental conditions beneath the surface. The divers are sometimes surrounded by huge tiger sharks taking advantage of the green sea turtle rookery on the reef’s most protected place, Raine Island.

“Save the Barrier Reef” was the first bumper sticker used in Australia, and unfortunately, as this series so poignantly reminds us, it remains a necessary sentiment today.

But Life on the Reef is also a testament to the enormous power of nature, showcasing the reef’s deft adaptations from season to season and the strength of many of the creatures that dwell there.

The series is a reminder that our premier story­telling medium has become the primary source of encounters with the natural world. It’s easy to get the impression these days that nature really only exists so that it can entertain us on television. It’s the only place most of us will encounter wild animals, as we do here, or for that matter the natural world itself.

The series may well boost the numbers (already 1.6 million per year) of tourists visiting the reef, determined to witness for themselves the area poet Kenneth Slessor described so marvellously as: “Flowers turned to stone! / Not all the botany / Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole / Could find the Latin for this ­loveliness”.