BBC Earth has been on a roll lately. Among others, they’ve hit us with Africa, One Life, and The Blue Planet: Seas of Life. In keeping with their tradition of masterfully shot, well narrated and informative documentaries on the flora and fauna of this planet we call home, they’ve now tackled the largest living structure in the world — Great Barrier Reef.
Monty Halls leads viewers along on a journey all around the reef itself, its formation, the surrounding and interconnected ecosystems, wildlife, and weather that all go into making the reef what it is, a 2000km long natural marvel that can be seen from space and is longer than the drive from Manhattan to Kansas City.
“Episode 1: Nature’s Miracle” discusses the size, location, scope, and structure of the reef. Running along the northern coast of Australia, it used to be the northern coast of Australia until the last ice age that saw sea level rise 120m and moved the coast 20 miles inland. In addition to creating a fertile new playground for sea life, it turned former high ground into islands where birds and other traveling critters can stop to take a breather or even lay some eggs. Several interesting and complex symbiotic behaviors are in play here. In one scene you have damsel fish farming algae and chasing others away from their private patch, even trying to scare off Monty and the crew. Then you’ll find tiny wrasse fish swimming around inside the mouths of large grouper fish, cleaning away blood-sucking parasites while the groupers politely do not eat the wrasse.
Given that while the reef makes up only 1% of the ocean floor, it is home to 25% of all marine life, it’s not surprising that many species have found ways to get along, or adapt to difficult situations. For example, epaulette sharks have developed the unique ability to escape being stranded on land during low tides by cutting off the blood supply to parts of its brain and directing it elsewhere, giving it just enough maneuverability to do a sort of “walk” across the land and get it back to the safety of open water. Pearlfish have an unspoken arrangement with sea cucumbers that allows the pearlfish to hide inside the sea cucumber’s “back door” for protection when not hunting. What with all the sharks, stingrays, box jellyfish, and hatchback-sized groupers, you’d think that would be enough predators for one area, but every night, the reef itself becomes a predator, with corals fighting over small creatures they feed on and even going to war with other coral colonies with stinging tendril attacks. The shape of the reef changes daily depending on which parts emerge victorious in the morning, and the struggle for dominance is captured here in time-lapse footage to get a good idea in a minute or two of what transpires over the course of a typical night.
“Episode 2: Reef to Rain Forest” examines the lagoon that lies between the reef and the Australian mainland, a lagoon that looks much like an underwater desert, but does have occasional oases of life, and connects all the other elements of the larger ecosystem. Believe it or not, the Barrier Reef only makes up 7% of the area that it impacts — namely the surrounding swamps, forests, and underwater habitats. This episode captures the lives of sea snakes, white-bellied eagles, cassowaries, sea cows (dugongs), and the scaly inhabitants of Lizard Island, which have adapted so well to having humans around that, while they won’t generally attack, they do hang around people hoping to scavenge food, not unlike a dog begging next to the dinner table. Even lizards prefer barbecued sausages to grasshoppers.
The effects of humans sharing the space are also looked at here. On one hand, a sunken ship has become a habitat to 120 species of fish and is now covered in coral growth. At the same time, the clearing of land near the coast to grow sugar cane crops has introduced pesticide and fertilizer chemicals to the water supply, poisoning the animals and putting large sections of the reef in danger. The reef also serves as a sort of break wall against ocean waves that might otherwise wash away the towns on the Queensland coast, so it’s not just there to be pretty.
“Episode 3: The Reef and Beyond” tackles the effects that weather and climate change is having on the reef, from bleached, dying corals to the increased pounding the structure takes from more and more powerful cyclones that regularly hit the area. As much as a two-degree difference in temperature can have a marked effect on the reef habitat as temperature-sensitive algae abandon the corals and head for more ideal waters. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air causes the water to become more acidic, which also erodes the coral structure. However, the reef has sustained itself by aggressively spawning and spreading with each full moon to new areas and restoring weakened ones.
In the same vein, this episode gives us a look at the breeding patterns of green turtles and a variety of birds at the Raine Island sanctuary. Herons somehow know exactly when to return to the island to breed based on when the green turtle eggs will hatch, offering up the first 100 or so hatchlings as baby bird food. In fact, the attention and care the filmmakers’ paid to the plight of the green turtle made it a tad uncomfortable to watch as birds and rock crabs pluck helpless babies up as a snack, or seeing a mother turtle wither and die on the beach, having not made it back to the sea before the blistering sun took its life. As the tide came back in, the turtles’ bodies washed out to sea, and the sharks began to feast. Yes, nature is brutal, but I suspect half as much footage watching a turtle get ripped to shreds by hungry sharks still would have gotten the point across.
Each episode is about an hour long, and every bit of this is captured in vibrant 1080p picture with DTS HD stereo sound. I was dismayed to see that there are no extras whatsoever, not even any behind-the-scenes peeks to demonstrate how they captured some of the more intricate underwater footage without disturbing their surroundings.
Despite the lack of extras, I learned quite a bit from this short-but-sweet series, more than enough to give me something to chat about around the water cooler at work and blow a few minds at the same time. If you’re a fan of BBC Earth’s other works, don’t pass up Great Barrier Reef.