Sir David Attenborough's 'heaven on earth'

Sir David Attenborough's 'heaven on earth'

Written by Alison James

In his 60-year career, David Attenborough has had the good fortune to visit some of the world’s most beautiful locations, including Bali, Tanzania, Madagascar and Borneo. But he doesn’t hesitate when asked to name his favourite place – after his home in Richmond, Surrey, that is. 

“It has to be North Queensland in Australia,” he says. “It’s got everything – mountains, tropical rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and wonderful creatures. It’s a great place. People say to me, ‘What was the most magical thing you ever saw in your life?’ And I always say, without a word of exaggeration, ‘The first time I was lucky enough to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef almost 60 years ago.’ As I entered the water I remembered suddenly seeing these amazing multi-coloured species living in communities… just astounding and unforgettable beauty.”

In his new TV series, The Great Barrier Reef, Sir David is reliving that first scuba experience on the coral reef, which is the largest in the world with more than 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching over 2,300 kilometres.

This time around, though, he has swapped flippers and snorkel for a small submarine known as a submersible, with the result that he can descend an astounding 1000 feet – deeper than anyone ever has. “Sitting in the submersible is like sitting in a cinema,” he says. “You are in absolute comfort. You aren’t strapped in. The temperature is the same as it is above surface. The air pressure is the same. You don’t have to worry about breathing. You just sit there, munching chocolate and saying, ‘This is wonderful!’ It was a fantastic privilege.”

Among the many brilliant sequences in the second episode is one of a manta ray ‘cleaning station’. “These huge manta rays come regularly to a particular place on the reef and they queue up like customers at a barber’s shop,” Sir David explains. “There’s a community of little fish called wrasse, which are only about four or five inches long with a bright blue stripe down them – and they’re specialist cleaners. When the manta comes down, it holds its fins in a particular posture, which is a signal saying, ‘I’m ready for a clean’.

“Then these astonishing fish, the wrasse, come along and pick off bits of dead manta. They not only go over the whole surface of this great fish but inside – into its gill slits, even into its mouth. And the manta, which is profiting by this circumstance, just allows them to do so. It’s an extraordinary piece of community behaviour which has only been unravelled in the last few decades.”

The final programme is about efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef. “There are problems stemming from the land because Northern Queensland has a much bigger human population than it had 50 years ago and, of course, people living on land create waste and industry creates effluence, so there are problems about what’s going into the ocean,” Sir David says. “But even more than that, the increasing temperature and acidity of the oceans together has had a huge effect upon the inhabitants of the ocean. In the last programme, we are showing the research that’s going on to see just what those efforts might be and what action could be taken to stem them.

“So, for example, we show experiments in which basic communities of different species of coral are kept in different temperatures and acidity so you see the effect. And the answer is clear – if the temperature goes up by two degrees, as is quite likely, the number of species of coral that will survive is very small. So there will be a big die-off.

“It’s an issue that is desperately worrying to coral scientists who are working on the reef and who were our advisors on the series. Global warming affects the globe but it certainly affects the Barrier Reef very, very seriously.

“Another great concern at the moment is the speed with which the human species are spreading. There were 2.5 billion people on the planet when I first went to the Great Barrier Reef and there are now three times that. We’re overrunning the planet.”

On a happier note, 2016 will be a year of great significance for Sir David. In May he celebrates his 90th birthday and will sit down with broadcaster Kirsty Young to look back over his incredible career. Inspiring Attenborough: Sir David At 90, will see him talk about the inspiring people he has met, the extraordinary journeys he has made, and the amazing animal encounters he has had across the globe, as they celebrate his contribution to our understanding of the natural world. Does he have other projects planned?

“Another film for the BBC about the biggest dinosaur yet discovered in Patagonia – a record-breaking dinosaur,” he replies. ‘It’s an astonishing thing to do and I’m very, very privileged and lucky to be able to get there and talk to the people who are discovering these things. As long as I carry on doing what I’m doing I have no plans to retire.”

We can’t let Sir David go without asking him how it has felt seeing himself as a 30-year-old in archive footage included in The Great Barrier Reef. He laughs.

“I was rather amazed that it still existed in the BBC vaults! My impression of course is that I still look like that. It just happens that today is a bit of a bad day!”

  • You can catch-up on the three-part series, The Great Barrier Reef, on BBC iPlayer now
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