As we well know, there are David Attenborough documentaries and there are David Attenborough documentaries with the 89 year old naturalist actually in them.
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef is the latter and, as a bonus for us, it has an Australian setting. Aside from being in High Definition, what more do you want?
It was nearly 60 years ago that Attenborough first went below the surface of the Reef. Endlessly-asked about his “most magical” career moment, he cites putting on a mask and going under to a kaleidoscope of colour and movement.
“I’ve been fascinated by it for almost 60 years,” he explains.
For this three-part series he is aided by the best in technology aboard the scientific explorer, the Alucia. It is armed to the teeth with electronic, radar and underwater equipment, including a helicopter and the all-important Triton Submersible, the NADIR. The three-man vessel looks like something out of the Thunderbirds, but with its 8 cameras and diving capacity, it will take the octogenarian to depths he has never been -indeed going where cameras themselves have never visited.
Episode One “Builders” focusses on the extraordinary coral reefs of this 2,300km ecosystem. Visible from space and stretching almost the full length of the eastern Queensland coastline, one gets a sense of pride and ownership as the visiting Brit puts perspective on it for his audience. There are plenty of impressive stats, 3000 individual coral reefs, 900 islands -but it is Attenborough’s personal experience and storytelling that brings it all to life.
The NADIR is submerged at nighttime to explore the behaviour of the coral. Attenborough becomes the spellbound passenger on a deep sea mystery ride.
“At night the reef seems like an extra-terrestrial world. But we are the aliens,” he says.
The music score turns the images into a wondrous slide show.
Attenborough also meets Indigenous communities near Cairns, whose traditional dance, handed down from generations tells the story of the Reef. Remarkably, he finds modern-day science matches the hallmarks of their storytelling.
“A folk memory of an event that happened all that time ago,” he learns.
Finding Nemo-style clownfish are filmed at Lizard Island, while mantis shrimp display incredible vision and predatory skills. There is rare footage of “the great spawning event” when corals erupt with sperm as part of the Reef’s great life cycle.
The Atlantic production uses aerial shots, macro photography and time-lapse to capture it all, complemented by Attenborough’s distinctive and sometimes poetic narration. We are so fortunate a man of his years is still embarking on such magical nature documentaries.
If you’re interested in how producers mounted some of their filming sequences, The Making of David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef will be available on iview following the premiere. It shows how Attenborough tackled the NADIR, including with underwater cameramen getting exterior shots. Just think, it took cameramen, filming cameramen, filming the NADIR to bring this to the comfort of your living room.
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef premieres 7:40pm Sunday April 10 on ABC.