The Beauty and Horror of Blue Planet II

David Attenborough’s latest documentary gorgeously reveals the world’s oceans—and shows how badly humans are screwing them up.

Audun Rikardsen / BBC

“Never,” declares Sir David Attenborough in the first episode of Blue Planet II, his latest hallucinatory swath of masterpiece nature television, “has there been a more crucial time to explore what goes on beneath the surface of the seas!” Attenborough is perorating from the prow of the research vessel Alucia as she plies indigo waters, blipping and whirring and swishing her sensors over the deep. “With revolutionary technology we can enter new worlds and shine a light on behaviors in ways that were impossible just a generation ago. We’ve also come to recognize an uncomfortable fact: The health of our oceans is under threat. They’re changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.”

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The sea around him spreads away, miracle-stuffed, glowing with vitality. At 91 years of age, Attenborough looks rather pelagic himself, a wise and crusty father fish propped against the railing to deliver his sermon. But the old energy is still there, the bucking head movements and the lunging, italicized delivery. As he leans back into a carefully composed tableau of blues—powder-blue shirt, Prussian-blue water, azure stripe of sky—his message, which is the driving conceit of the show, is clear: Having gained access at last to the deep-down information, having consulted with the farthest and freakiest of the fish folk, we are discovering that much of the deep-down information is about us, the frigging humans, and how we’re ruining everything.

Blue Planet II, currently screening on BBC America, is among other things a showcase for the probing, insatiable technological spirit of Homo sapiens: drones, suction cameras attached to the backs of killer whales, submersibles carrying film crews to unprecedented depths. “We develop technologies in pursuit of what we want,” James Honeyborne, the executive producer, told Wired magazine, sounding like one of the engineers who built Jimi Hendrix’s effects pedals. And what we want is to see. To see an orca as it takes out 30 herring with one swat of its casually explosive tail. To see a Mobula ray flapping through lightless water while churning plankton clouds into frail spasms of bioluminescence—“the most delicate light,” as the diver-cameraman Alfredo Barroso describes it. (He can’t see it—he’s shooting blind—but his ultra-photosensitive camera picks it up.)

At the heart of it all, though, framed by this ravishing tech, is the unchangeable, old-school, establishment-accented figure of Attenborough—secular shaman, our small-screen primal intercessor and occasional ventriloquizer for the spirits of the animal world. We’ve known him forever, it seems, rangy and rumpled, sprawled in the sand by a leatherback turtle or treading the Serengeti in his big, sensible shoes; he is as permanent as the Queen. When Attenborough joined the BBC, in 1952, what were then called “animal programs” were presented by the superintendent of the London Zoo, a Mr. George Cansdale. Once a week, Mr. Cansdale would bring a selection of more or less compliant creatures to the BBC studio. He “put them on a table covered with a doormat,” Attenborough remembers in the preface to his new book, Adventures of a Young Naturalist, “where they sat blinking in the intense lights.” Attenborough’s great breakthrough, his Copernican TV revolution, was to propose not only that animals could also be filmed outside, but that the BBC should go and find them on field trips, safaris, quests.

Now the cameras of Blue Planet II keep pace with bottlenose dolphins as they breast the surf, bursting through a wave wall. “They are extremely intelligent,” Attenborough says in a gratified, headmasterly way. His distinctive speech-music, though a little rougher and breathier these days, has not altered, a shapely sequence of rhythmic, pendent clauses that resolve in a bassless but confiding growl. He’s been talking like this, narrating like this, for more than 60 years: nervily hushed at times, as if broadcasting within earshot of some slumbering predator, and at other times gasping like a man enchanted, making contact with the sublime. “Astonishing,” he exhales repeatedly during Blue Planet II. Back in 2012, a TV interviewer asked him, “You do exhibit awe, the type of emotion perhaps someone might display entering a very grand Florentine cathedral, for example. But it isn’t—it’s not a religious awe that you are showing, is it?” “Isn’t it?,” Attenborough rejoined.

Hans Zimmer’s score—cymbal swashes of ecstasy and racing violins for the bottlenose dolphins, electro-orchestral groans for something ugly and unredeemed on the ocean floor—has been much praised. But I prefer the weird snickerings and intestinal booms of the sea dwellers themselves, the strange, submarine synth-pop we hear when the Zimmer-noise fades. Scenes of tremendous grandeur, thrashing pods of orcas, are switched dizzyingly with Attenborough’s other specialty: the vignettes, the micronarratives. Two shrimp, a male and a female, are delicately imprisoned inside a sea sponge. They drifted in there as larvae, and now they’re too big to swim out. As a couple, they while away their incarceration. They seem happy, perhaps exemplary. In the Great Barrier Reef, a scowling grouper and an octopus team up as hunting buddies. The grouper sniffs out fish, and the penetrative octopus flushes them from their coral caves. Then there’s the bobbit, the disgusting fringed worm (cue Zimmerian squirmings) who strikes upward from the seabed before reinterring himself like a serial killer. A gang of plucky, schoolboyishly twitchy little fish gathers to blow on his sand-hole and expose him.

But beyond a certain depth, we can no longer anthropomorphize: The unconscious opens up, the realm of pure symbol. “As we descend into the deep,” Attenborough whispers, in a reverie, “the pressure increases relentlessly, and the light from above all but disappears. Yet, incredibly, there is life.” The beings in the “giant black void,” “the midnight zone” of the polar seas, make their own light and use it to communicate. They make their own hours, too. “Down here in this blackness, creatures live beyond the normal rules of time.” The siphonophore, a floating, feathery colony of connected organisms that resembles a 100-foot-long DNA strand, is self-cloning and “virtually eternal.” Should we be here at all, with our cameras, with our eyes? Watching a group of six-gill sharks in slow, butting, dream-thickened combat over the sunken carcass of a sperm whale—the release of stale blood, the cold skin in tatters—feels profane, a trespass upon this piece of ultimately inhuman, bottom-of-the-universe business.

In the end, though, it all comes back to us. “It’s now increasingly apparent,” Attenborough said back in 2000, in a three-parter called State of the Planet, “that one species, our own, has developed the unique ability of so altering its surroundings that it can destroy whole species, indeed whole environments.” Too well-bred to be an eco-warrior, he has nevertheless achieved—via the forensic zoom-ins and transcontinental pannings of his unstoppable camera crews—a holistic, and holistically horrified, global vision. The images accumulate in Blue Planet II: Walrus struggle, with failing strength, at the edge of melting ice chunks; an albatross vomits up a plastic bag; the milk of a mother dolphin might be poisoned, toxic to her calf. Our side effects, our by-products, the exhaust of our lifestyles, are blinding the ocean’s eye. “I cried in my mask,” an Australian diver says in the final episode, describing his encounter with the dead tusks of bleached-out coral that now form much of the Great Barrier Reef.

Self-knowledge, if you’re doing it right, stings. Good old red-faced C. S. Lewis, teetering on the brink of conversion in 1930s Oxford and sensing that the scouring light of the Christian revelation would soon be upon him, decided to turn his professorial mind-beams inward. “For the first time,” he wrote in his memoir Surprised by Joy, “I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” A traveling smear of microplastics, he might have added. Or a cemetery of coral. Great risk attends the deep dive. Will you go to pieces under the pressure of what you discover? Will you recoil like an idiot and rush back to the surface? We need our guides, our Attenboroughs, to hold our gaze steady and help us face what we need to face: the truth, though we weep in our masks to see it.

This article appears in the April 2018 print edition with the headline “Hidden Depths.”