The Netflix series was a runaway hit when it was released this spring—and understanding the lengths to which the teams go in order to secure their footage makes watching it even more profoundby Ralph Jones / June 24, 2019 / Leave a comment
I’m on a boat in the middle of Alaska, holding a hydrophone under the icy water, trying to hear humpback whales talking to each other so that a £500,000 camera can film them. It’s not what I would describe as a normal day.
What I’m doing, as per the instructions of onboard marine biology professor Jan Straley, is rotating the hydrophone while the boat is stationary. We’re trying to pick up and then locate excited whale chatter because it signals something special: it means that the animals are likely to surge up through the water, emitting bubbles that drive thousands of herring toward the surface, where the whales will open their enormous mouths and swallow them.
The behaviour is called bubble-netting, and the trick is to coordinate the operation such that the film crew know when and where to point their cameras to catch the whales as they emerge.
This is how it feels to peek behind the curtain of David Attenborough’s Our Planet. The Netflix documentary series, released earlier this spring, has been a runaway success with 25 million views in its first month on the streaming service.
When I catch up with the crew it’s late March 2018, and the humpback whales are arriving in Alaska from Hawaii where they have been breeding. They’re ready for what will be their first meal in months, and they’re here for one reason: herring are coming. Throughout the winter the herring have stayed in the open ocean but now they’re heading for the coast to spawn.
Oliver Scholey, one of the researchers on the team, explains in their cabin that the fish choose to spawn in the spring because this is when the sun hits the water, causing the plants to photosynthesise. This in turn makes the phytoplankton in the water bloom, providing abundant food for their young.
We’re in Sitka, a town of 8,863 people. Sitting on Alaska’s eastern coastline, Sitka looks as though whoever made the world had a surplus of mountains and decided to absent-mindedly dot the shore with them. Ernie Eggleston, an ex-fisherman who…