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Marine noise affects clownfish in more ways than we think

The mysteries of the deep: behind the scenes of BBC Blue Planet II

One of the most startling sequences from Blue Planet II was the result of a ‘fisherman’s tale’, according to a scientific adviser to the series, speaking at the University of Exeter. 

Professor Steve Simpson, who appeared in the final episode of Blue Planet II and was a Series Scientific Adviser, revealed how the BBC film crew headed to the Seychelles to follow a tip from South African fishermen about huge fish that jump out of the water to hunt fledgling terns.

Guided by fishermen, the Blue Planet II team spent weeks trying to catch the elusive trevallies on camera. They finally captured them on film ‘stalking’ birds under water, and then jumping into the air to catch their prey in their jaws.

In a public lecture at the University of Exeter, Simpson described the sheer scale of the Blue Planet II production which took four years of preparation and had over 1,000 people, including many scientists, working on it. 

For his shoot on clownfish and underwater sound, Professor Simpson took 33 cases full of equipment to film the sequence on how fish communicate, and the impact of man-made noise on marine animals. 

The expert in marine noise and communication thrilled an auditorium full of adults and children from the South West, students and Exeter University staff, by playing recordings of humpback whales and clownfish communicating with each other. 

He explained how for Blue Planet II he used an advanced four-way recording device to capture clownfish communicating with each other in times of danger, and unlocked underwater sounds used courtship and by fish for navigation. 

Professor Simpson introduced the audience to ‘Boris’ – a model predatory coral trout which he dangled from a broom handle in the final episode of the series. This fake predator convinced the clownfish family being filmed that they were under threat, prompting them to send alarm calls to each other. 

The marine biologist amused the audience of several hundred, including many children who were captivated by Sir David Attenborough’s latest series, by recounting how ‘Boris’ attracted unwanted attention from a real trout which changed colour in order to flirt with him. 

He explained how motorboat noise disturbed the fish while they were filming, as well as a group of Japanese tourists who decided to photobomb the filming while on a diving safari..

He also described how the Blue Planet II crew spent over 100 hours trying to capture on film a tusk fish using tools. 

Asked by a young member of the audience which was his favourite fish in the series, Professor Simpson admitted he became attached to Percy the tusk fish while filming him smashing clams against a piece of coral.

The University of Exeter marine biologist explained how Blue Planet II had shifted thinking by government, and had drawn public attention to the threats facing the oceans today, including plastic pollution.

Says Simpson: “It is phenomenal to see how passionate the 100s of millions of viewers of all generations have become about the ocean, and to know that this series is causing real change. People are thinking much more about eating sustainable fish, reducing plastic packaging, choosing renewable energy and cleaning beaches around the world. Hopefully Blue Planet III will be a series in another 15 years’ time that tells the story of how we saved the oceans.”

Kate Williams, from Exmouth, who attended the talk with her husband Dai and two children Ben and Meg, said: 

“We were so inspired by Steve’s talk and hugely impressed by his breadth of knowledge.  He answered a wide range of questions from the enthralled children in the front row, who hung on his every word as he described the various ‘fishy characters’ from the Blue Planet II episodes, especially Boris the underwater puppet predator.  The vivid image of Steve and Sir David Attenborough racing across the beach at night on a dune buggy with only a torch to guide them is one I shall remember!”

You can watch a recording of the event here: 

Date: 9 February 2018

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