Blue Planet II DESTROYS A Plastic Ocean In Under 5 Minutes

“Pilot Whales have big brains, and can certainly feel emotions” – Blue Planet II. Image courtesy of BBC.

In one of the most powerfully emotive TV sequences to ever have been broadcast, Sir David Attenborough made the case to end plastic pollution in Sunday night’s Big Blue episode of Blue Planet II.

The series so far has been absolutely mesmerising, as we’ve discovered a fish that uses tools, been transported to depths of the ocean never-before explored, been captivated by resourceful Anemone Fish, hypnotised by Cuttlefish, and overall carried away by shot after shot of natural beauty and wonder.

But this last episode was a true exception to everything we thought we knew about Natural History Storytelling and Science Communication.

After criticism of previous series being ‘preachy’ (turns out people still don’t like to hear about how we’re fucking everything up through climate change), there was the lingering fear that, with everything threatening ocean health at the minute, we could get caught up in a bit of climate change woe in Blue Planet II. However, thus far in the series there was only the slightest of nods towards climate change – in the Coral Reef episode, in the mention of oceanic warming and acidification leading to coral bleaching (I don’t think ‘Climate Change’ was even explicitly mentioned) in a way that left viewers not feeling too beaten-up at all.

Come the climax of the Big Blue episode however, and we were to suffer an emotional gut-punch unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – and I’m so so glad that punch was thrown.

Plastic can be found even in the most remote parts of the oceans, and has the ability to concentrate toxic chemical pollutants on it’s surface. Image courtesy of BBC.

It’s become increasingly common knowledge in recent times that plastic pollution is a colossal threat to the environment. We’ve all seen the images of dead albatross chicks bursting with plastic shrapnel. We’ve seen the agonising clip of a Sea Turtle having a plastic straw painfully removed from it’s nostril. And A Plastic Ocean is available on Netflix for all to enjoy – and that’s even recieved global renown from some very influential sources (and worth a watch if you need more anti-plastic ammo).

A Plastic Ocean is certainly a substantial coverage of a severe issue, including elements that even the most savvy environmentalist may still be surprised to learn, and it certainly inspired my partner and I to upgrade our eco-lifestyles further and switch to fully bio-degradeable toothbrushes (we already avoid plastic packaging and single-use items as much as possible). BUT, and this is a big BUT, A Plastic Ocean‘s impact is still limited *mostly* to people who already really care already about the environment and are passionate about taking action to make the world a better place. It preaches, mostly, to the converted.

What’s the tell? It’s a documentary about activists, doing activism. There’s a little bit of a story about whales, which just starts you off on an emotional journey, but then it moves head-long into consumerism, pollution, and mostly-human suffering. And you know the take-home message – that plastic sucks – as soon as you’ve read the title. While there is a journey of discovery, it’s a package journey of discovery, where you’ve familiarised yourself with the itinerary online and you know what you’re signing up for.

Now watch Blue Planet II. For 40 solid minutes you are purely immersed in the greatest photography and fantastical wildlife that the world’s leading experts in Natural History Programming currently have to offer. Without anthropomorphism, you are transported into the lives of some of the most incredible animals on Earth in a way that is almost overwhelming. If you’re a committed environmentalist, you do know what’s probably coming, that the sucker-punch is inevitable – you’d even be disappointed if Sir David didn’t deliver it – you’re bracing yourself but are so encompassed by his storytelling you can hardly blink or breathe. And then, when you’re becoming completely lost to The Big Blue… it’s upon you. Plastic.

I wasn’t timing it, but in what can’t have been more than 5 minutes of screen time Sir David Attenborough delivered more information on the severity of plastic pollution, and a more powerful call to action to rid the world of plastic in all it’s malevolent forms than A Plastic Ocean managed in it’s full 1 hour 40 minutes of more ‘pure’ SciComm.

Blue Planet II’s coverage of plastic pollution was not dragged-out, exaggerated or preachy. Sir David simply and respectfully did what he does best; he told the story of life on Earth in 2017. I don’t feel that he intended on beating his audience into submission – maybe he’s out-grown that, as some activists do. I personally felt that his approach was much wiser – to open our hearts to the issue, and let us hear his contemplative call to action quite peacefully on our own.

As I’ve said, I would’ve been disappointed if plastic pollution had been omitted from the series entirely, but I was never expecting it to be such a powerfully moving inclusion.

Thank you, Sir David, for continuing to guide and define our appreciation of nature, and thank you also to Executive Producer James Honeyborne and the rest of the Blue Planet team for utilising the power you have to profoundly inform and move people so responsibly.

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The Simple Joy of Long-Tailed Tits

I recently had the pleasure of tagging-along for a day with a friend on her PhD field research on Long-Tailed Tits, and discovered that they are utterly delightful little beings.

Caitlin Higgott, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, is now in her second year of studying the nest-building behaviour of Long-Tailed Tits. However, on the day that I met her (and tried not to interrupt her science too much whilst making a video of her working), she was focussing a lot of her attention of a wider monitoring project on ‘Helpers’.

If one bird’s breeding attempt fails [ie. chicks get eaten by crows or similar], then that bird and it’s breeding partner can either try again and lay a new clutch of eggs, or they can go and help their relatives in providing food for their nieces and nephews” she explained.

This is very cool, and helping to nurture another’s young is a pretty rare behaviour to see out in the animal kingdom, beyond the the most social animals (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, some monkeys such as Spider Monkeys and pack animals like Lions or Wolves – but even then it’s rare to find simply helpful animals without it being some hierarchal structure thing where everyone just looks after the Alpha’s offspring), and ‘Eusocial’ in the case of colony-forming insects (Ants, Wasps, Bees etc. – and that’s because they’re all more related to their siblings than they are to their own offspring!).

In short, Long-Tailed Tits aren’t just adorable to look at; deep-down they’re just lovely characters.

But one of the most impressive things that I soon discovered while out with Caitlin, is that Long-Tailed Tits can freaking HOVER!

Hovering is a very impressive talent, that again, is very rare to see elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The only birds with a real reputation for being able to *truly* hover are the Hummingbirds (of course), and the Kestrel (one of the most delightful things to commonly see on the roadsides of rural Lincolnshire).

All said and done though, Caitlin may be right in her research that one of the most simply brilliant things about Long-Tailed Tits is the way they build their nests.

It’s like something out of a fairy tale.
(a Disney one, not a classic Grimm one).

Before Caitlin started working on Long-Tailed Tits, I’d never even really heard of them. Since discovering them and all of their wonderful quirks, I think they’ve become one of my favourite British birds. They’re just utterly lovely, and in a world that is such a mess, it’s nice to find these spirits of pure joy flitting about our towns and countryside.

RIP Tilikum

Tillicum

Of all of the losses or great, loved and impactful figures of the last year, one most recently has left me struggling to know how I feel. Tilikum, the Killer Whale, has died.

Thousands of people worldwide are familiar with Tilikum from his star status at SeaWorld, where he has entertained and enthralled audiences for years. However, the spotlight was really shone on Tilikum a few years ago in the feature documentary Black Fish – which, if you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch it now. You see, Tilikum – more than any other Orca in history – lived up to his “Killer Whale” title.

(Critical note: it is *almost* completely unheard of for Orcas, aka.“Killer Whales”, to attack humans in the wild.)

Tilikum suffered a frankly horrible life. Abducted from the wild and from his mother’s side at an inhumanely young age – something which those involved confess in Black Fish as being one of the most heart-breaking experiences of their lives – and forced into captivity and public entertainment. This is not something which is ever good for marine mammals like whales, dolphins, etc. and it often manifests in obvious ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and physical symptoms. But in Tilikum, this trauma manifested more powerfully than in most. When he was 10 years old, he took his first human life, that of Keltie Byrne, in the middle of a public show in Canada.

Despite this event, Tilikum was kept in captivity, and would later be responsible for the deaths of two more people – one civilian, Daniel Dukes, and one trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during his time at SeaWorld.

This story so far is bleak, it’s morbid. And that’s the way that it was set to continue until Gabriela Cowperthwaite made the documentary Black Fish and revealed Tilikum’s tale to the world. Tilikum’s heart-wrenching story made him the poster child for captive animal abuse the world over. The use of captive marine mammals for public entertainment instantly received massive and unforgiving public attention – and none more so than SeaWorld.

It has been a long fight, but in the last year SeaWorld finally agreed that they would cease breeding further animals in captivity. Essentially saying that, when their currently captive animals die, that will be the end of their live shows.

Globally, wonderful progress has been made – almost entirely as a result of inspiration from Black Fish – in the regulations on transporting and keeping animals for entertainment. The power of Tilikum’s tale has been transformative to the modern world. And that is why I don’t know how I feel about his death.

Tilikum was a Killer Whale. He killed three people.

He also lived a utterly horrible life, suffering conditions that no sentient creature should be subjected to.

But because of his life the world is a powerfully better place for his kind, for humanity, and for every other creature that we interact with. Tilikum has done more for cetacean conservation than any other non-human in history. To me, his death simply brings to light the impact that he has had.

I am glad that SeaWorld have one less Orca to exhibit. I’m happy for Tilikum that his suffering is finally over. And I mourn him, out of sadness for his life, and for what he has inspired people to do all over the world.

As we go into 2017, renegotiating new-years resolutions and hoping for a year generally brighter than the last, please join me in raising a glass in Tilikum, the Killer Whale. Remember that from atrocity we have the power to act with overwhelming love, respect and kindness, remember that we can learn from our mistakes, and remember that you can change the world.

The Superlative Allure

Here’s a little film about Madagascar. Madagascar is the world’s oldest island. There are more endemics – species that live in here and only here – in Madagascar than anywhere else on Earth, and the diversity not just of the life here, but of the environments on this 1000-mile island is unrivalled; Lush Rainforests, Spiny Southern Forests, and Dry Deciduous Northern Forests. Though with as little as 2% of original forest remaining, nowhere is as remarkable yet so near to complete, irreplaceable destruction.

Madagascar is classified by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as a Biodiversity Hotspot – meaning that it’s within the top 35 (it’s quite near the top) of the most biodiverse-yet-threatened places on Earth. In short – the one’s we really want to hang on to.

So, Should We Save It?

That’s a question that the IUCN, WWF, Opwall, Saving Species and many other Conservation NGO’s have to ask every single day; and it’s not that easy to answer. Resources are limited, so if we’ve only got so much protection to go around, but a planet’s-worth of things that need protection, we end up having to be quite strict. The IUCN designed their Red List & the Biodiversity Hotspots idea to help us get the maximum return for our investments – the places where we can save the most stuff, that’s most in need of saving & most likely to disappear if we don’t. Their exact criteria is “Must contain more than 1500 species of Vascular Plants” (cos they’re easy to count & quantify) and “Must have lost more than 70% of it’s original habitat”.


Sidenote:

I’ve stated that “Resources are limited”. In 2012 , Donal McCarthy et al calculated that we’ll need to spend $76 BILLION, every year for the next 10 years to save all the species & habitat that needs saving. Does that sound like quite a lot?

Turns out that’s actually <20% of what we annually spend on soft drinks…

In 2013, the US Military fiscal budget was $610 BILLION –  that’s 8 of the 10 years of saving the world covered in one…

and last year the US’s GDP was $17.4 TRILLION, while the UK’s was just $2.5 TRILLION.

So… the money is out there…


The Superlative Allure

So, being the story-loving species that we are, we’re actually selecting stuff that is the most worthy of remark. This is beyond the simple charisma of the cuddly-&-endangered Giant Panda, we’re attracted to extremes. In the same way that limited edition chocolates sell-out, lost-sessions albums are fought over by fans, we drool over fine wines & rare spirits and even go to the extent of believing that this is an exclusive sale at DFS; we select for the last of something, the most threatened, the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the fattest, the most genetically isolated, the rarest. It’s fair enough; we like to feel special.

This is a brilliant book.

Randy Olson says in his book ‘Connection‘ that, in relation to story-telling “[Superlatives are] the difference between “one of” the best things in storytelling and “the” best thing in storytelling.” It’s why The Last Polar Bears are more encapsulating than Some Polar Bears.

Really Superlatives are just adjectives, but they’re the best adjectives. It’s whatever makes a Ming Vase more than just a vase; what makes M&S food more than just food.

The Price of Life?

So this leads me to a wondering; if we prize rarity over commonality… if only the most threatened species get funding… could we be making endangerment an attractive position in which to place species? We can argue for ‘Umbrella‘ and ‘Indicator‘ Species (Take Tigers or Tapirs – rare, kinda easy to monitor but massively representative of everything else living in their ecosystem), but at worst this could mean that we drive species to extinction just to make them more interesting & fund-able; or similarly we could waste money protecting the rare or cuddly purely for rareness’ or cuddliness’ sake (*cough* Pandas *cough*).

Economy Ecology

There’s 2 things we can do to make our pursuit of Conservation & World-Saving more viable, efficient & effective.

1. Look for the hidden benefits of things – also known as ‘Ecosystem Services‘. Best example – BEES! It’s quite true that we cannot live without them (at least not without invoking huge struggling and faff), and they underpin & support basically everything from the plants that they pollinate to the thing-that-eats-the-thing-that-eats-the-thing-that-eats-the plants that they pollinate. That’s the wonderful thing about Ecology – it all functions as a whole, and we need most of what the world naturally does to survive.

In a more casual sense, I’m saying ‘Stop & Smell The Roses‘.

2. Give Alluring Superlatives

Do you know how many words we have in the English language? 750,000. Of those, 3,000 are to describe emotion – of which your average westerner will habitually use 12. Tony Robbins is a vibrant advocate of the power of words, stating that if you simply transform your vocabulary you can transform your life – & he’s right. The way that we use words has a direct effect on how we experience the world around us. So try it; describe the world as if it’s a place of wonder, as if you could be excited by a single bee, of millions.

But when it comes to describing a world most-full of wonder, there really is only one expert;

Why Mitten-Crabs Are Making People Crabbit

 

“Crabbit” – adj. To be Grumpy. Often Scottish. See also; this coaster. And yes, that title’s a poor, purposeful, pun, but sparked by quite a pointed story. The Chinese Mitten Crab has invaded Scotland!

The Sinister-yet-fluffy Chinese Mitten Crab

Peculiar as these critters may be, this is actually really bad news for Scotland, as Chinese Mitten Crabs are listed among theTop 100 Worst Invasive Alien Species (though I can’t help but smile that the Top one on that list is the Crazy Ant). An Invasive Species means that the species is from one particular part of the world, where it’s adapted to life in that ecosystem… and now it’s found itself in a new ecosystem that it’s not used to and, more importantly, that new ecosystem isn’t adapted for it. My ‘favourite’ example of an Invasive is the beautiful Lion Fish currently wreaking havoc in the Caribbean – Lion Fish don’t really care what they eat, and the fish of the Caribbean aren’t adapted to recognise them as predators, so at the moment they’re staring blankly at this epic fish right up to the moment it eats it, and all its friends.

Click the fish to learn more from The Smithsonian…

So is this the problem with Mitten Crabs? Yeah, kinda. They, like Lion Fish, prey upon loads of different native British creatures, so it’s no small threat to the Scottish Salmon Fisheries. But there’s another trouble with having a invader like this; and ‘excitingly’ it’s that we don’t totally know what’ll happen… This is because of something called Trophic Cascades – and it means that everything’s interlinked. If Mitten Crabs effect a predatory species up in Scotland, that’s going to have some effect on their prey species, and vice-versa. Their disruption of otherwise stable river embankments could have all kinds of effects on water quality, and thereby everything that lives within and around that river. To put this into a Climate Change context (cos that’s important); transpose this invasive species for a slight change in water temperature, or salinity. That change could be as detrimental as a new predator to some very key species, or make the environment more amenable to invaders like this fuzzy-clawed bastard. Rather than go into Trophic Cascades further, I’m going to let George Monbiot explain it in this Beautiful video about Wolves. Seriously, watch it; it’s brilliant:

If you really want to know more about Mitten Crabs, here’s a less-than-riveting video about them.

Good News: Richard Sharp reckons we should eat the Mitten Crabs! Having recently got to sample Mud-Crab, I can vouch that they’re freaking delicious. Like the Caribbean Lion Fish, here’s one more critter you can tuck into knowing that you’re doing good for the world!

Richard Sharp’s new delicacy!