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Blue Planet II, explained in 5 fish

(Okay, not all of them are fish. But they all live in the sea! Or at least near it.)

Blue Planet II
These are not fish. These are turtles. Which are reptiles. WE KNOW.
BBC America
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You probably already have at least some idea of what to expect from Planet Earth: Blue Planet II. It will be gorgeous. It will reveal unexpected animal behavior and the often swift brutality of the natural world. And it will make you feel at least a twinge of anxiety at how thoroughly humanity seems to have tanked the planet.

If all of that sounds good to you, read no further; Blue Planet II will be one of your favorite TV events of the year, and its deep dive beneath the waves of the world’s oceans will prove both soothing and engaging. Find the highest-definition television you can and some good snacks and settle in. You’ve got seven whole episodes of jaw-dropping documentary footage to enjoy.

But maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you don’t usually like this sort of programming, or don’t want to think about how, say, overfishing is destroying the oceans, or how climate change is bleaching coral reefs. Or maybe you just don’t see how watching a bunch of fish do their thing could be perfect and informative escapism. In that case, please allow me to convince you that some of the best television out there is currently being made by the BBC’s nature documentary unit.

And let me do that by explaining Blue Planet II in five fish.*

*Not all of these five sea creatures are fish, but you get the idea.

1) A lil’ fish who likes to kill clams with his favorite rock

The orange spotted tuskfish is one of many creatures that have caused scientists to reconsider the idea that the ability to “use tools” is reserved for animals with higher cognition and brain functions (like, you know, we primates). These fish pick up clams in their mouths, drag them over to something hard — a rock or coral — and then hurl the clams against it until the bivalves split open and the fish can feast on the tasty morsel inside.

It’s the sort of behavior that couldn’t have been captured even 10 years ago, according to Blue Planet’s producers. The presence of a diver’s bubbles or a whirring camera would have spooked the fish, whose process can take several hours. But for Blue Planet II, new breathing systems that don’t produce bubbles and much quieter equipment on the whole allowed for camera operators to get right up close to the tuskfish as it spent hours on end tossing a shell against a coral, trying to get at the clam inside. (The footage appears in the new series’ first episode.)

Nature documentaries are one genre where better technology can lead to a better film. Throughout the past several decades, but especially since the debut of Planet Earth in 2006, the BBC has led the charge of embracing new and improved technologies to push the boundaries of what’s possible, by continually updating the equipment it uses to better and more inventively capture the lives of the animals it tracks. The tireless tuskfish, captured in surprisingly intimate detail, is just one example.

2) The terrifying sharks that patrol the deep, looking for dead whales to eat

Blue Planet II
This sixgill shark is hungry.
BBC America

The bluntnose sixgill shark, which pops up in episode two, “The Deep,” is a fearsome creature. It hangs out at the bottom of the ocean, looking for carcasses to descend from above, and then feasts on the remains. In “The Deep,” Blue Planet II’s team watches as a whole crew of sixgill sharks zoom in from all over to take big bites out of a dead sperm whale, then traces the slow scavenging of the carcass by the sharks and other creatures over the course of several months, until only bones remain.

This speaks to how frequently the Blue Planet II team thinks about their documentaries in terms of images and sound, and not just the subject matter they’re pursuing. For as horrifying as the events unfolding onscreen might seem — considering they focus on gigantic sharks that literally eat dead bodies — the production’s cameras find angles that really capture a fuller picture of what’s happening below the surface of the ocean. As you watch the sharks battle over small patches of whale meat, you’ll also notice just how little light filters down this deep, because the camerawork relies on what little natural light there is as often as possible.

But what really struck me about Blue Planet II was its use of sound — not just from animals or waves, but from the way the underwater world dully echoes and resonates. Icebergs crackle, and critters scuttle across the sea floor. Everything’s a little muffled, but that gives the sound an eerie, beautiful quality all the same.

3) A fish that changes its gender after it’s simply had enough

Blue Planet II
Kobudai females can become males if they get large enough. Then they try to shove the other males out of their territory.
BBC America

Another quality that sets the BBC’s nature documentaries apart is how brilliantly they tell massive stories with life-and-death stakes, but in miniature. Every episode contains several stories, about several animals, grouped loosely by theme.

Another tale from Blue Planet II’s first episode involves the kobudai, a fish that lives in the waters surrounding Japan. Among this species, one male will mate with many females, but he’s always got to be on the lookout for what might happen if one of those females disappears to hide out for months — during which time she changes genders, becoming a male. If the new male has grown large enough, he can return to shove the original male out of his territory, only to begin the cycle anew.

It’s a nifty little story, told in a little over five minutes, and though you can try to find resonances with current events surrounding our ongoing discussions of gender issues, Blue Planet II mercifully never tries to do this itself. It’s simply content to observe as this tiny drama, a miniature power struggle, plays out among fish.

4) The asshole birds that make life difficult for adorable puffins, by stealing their fish

In the season’s sixth episode, “Coasts,” Blue Planet II turns its camera to the dramas that happen where land meets sea, from tide pools to sandy beaches. But it saves its starkest drama for rocky seaside cliffs where puffins dwell, trying to feed their little baby puffins (which — you guys — are called pufflings).

One of the hidden strengths of the BBC nature documentaries is their willingness to depict the cruelty of nature and their refusal to anthropomorphize the animals they film. And yet they are very, very careful to never give the viewer too much to handle. Yes, you’ll see adorable animals get eaten by predators, but you’ll also get something like Planet Earth II’s instantly iconic “Snake Island” scene, in which prey makes a daring escape.

So it goes with the puffins, who are forced to fly all the way out to sea to catch fish, then fly all the way back to feed the pufflings, only to have to get past a skua — a swifter bird that’s more skilled at maneuvering and likes to fly in and snatch the fish right out of a puffin’s grasp, rendering all of that work for naught.

Blue Planet II invites you to anthropomorphize as much as you want — look at the beautiful puffin family! — but it never loses sight of the fact that both puffins and skua are just trying to survive. It renders these stories in elemental terms, rather than humanistic ones. It’s just that some of these birds are going about their survival honestly and others are robbers.

5) A mother walrus that just wants her kid to have a place to nap

Blue Planet II
Human technology allows Blue Planet II to better capture how human technology has messed up the oceans.
BBC America

The undercurrent of every episode of Blue Planet II is, “Look at how we humans fucked up this perfectly good ocean.” The series makes this point both subtly — when you might spot a flash of plastic somewhere it shouldn’t be — and much more obviously, as in a sequence revealing how deep-sea fishers have devastated a coral reef on the ocean floor.

Indeed, the series’ final episode is all about the ways the ocean is changing — though hopefully not irreparably — because of humans’ presence. And yet it isn’t a call to action. It’s simply an observation of how humanity has made the planet a worse place in ways big and small.

If there’s one moment when Blue Planet II puts its thumb on the scales, just a little bit, it’s when the series invites us to look in on the plight of some fellow mammals, just trying to get by above the Arctic Circle. A mother walrus and her baby swim, endlessly, looking for a place to rest (since walrus calves can’t keep up with their mothers when it comes to endurance), only to find that the few ice floes that could support walruses are already occupied. And all the while, a similarly hungry family of polar bears lurks on the shore.

I wouldn’t dare spoil how this drama ends (except to say that it doesn’t end with the horrifying death of a walrus baby), but the desperation that eventually overtakes Mother Walrus is weirdly recognizable. Narrator David Attenborough gravely intones about warming seas, and he doesn’t need to say who’s warming those seas. We know all too well. And if nothing else, Blue Planet II is a window into a place where our presence is felt every day, no matter how detached and silent we try to remain, or how far away we live from the animals whose lives it chronicles. It is not in the nature of the BBC’s documentaries to sound the alarm, but their greatest artistic strength comes from the way they do anyway.

Blue Planet II debuts Saturday, January 20, at 9 pm Eastern on BBC America (and a host of other AMC networks). Future episodes will air on BBC America alone on Saturdays.

Watch: How Hans Zimmer and Radiohead transformed “Bloom” for Blue Planet II

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