Great Barrier Reef series reveals unseen events

By Jenna Hanson 14 March 2012
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A new three-part documentary series reveals previously unfilmed scenes of the world’s biggest coral reef.

A NEW THREE-PART BBC series on the Great Barrier Reef captures the World Heritage-listed site in glorious detail, using time-lapses, macro photography and state-of-the-art equipment to show a side of the reef few people have ever seen.

“We found things that would put Avatar to shame,” says filmmaker and marine biologist Richard Fitzpatrick from Digital Dimensions. “We found new species that have never been filmed before and we found species that weren’t even supposed to be in Australia and now we know they’re there.”

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system, stretching over 2000km along the Queensland coast and spanning around 65km at its widest point.

Underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef

It is home to 2900 individual reefs and more than 400 different kinds of coral as well as coral sponges; megafauna such as whales, dolphins and sharks; more than 1500 species of tropical fish; more than 200 types of bird; and about 20 types of reptile, including sea turtles and giant clams over 120 years old.

One of the episodes explores the magnificent wreckage of the SS Yongala, a ship that sank in a cyclone on 23 March, 1911 and remained undiscovered for almost 50 years. Now a popular dive site, the shipwreck proved a valuable source of footage of life in the reef.

“It’s been down under the water for over 100 years and it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” says Richard. “Because it’s in the middle of nowhere it attracts life like you wouldn’t believe, so on one dive you see more life than anywhere else on the reef.”

Exciting new discovering on the reef

The series contains many exciting new discoveries, with the filming actually spawning 10 research papers to be published in the near future. The first episode in the series, Nature’s Miracle, features footage from Raine Island – a coral cay on the outer edge of the reef and the largest and most important nesting site for green sea turtles in the world.

“In one hour of walking around the island we counted 26,000 turtles,” says Richard. But don’t think you’ll get the chance to see these creatures for yourself, as the island is completely protected from public access.

In fact, this is the first time the BBC has been granted access to film on the island. “The only reason we were allowed to go there is because I’m a scientist as well,” he says. “When we make our programs, we integrate science at the same time.”

In a first for science and documentary film making, Richard and his team borrowed a $5 million robot from the Japanese government that helped them film over the edge of the Great Barrier Reef to depths of up to 1000m.

“To me, that was one of the highlights because there were these big HD screens on the boat and it was like being on the Starship Enterprise and you had no idea what was going to show up,” says Richard. “We saw nautilus shells, which are living fossils and they only live in a very specific depth range. We filmed the first baby nautilus that no one had ever seen [one] before.”

Big issues for a big reef

The series, however, focuses on more than just the amazing visual aspects of the Great Barrier Reef and its colourful inhabitants – it explores the environmental issues that are harming the reef.

With Cyclone Yasi as a big character in the documentary, Richard and his team explore the effects of climate change, coral bleaching and water quality on the health of the reef. Richard is most proud of his work with coral bleaching, spending a year to develop the technique to film the process in a time-lapse.

“No one has actually filmed coral bleaching happening,” says Richard. “We filmed it at a level where you can see the cells being expelled at a macro level and also at a micro level.”

Richard is hopeful the program will see a change in attitude of people around the world to the issue of climate change and the effect their decisions can have on something half-way around the globe.

“The Great Barrier Reef is one of those canaries in the mine field as an environment; [it’s] where we’re seeing change happen first,” says Richard. “The reef will always exist, but the quality of the reef that we end up with is purely going to be determined by what we do now and if we don’t take steps now, it’ll be a much poorer place with less diversity.”

Episode one of Great Barrier Reef aired on Sunday, 11 March at 6:30pm on Australia’s Nine Network.