Thursday 22 February 2018

One woman and the sea: The Irishwoman behind the breathtaking 'Blue Planet II'

Producer Orla Doherty on her quest for aquatic adventure that took her hundreds of metres beneath the ocean in Antarctica to film an episode of the spectacular 'Blue Planet II' series. Her Donegal origins gave her a taste for the sea

The crew inside the Nadir, one of the submersibles used in filming the series. Photo: Luis Lamar
The crew inside the Nadir, one of the submersibles used in filming the series. Photo: Luis Lamar
A methane or 'mud' volcano, 650 metres deep in the Gulf of Mexico, where bubbles of methane erupt from the seafloor, dragging plumes of millennia-old sediment with them as they rise. When the Blue Planet II team returned to film this scene the following day, the volcano was dormant once more.

Dawn was breaking over Antarctica as I awoke. For close to three days we'd been at sea, having set sail from the southern tip of Argentina on our research vessel Alucia. Nothing could have prepared me, though, for the breathtaking sight of icebergs ahead of us. It was like a winter wonderland.

If you tuned into last Sunday's episode of Blue Planet II on BBC One, you can probably picture the scene. But absorbing this landscape from the deck of Alucia was something else entirely.

Blue Planet II producer Orla Doherty. Photo: BBC/James Honeyborne
Blue Planet II producer Orla Doherty. Photo: BBC/James Honeyborne

We had been planning this expedition for two years, burying ourselves in research and working out what we might find. Yet you can never quite predict exactly if an operation as complex as this will succeed.

The logistics were no small feat: for this five-week mission we had in tow two submersibles, a helicopter, an impressive amount of kit and a crew of around 50.

Eager to begin the last stage of our journey, Alucia's captain had been watching the weather, waiting for the perfect moment to depart. Get it wrong, and you face a rough ride across the Drake Passage, one of the world's most unforgiving stretches of ocean.

Fortunately, he picked the right moment, and ours was a smooth crossing. And now here we were, cruising through Earth's most hostile and remote continent, soon to explore parts no human has ever visited before, two-thirds of a mile beneath its icy waters.

A green turtle (Chelonia mydas), Borneo, Malaysia. Endangered green turtles come to feed in the tropical waters off the island of Sipadan. Of all the sea turtles, the green turtle is the only strict herbivore as an adult. It has fine serration along its jaw to help it tear algae and sea grass
A green turtle (Chelonia mydas), Borneo, Malaysia. Endangered green turtles come to feed in the tropical waters off the island of Sipadan. Of all the sea turtles, the green turtle is the only strict herbivore as an adult. It has fine serration along its jaw to help it tear algae and sea grass
This flapjack octopus lives in the deep waters off California. It is a type of dumbo octopus, so-named for the fins it uses to move through the water. Portrait of scientific specimen, collected by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, California.
Deep sea spider crab (Paramola cuvieri). Spider crabs patrol the deep seafloor, carrying pieces of coral or sponge in their hind legs. Perhaps the coral provides camouflage, perhaps the stinging cells of the coral or sponge are a deterrent to predators. Like so much in the deep ocean, nobody is entirely sure.

As David Attenborough says on the programme, no human has ever descended into the depths that surround Antarctica - until now. I was to have a front-row seat at the frontier of scientific discovery.

Read more: 'Any chance the BBC will take my Irish TV License fee instead?' - everyone was loving Blue Planet 2 last night 

The appeal of spending 500 hours in total beneath the waves, for up to eight hours at a time, may be lost on some. But I would live down there if I could.

My television career began on Def II, Janet Street-Porter's youth-focused channel- within-a-channel at BBC Two in the early 1990s. But for my 30th birthday, I treated myself to a scuba dive while on holiday in Thailand, and from the moment I first put my head underwater, that was it: I could no more stay in London, away from the coral reefs, than I could give up breathing air.

So after a year winding up my affairs, and with my longing for the sea still as strong, I left city life behind and spent the following decade studying the remote coral reefs of the Pacific Ocean with an NGO. I came off the ship every couple of years, and then only for a few weeks at a time.

"How could you spend 10 years on a ship?" people ask me. My question to them is: "How could you not?" My family is from the rugged coastline of Donegal in Ireland - so perhaps a connection with the sea was in my DNA. In any case, at 31 there was nothing to stop me taking off.

Perilous journey

When I eventually returned to London, and to television, Blue Planet II was in development - and four years later, here we are.

What a journey it has been: exhilarating, exhausting - and often perilous! We were working at the very edge of human knowledge, and the unknown depths contained dangers we couldn't foresee.

Enclosed beneath the ocean in a nine-tonne, battery-powered submersible, a mere seven inches of acrylic were all that protected the pilot, cameraman and me from pressure 100 times greater than at the surface. Our oxygen supply was cleaned by a scrubber that kept carbon dioxide at safe levels. When these levels began to rise or the batteries lost power, we had to return to the surface. Perish the thought you might need to go to the loo while submerged - there were no provisions for those calls of nature, and luckily we always managed to hold out.

Every time we head into the field to film, we take risk extremely seriously. As the producer, it's my responsibility to assess protocols and procedures exhaustively. But what we did not know was that rocks could fall out of the melting base of icebergs and plummet towards our sub. Yet out of possible danger came discovery: scientists realised these rocks were vital to deep-sea life in Antarctica, providing an anchorage on which life could thrive.

However, it wasn't until water started leaking into the sub at a depth of 450 metres that the true risks of what I was doing hit home. It wasn't terror I felt as much as resignation.

"If this is going to blow," I reasoned, "there's nothing I can do."

Read more: Yes, the Bobbit worm is named after THAT Bobbit - 5 things we learned from #BluePlanet2 

But within 20 minutes, the pilot had isolated the leak and shut down the problem. When he asked if we wanted to ascend, I declined and we stayed down filming for two more hours. Every moment in the deep sea counts. If I seemed calm, perhaps it was because I've spent a long time at sea and after a while you grow accustomed to the danger. I've seen heavy storms, a cyclone and I've even lost a mast 1,000 miles from shore. However, what the audience didn't see were the long hours waiting for something to happen. You can momentarily forget where you are and it becomes normal to be in this dark void, illuminated only where you choose to shine a light. Sometimes the senses become so inured, you could be sitting on London's Piccadilly line. At other times, it's like drifting through space, as if there isn't any water there at all.

The days we came back with nothing, my sense of disappointment was crushing. Personally demoralised, I also felt I'd let everybody down. But then come those amazing days where you return to the top, bursting with excitement at the discoveries you've made and the thrill of having added to the sum of human knowledge.

Discovering the methane volcano was one of those days. We were working in the Gulf of Mexico when our expedition scientist whispered to me one night, "Orla, there's a place about 100 miles west of here where little bubbles come out of the sea floor and you might like it."

A day later we were diving on a submarine methane volcano no one even knew was there, our jaws on the floor. The next day, we returned to the same dive site, but there wasn't a trace of it. Only the footage shows it did. It's entirely possible no one will ever see again what we saw that day.

Last Sunday night, at my parents' house in Buckinghamshire, I watched, along with 10 million others, as the programme finally aired. I only wish my father, who died six months ago, had been there too.

Four years after the production began, our voyages to the deep were now a magical piece of entertainment.

Blue Planet II continues on Sunday, BBC One at 8pm

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