I could no more stay in London, away from the coral reefs, than I could give up breathing air
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.
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 fiveweek 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.
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.
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 channelwithin-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. 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.”
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