Tuesday, April 26, 2016

007 Leagues Under the Sea

by Drew Martin
I have always appreciated how BBC nature documentaries develop a narrative for the animals they are observing. Perhaps it is at times too forced and scripted (as if for a children’s story) but it draws you into the fold, or pod, or whatever. Last night I watched the first episode of Dolphins: Spy in the Pod. As Brits are also famous for their spy culture, this two-episode program combines onsite observation with camouflaged espionage.

The show follows a couple different pods of bottlenose and spinner dolphins in various oceans around the world. The dolphins are filmed swimming, hunting and foraging for fish, mating, rearing their young, and above all, playing.

What’s different about this documentary's approach to turning the lens on nature is that it tries to remove the presence of humans by using synthetic spy creatures whose eyes, and sometimes mouths, are outfitted with high-definition cameras. There’s Spy Turtle, Spy Tuna, Spy Nautilus, Spy Dolphin, Spy Squid, Spy Clam, Spy Puffer, and Spy Ray, all with a unique way of getting around and filming.

One advantage of the various aquatic agents is that they pique the interest of the ever-curious dolphins and attract them for up-close photo opportunities. Sometimes the spy creatures fit in too well. Spy Squid is preyed upon by a monstrous potato cod, and while filming a couple of mating olive ridley sea turtles, the female switches her attention to our voyeur and makes her moves on Spy Turtle. When the narrator announces that Spy Turtle has to stay focused and has a job to do, as it moves off, you feel a little sorry for him, even though he is just an android.

While the spy creatures might seem like a gimmick at times, and you might question how effective they are from traditional underwater filming when you see them putter out of commission, they do make some amazing finds. Spy Trout captures the coming together of two large pods to form a never-seen-before mega-pod of more than 3,000 dolphins. 

Also filmed is a garland mating dance/play initiated by male dolphins who present wreaths of seaweed to interested females. One of the spy creatures even captures the dolphins at a spa – they must get rid of their most outer layer of skin every three hours to stay hydrodynamic so the dolphins will revisit coral beds where they can exfoliate.

The spy creatures, when looked at as art objects, are pure Dada, and surreal, and remind me of a post I did about pigeon surveillance cameras, tree stump listening devices, exploding coal, and other quirky tricks of the espionage trade. For more on that, read I Spy.