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A ‘whalecam’, seals v sharks and fish that play dead: it’s Planet Earth III

A detachable “whalecam”, remote underwater cameras operated from a director’s bedroom and a “drone ballet” are among the innovations that will be featured for the first time on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth III.

Following the global success of 2016’s BBC’s Planet Earth II and its famous “snakes v iguanas” scene, the corporation’s natural history unit has spent five years pushing the boundaries of technology to deliver an equally jaw-dropping series.

Episode one’s producer/director Nick Easton said the team wanted an “onboard view” of a whale in Argentina to show its point of view, but the technology did not exist. So over six months the team discussed the ethics of a “whalecam”, followed by another year of development and consultation with whale scientists.

In the end the thing that was the most difficult and took the longest time to develop was how to detach the camera once they had used it. So they developed a soluble clamping mechanism made of corn starch that released the camera after 20 minutes.

Although only two of the stunning shots feature in the show, Easton said it was worth all the effort. “There’s a human guinea pig somewhere in Bristol who was swimming up and down a swimming pool with that camera. I’m very grateful for that.”

The eight-part Attenborough-narrated BBC Studios series also features never-before-seen footage of the world’s largest colony of pearl octopus mothers slowly starving to death on the seabed as they protect their eggs for two years.

Series producer Matt Brandon explained it was made by director Will Ridgeon in Bristol in his bedroom, “directing a camera on a remotely operated vehicle thousands of miles away, two miles beneath the surface of the ocean. That certainly wouldn’t have been possible for the original Planet Earth [in 2006].”

Around a third of the series was shot using remote cameras, partly due to Covid, but also to help reduce the team’s carbon footprint. The environmental issue was also helped by the use of drones, rather than helicopters.

The drones were multi-purpose. Easton said a shoot in one of the world’s biggest caves featured, “a drone ballet” with one drone “flying around in the dark lighting the space” while communicating with the other which was filming.

Drones were also used to capture what Attenborough said was an “astounding” seals-versus-sharks sequence in South Africa that took director Georgina Ward four years to capture and which Brandon said was “new behaviour”.

Other highlights include seals escaping from fishing nets, a father ostrich helping his chick survive, a jacana bird that issues a special “freeze” call to its chicks, rarely seen footage of an angel fish and a breath-holding fish that fakes its own death.

There are also scenes which show humanity’s impact, including flamingoes in Mexico desperately trying to protect their chicks from being wiped out by storms hastened by climate change.

The series also shows Attenborough in a Kent meadow that Charles Darwin walked in, reminding audiences about evolution. Executive producer Mike Gunton said Planet Earth III looks through “a new lens … where the planet is changing and there’s this huge force which Darwin would call a selection pressure. And that selection pressure is humanity.”

He said that while the drama of previous series remains, Planet Earth III has another context, which is how animals are adapting their lives to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Examples include a rhino walking through a Nepalese town and long-tailed macaques stealing iPhones from tourists to negotiate their return in exchange for food.

Attenborough also contrasts his 1957 visit to tiny Raine Island on the northern Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest green turtle breeding ground – with the situation today, where as a result of climate change it is set to disappear beneath the waves. Local conservationist Keiran Murphy is shown saving stranded turtles, saying: “Governments and big business need to get real.”

One episode is devoted to “hero” conservationists and includes two women who dress in yellow to become foster mothers to baby bald ibis chicks – teaching them how to fly using microlights. It is thought that the colour yellow is attractive to the young creatures.

Another first is a podcast that will accompany the series, featuring Attenborough, Gunton and other programme makers.

Gunton paid tribute to the perseverance of the crew, who filmed in 43 countries across six continents. One cameraman, Abdullah Khan, took five-second micro-naps during 16 straight days in a 40-degree heat hide, while a crew on remote Ellesmere island in Canada had to dig a runway so a plane could get them out.

The BBC reduced its climate impact by using more local camera operators and training new ones through a BBC Studios scheme called Songbird. Gunton said it had given the show a different perspective and Brandon said it had helped reduce shoot cancellations as, due to climate change, “it’s more difficult to predict exactly” when things will happen.

However, Gunton said he was optimistic for the future, as when Attenborough filmed in Darwin’s meadow it was “alive” with insects and gave the pair hope.

Planet Earth III is airing at an earlier time than previous series, with the aim of allowing more children to watch and become involved.

Attenborough told the Observer: “Children have an instinctive understanding about the way the world operates. By and large, children are better at understanding the natural world and as adults we should be making more opportunities for them to do that.”