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Matt Ridley On The BBC’s Blue Planet

December 12, 2017

By Paul Homewood


An honest assessment of the BBC’s Blue Planet II from the ever perceptive Matt Ridley:



Nothing that Hollywood sci-fi screenwriters dream up for outer space begins to rival the beauty and ingenuity of life under water right here. Blue Planet II captured behaviour that was new to science as well as surprising: giant trevally fish eating sooty terns on the wing; Galapagos sea lions herding yellowfin tuna ashore; an octopus wrapping itself in shells to confuse sharks.

The series also preached. Every episode had a dose of bad news about the ocean and a rebuke to humanity, while the entire last episode was devoted to the environmental cause, featuring overfishing, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification. The team behind the incomparable Sir David Attenborough has acceded to demands that it should push more environmentalism.


Bottlenose dolphins in South Africa on the BBC’s Blue Planet II

Bottlenose dolphins in South Africa on the BBC’s Blue Planet IIPA

Mostly, these sermons were spot on. It is a scandal that eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year, though 95 per cent of it comes from just ten rivers, all in Asia and Africa, so that’s where the main effort is needed. Plastic kills albatross chicks and even whales.

The series has been accused of cheating in the sequence in which a pilot whale is shown carrying its decomposing calf. The commentary implied, without actually saying, that the calf might have died from ingesting plastic, or from pollutants in its mother’s milk. Yet there was no evidence of how it died. I think that’s unfair on the BBC. The commentary was careful and raised a valid worry.

Why are there still so few killer whales, bottlenose dolphins and great white sharks in European waters, now that seal numbers have hugely increased? There is only one resident pod of killer whales in British waters, and it is dwindling, with no calves born for years.

The answer came when one of those killer whales died recently, a female called Lulu. Her blubber had one of the highest concentrations of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) ever recorded: over 900mg per kg, 100 times what is considered safe. A study of stranded killer whales and bottlenose dolphins in European waters found “PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds”:

In conclusion, this pan-European meta-analysis of stranded or biopsied cetaceans demonstrates that several European cetacean species, specifically BNDs, SDs, and KWs, currently have markedly elevated blubber PCB concentrations. Particular “PCB hotspots” included the western (SDs and BNDs) and central (BNDs) Mediterranean Sea and SW Iberia, the Gulf of Cadiz (BNDs) and the Strait of Gibraltar (BNDs and KWs). Despite an EU ban on the use and manufacture of PCBs in the mid-1980s, blubber PCB concentrations are still very high, possibly having reached a “steady state” between environmental input and degradation, meaning that high PCB exposures are set to continue for the long-term in cetacean top predators in Europe. These high and stable PCB exposures are associated with small populations, long-term population declines or contraction of range in several dolphin species in Europe (NE Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas) that were not adequately explained by other factors (e.g. bycatch or other anthropogenic causes of mortality). Bycatch is common in the most abundant cetacean species in Europe, but is comparatively rare in BNDs and virtually unrecorded in recent years for KWs, suggesting that the ongoing population declines in these two species are predominantly driven by other processes, with bioaccumulation of PCBs through marine food chains being the predominant factor. A lack of recruitment in monitored KW and BND populations is also consistent with PCB toxicity as the likeliest cause of their declines. In the Mediterranean Sea, the SD has suffered recurrent CeMV mortalities, which may have been exacerbated by the high and immunotoxic level of PCB exposure. Without significant mitigation, PCBs will continue to drive population declines or suppress population recovery in Europe for many decades to come. Measures to significantly reduce inputs of PCBs into the marine environment from terrestrial and other sources are urgently needed. Further studies are also needed to better assess PCB exposure and quantify toxic effects in marine apex predator populations in Europe. Finally, the potential impact of PCB bioaccumulation in marine ecosystems may extend beyond European waters, particularly in globally distributed marine apex predators such as KWs, false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) and great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).

Being at the top of the food chain, these mammals concentrate PCBs in their fat and it renders them sterile (killer whales that eat fish, rather than seals, are doing better). PCBs were used mainly in electrical equipment until they were banned in the 1980s. Off America, this problem is fading: PCB levels have fallen and animals have “offloaded” the pollutants in milk, such that after several births they can bear and feed healthy calves. PCB levels in European waters fell but have now stabilised, implying that they are still getting into the sea somehow.

I was glad to see these issues given more attention, at last, than global warming, having long argued that the obsession with climate change (increasingly recognised as gradual) is diverting attention and money from more urgent environmental issues such as overfishing, pollution and invasive species.

It was good, too, to hear Attenborough’s recognition, rare on the BBC, that we are living through an unexpectedly bountiful renaissance in some marine ecosystems. Too often we are told only the bad news. The last episode featured the recovery of turtles, as well as the resurgent herring, killer whales and humpback whales of Norway, and the vast concentrations of sperm whales now being seen for the first time since the era of Moby Dick. Many populations of sperm, right, grey, bowhead, fin, blue and humpback whales are now high again, and rising at 5 to 10 per cent a year, something I never dreamt would happen in my lifetime.

The series could have made the same point about the penguins, fur seals and elephant seals of South Georgia, an island denuded of almost all wildlife about 75 years ago, but now once again teeming. Or about walruses, an Arctic species that has rebounded after centuries of exploitation. When I first visited Spitsbergen in the 1970s there were about 100 walruses there. Today there are about 4,000 and the population is still increasing rapidly.

Walruses were brought to the brink of extinction in Svalbard (Norway) during 350 years of unregulated harvesting. They became protected in 1952, when few remained. During the first 30 years of protection, approximately 100 animals became established within the archipelago, most of which likely came from Franz Josef Land, to the east. A marked recovery has taken place since then. This study reports the results of a photographic aerial survey flown in summer 2012, covering all current and historical haul-out sites for walruses in Svalbard. It provides updates regarding the increasing numbers of: (1) landbased haul-out sites (from 78 in 2006 to 91 in 2012); (2) occupied sites (from 17 in 2006 to 24 in the 2012 survey); (3) sites with mother-calf pairs (which increased from a single site with a single small calf in 2006 to 10 sites with a total of 57 small calves in 2012) and (4) a 48% increase in abundance in the six-year period between the two surveys to 3886 (confidence interval 3553-4262) animals, including animals in the water at the time of the survey. Future environmental change might reduce benthic production in the Arctic, reducing the prey-base for walruses, and also impact walruses directly via declines in their sea-ice breeding habitat. But, currently the Svalbard walrus population is growing at a rate that matches the theoretical maximum rate of growth that has been calculated for recovering walrus populations under favourable environmental conditions with no food limitations.
Walruses recovering after 60+ years of protection in Svalbard, Norway (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Dec 12 2017].

So it was naughty of Blue Planet II, in showing a sequence in which a mother and calf walrus desperately try to find a bit of ice big enough to bear their weight but not already occupied by other walruses, to imply that this was evidence of climate change threatening a species with extinction. Most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean disappears each summer and reappears each winter. Walruses have hauled out on shore, or on what’s left of the ice at that season, forever. The main thing that has changed is that there are now more walruses, and more polar bears feasting on them, throughout the Arctic.

So the climate change obsession is still sometimes getting in the way of telling the truth. The most dishonest sequence in the series was when Attenborough watched shells dissolving in a tank of acid, to a soundtrack of fizzing noises, and was told by Professor Chris Langdon that although this was “more dramatic than what’s happening in the oceans”, nonetheless “the shells and the reefs are really truly dissolving”.

This is highly misleading in several different ways. Was it carbonic acid, or another acid? The reduction in alkalinity will get nowhere near neutral, let alone actual acidity, even by the end of the 22nd century, so “dissolving” is false, let alone happening now. The changes in ocean pH expected even by the end of this century are minuscule compared with what was shown in that tank, and by comparison with the daily and seasonal changes that an average reef experiences. (Coral bleaching, a different issue, is more serious, but more temporary.)

A 2010 analysis of 372 studies of 44 different marine species found that the world’s marine fauna is “more resistant to ocean acidification than suggested by pessimistic predictions” and that it “may not be the widespread problem conjured into the 21st century”:

Ocean acidification has been proposed to pose a major threat for marine organisms, particularly shell-forming and calcifying organisms. Here we show, on the basis of meta-analysis of available experimental assessments, differences in organism responses to elevated pCO2 and propose that marine biota may be more resistant to ocean acidification than expected. Calcification is most sensitive to ocean acidification while it is questionable if marine functional diversity is impacted significantly along the ranges of acidification predicted for the 21st century. Active biological processes and small-scale temporal and spatial variability in ocean pH may render marine biota far more resistant to ocean acidification than hitherto believed.

And recent work has established that corals’ ability to make skeletons is “largely independent of changes in seawater carbonate chemistry, and hence ocean acidification…the relevance of their commonly reported finding of reduced coral calcification with reduced seawater pH must now be questioned”. Indeed, one study found that calcifying plankton “respond positively to acidification with CO2enrichment”,

As a result, cell growth and cellular calcification of E. huxleyi were strongly damaged by acidification by HCl, but not by acidification by CO2 enrichment…The present study clearly showed that the coccolithophore, E. huxleyi, has an ability to respond positively to acidification with CO2 enrichment, but not just acidification.

another that the growth rate of corals also increases with higher carbon dioxide up to 600 parts per mllion and concluded:

Furthermore, the warming projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the end of the twenty-first century caused a fivefold decrease in the rate of coral calcification, while the acidification projected for the same interval had no statistically significant impact on the calcification rate—suggesting that ocean warming poses a more immediate threat than acidification for this important coral species.

The producers of Blue Planet II claim every word of the commentary was based on solid scientific evidence. Not in this case. In a magnificent series, they got that one wrong. 


This of course all raises the question of just who decided to ignore these inconvenient truths, and why?

  1. December 12, 2017 11:21 am

    A fine and interesting piece by MR. We should hear more of him.

    • David Richardson permalink
      December 12, 2017 12:34 pm

      Have you read his books Roger.? Fine reads all, especially The Rational Optimist

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      December 12, 2017 5:47 pm

      His website is very good, and usually posts his pieces from The Times a few days after they appear in print.

  2. December 12, 2017 11:33 am

    No empirical evidence to relate ocean acidification to fossil fuel emissions and therefore no basis for the proposition that ocean acidification can be moderated by reducing emissions.

  3. Ian Magness permalink
    December 12, 2017 11:55 am

    Seeing Attenborough fawningly watch that ridiculous acid experiment, followed by making an equally stupid statement along the lines of “so to stop this all we have to do is lower our carbon emissions?” was, in context, quite one of the most pathetic things I have ever seen on television. The context is that Sir David is a man of considerable scientific knowledge and intellect and really, really should have known better. He has no need to make such an utter fool of himself and I shall never fathom why he did.

    • David Richardson permalink
      December 12, 2017 12:33 pm

      Because he can Ian – He is a national treasure and what he says carries considerable weight. It matters not that he talks crap – it has the desired effect.

      He is of course a signed up member of the “humans are parasites” movement and would see a few billion hacked of our numbers – as one headline about him said a few years back “Loves Polar Bears, hates Etheopians” after comments he made on the high birth rate there.

      As Matt Ridley has pointed out many times in his books and elsewhere – it is denying the third world cheap energy that leads to lack of development and therefore poverty and high birth rates.

  4. Nigel S permalink
    December 12, 2017 12:24 pm

    PCBs do seem to be an issue but plastic, though unsightly, perhaps less so. Uppsala University has confirmed a complaint of misconduct (fabricating data) in research against Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv over their paper ‘Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology’.

  5. ralfellis permalink
    December 12, 2017 1:40 pm

    Corals and crustaceans survived the Holocene Maximum 8,000 years ago, when temperatures were 2 degrees warmer, so I am sure they will survive our present and future climate.


    • mikewaite permalink
      December 12, 2017 3:51 pm

      They developed during the Ordovician period when CO2 levels were 10 x present levels and temperatures 2C above current global temperature . The average pH would have been lower than today but it is the period when corals first developed :

      -“Metazoan invertebrates dominated Ordovician life. While far less famous than the Cambrian Explosion, the Ordovician encompassed a massive adaptive radiation where marine faunal genera increased some four fold. Carbonate shell-secreting organisms were particularly successful, and competed with trilobites in continental shelf communities. These included appearances and radiations of corals, articulate brachiopods, bivalves, cystoids, gastropods, nautiloid cephalopods, bryozoa and crinoids. The competition and the spread of fiercer and larger predators provided selective pressures on trilobites, resulting in exotic forms from a trilobite evolutionary arms race. Reef building came to be dominated by corals. Graptolites thrived and Green algae from which plants probably evolved became common. The first terrestrial plants resembling liverworts appeared; spores from land plants have been identified in uppermost Ordovician sediments. The first jawed fish appeared late in the Ordovician. Mass marine life extinctions that occurred during in the late Ordovician (443.7 ± 1.5 million years ago) claimed some 60% of genera, thereby creating niches for benthic (bottom-dwelling) and planktonic (floating, swimming) organisms. .”-

      The period ended in an ice age and mass extinction .
      How do Attenborough and Professor Langdon explain the appearance and spread of corals and shelly fauna at a time when CO2 levels were very much higher than today?

  6. Silver Dynamite permalink
    December 12, 2017 2:05 pm

    I wrote to the BBC on 7 November to complain about their lies about walruses.

    I received an acknowledgement but am still awaiting their response.

    • Ben Vorlich permalink
      December 12, 2017 3:52 pm

      The BBC seem to be taking longer to send their standard “You’re wrong and we’re right but we’ve made a note of your complaint for future reference” replies.

    • ralfellis permalink
      December 12, 2017 5:08 pm

      There are five stages in the BBC complaints system. They hope you will give up. But dont give up until you get to the board of governors stage. You could add my details about corals above.

      Would do it myself, but I have already been through the whole procedure three times already.


  7. December 12, 2017 3:02 pm

    Ocean acidification is complete nonsense. The concentration of CO2 in the surface layers of the oceans at the time of the GEOSECS program in the 1970’s was measured at 2012 micromoles/kg. Even if this hasn’t changed in the intervening 40 years, this still works out to well over 100 times the atmospheric concentration. No matter how much extra CO2 you put into the atmosphere, it isn’t going to change the oceanic concentration by more than one or two percent.

    The oceans in the 1970’s were confirmed by measurement as being definitely alkaline (a pH of about 8.0). If they were alkaline with this amount of CO2 in them, the idea that adding one or two percent more is suddenly going to make a major pH change is quite absurd.

    The myth of ocean acidification arose because of an arithmetic error in a 1979 scientific paper at the end of the GEOSECS program. Takahishi et al. in their conference paper, ( correctly calculated the average CO2 concentration of the oceans, and then multiplied this by the volume of the oceans to arrive at the total CO2 content of the oceans. However, the figure they used for the oceanic volume was too low by a factor of a million – they used 1370 cu. km, whereas it should have been 1370,000,000 cu. km (see p.279 of their paper). To compound the error, the erroneously low (by a factor of a million) figure for the total CO2 content was stated prominently in the abstract at the top of the paper, but not the average concentration from which it was derived.

    If the total CO2 content is too low by a factor of a million, then the atmosphere apparently contains 20,000 times as much CO2 as the oceans, and it would be quite reasonable to assume the oceans would be very sensitive to changes in atmospheric CO2 levels. Put the factor of a million back in and the oceans contain 50 times as much CO2 as the atmosphere, and will be insensitive to any changes in atmospheric concentration. This error has been propagated down the years by sheer mental laziness.

    Seawater pH naturally varies considerably from time to time and place to place (but never goes acid). Attempts to measure seawater pH and then proclaim the results as evidence of anthropogenic acidification invariably run up against a massive signal-to-noise ratio problem, because the natural variation outweighs any possible anthropogenic changes by orders of magnitude. Engineers understand SNR, but oceanographers apparently don’t.

  8. December 12, 2017 3:05 pm

    Blankety-blank thing insists on calling me rgraves2014.

  9. richard permalink
    December 12, 2017 3:44 pm

    Corals are growing well at Bikini Atoll- man does not go there-
    Around Cuba- they do not use pesticides or fertilizers that leach into the sea.
    Where they are protected they are growing well. Only 5% of coral is protected.

  10. richard permalink
    December 12, 2017 3:49 pm

    Ph of the seas are fairly stable

    Canadian Marine authorities-

    “the seas are stable at a ph of 7.5-8.5”

    “Table 3 shows the different range of pH some countries are implementing. Generally, all
    countries use an average range of between 5.0 and 9.0 in freshwater, and 6.5 and 9.0 for
    marine, all of which are within the limits of optimum fish production”

    Click to access PMNQ%20WQ%20standard%202.pdf

  11. Ben Vorlich permalink
    December 12, 2017 3:58 pm

    I was pleased to read Matt Ridley’s piece and the responses here. I thought I was the only person reading skeptic blogs who thought there was a lot of good stuff in the Blue Planet II series. I can cope with the preaching because some of the sequences are so good, I can also cope with the fact that some are manufactured. Enhanced action has been used in nature documentaries since the genre was invented, as long as you are aware then you’re not being fooled.

  12. Jack Broughton permalink
    December 12, 2017 9:01 pm

    The UK “Fake-News” outlets had a massive “global warming causing Californian fires” run yesterday, with glorious fire-films to prove it. Then I heard their Governor saying that the fires were all down to global warming today.
    Forestry needs to be managed and this is true to many countries where forests are left to spread and housing built near large forested areas. In California they are now using the prisoners to make fire breaks: the madmen have truly taken over the asylum.

    Global warming is a often used as a convenient excuse for incompetence!

  13. rwf1 permalink
    December 12, 2017 10:29 pm





  14. AngryScot permalink
    December 12, 2017 10:54 pm

    I stopped listening when Attenborough stated that the DAILY tides were due to ‘the moon orbiting the Earth’. The science is settled!

      • AngryScot permalink
        December 13, 2017 12:34 pm

        Pity his scriptwriter hadn’t looked at this clip. It is not rocket science.

    • dave permalink
      December 13, 2017 9:42 am

      “…DAILY tides [are] due to ‘the moon orbiting the Earth’ [daily]…”

      Are you sure he said exactly that? If so, it is a new entry from the the BBC and Attenborough into the global, all-comers, ‘thick-as-pig-shit’ competition. It is possible – though sloppy – to say that daily tides are partly* due to the presence of a moon (which has to orbit the earth, duh) over a daily spinning earth.

      *Let us not forget the sun!

  15. dave permalink
    December 13, 2017 9:46 am

    “…the the BBC and Attenborough…”

    This typo should be changed to “the BBC and the Attenborough” perhaps!

  16. quaesoveritas permalink
    December 13, 2017 12:59 pm

    I don’t really know how anyone can think of this documentary as “beautiful”, as all it consists of animals finding interesting ways of eating other animals, which is essentially what the natural world consists of.
    The fact that we do consider it “beautiful”, is testament to the success of the fakery and propaganda of the documentary makers.
    The problem is, all documentaries are faked to a great extent, but the makers have forgotten that they are doing it.

  17. tom0mason permalink
    December 14, 2017 7:21 am

    Also John O’Sullivan give Attenborough a proper telling-off at…

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