Originally appeared on The Huffington Post – 28/08/2015
The quicksilver ball quivered and seethed, mercury smoke flashing in the golden hour sunlight. I drew in breath and ducked below the surface, a few metres down hitting the icy layer of water driven up from the great depths. As I span onto my back I looked up to see the baitfish above me silhouetted against the sun, a living thing growing and receding before the dark torpedo shape of a predator. The large male California sealion darted amongst the fish trying to separate a loner, herding them like tiny silvery sheep. Out of the green a pod of clicking white-sided dolphins hove into view, bodies convulsing, vocalisations escalating in the excitement of the chase. I turn my camera skywards, battling the urge to breathe or surge for the surface hoping to capture this dazzling overwhelming spectacle, one you could spend a lifetime searching for.
It's a truth widely accepted in ecology that top of the line apex predators don't matter. That we're wasting our time putting effort into cuddly iconic carnivores, when the most important factors are always less charismatic but more abundant stuff like bugs and grubs. There is one place however where that has been proven manifestly untrue. That magical place is one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, and it’s where I’ll be spending my summer making Big Blue Live for BBC1.
It's a torrid tale with bleak beginnings, but a truly happy ending. California's Monterey Bay has been an epicentre for fisheries for 240 years, and as such has had every single one of its marine inhabitants brutally and fatally over-exploited. One of the first to be exterminated was the sea otters. As a marine mammal that is not insulated by blubber like whales and seals, sea otters possess the densest fur on the planet, 100,000 hairs per square centimeter.
It's an essential adaptation in waters that are blessed by cold upwellings of nutrient-rich waters; the very basis of the flourishing food chain. Their fur coats however proved to be their downfall, as waves of both legal and illicit hunters ravaged these shores in search of the priceless pelts. In the late 1700s they were seen as the royal fur in China, and in the 1800s a single pelt could raise $100. Not surprisingly the last sea otter disappeared from Monterey before the end of that century. They were not the last to perish before human avarice. In 1854 a whale was worth two pounds of pure gold, and hence they too fell, first to spears then to the explosive harpoons of the industrial whalers...
Big Blue Live continues on BBC One on Sunday 30 August at 7pm.