ISTS Asks: BBC Earth Spy in the Ocean

9 min read

The ISawtheScience team enjoyed the opportunity to speak with series producers Matthew Gordon and Huw Williams from BBC Earth’s Spy in the Ocean, a four-part series featuring spy cameras designed to appear and behave like the animals they spy on beneath the sea. With cutting edge spy creatures taking the form of a skin-changing cuttlefish, to a massive and social sperm, to a shape-shifting mimic octopus, Spy in the Ocean reveals the intimate lives of extraordinary lifeforms with intriguing social lives and incredible intelligence.

To start off, what was the inspiration behind the “Spy” series and how did the idea of using animatronic spy creatures come about?

Over 20 years ago, the executive producer, John Downer, came up with the idea of having a camera disguised as a boulder. We called it “BoulderCam” and it was built to be able to get up close and personal with lions. Once we saw that they were accepting of this disguised camera, we were able to capture amazing, beautiful, and intimate images from the perspective of being inside a pride of lions. It was then that John realised — such spy set-ups allowed us to take very close-up, wide-angled shots of the animals and gave us access to an immersive perspective of the animals’ world. Subsequently, we went on to film elephants as well. And we had an extra camera called the “DungCam” where we had a camera disguised as poo.

Eventually we decided to film penguins and we wondered if we should now change it up and see if we can disguise cameras as the animals that we’re filming as well. So we decided to have a spy penguin cam. This proved to be really important and vital because penguins who take their daily walks, pass the sea, and back to their nesting grounds know their tracks very well. As soon as we put anything, such as a “RockCam”  down, they noticed it and grew cautious. In contrast, when we had the penguin cam, they were much more accepting of just letting it be. The penguins explored it, looked at it as though they knew that it was something different, but they also realised it does look like one of them, so they were more happy for it to just be there.

That was when we knew that we got to do this more and incorporated this idea into our Spy in the Wild series where the use of animatronic spy creatures really exploded in terms of the numbers — there were over 30 different species. Eventually, the thought came, what if we take this into the undersea world as well?

Could you run us through the concept, build and design considerations for the oceanic spy creatures?

I think it certainly presents a lot more to consider in terms of designing these models compared to the ones from Spy in the Wild. Depending on the animal, we want to bring out a certain character or a certain behaviour that we’re hoping to film. It can be quite complex designing these spy creatures. So as biologists, we work with model makers from around the world to design them and make them behave in the way that we would like them to. Obviously, filming underwater is a whole different ball game to filming on land. So you have to make the spy creatures more waterproof and be able to work at depth. Even getting the buoyancy right of all things that have to be factored in. Since this has never been done before, it is quite a delicate process.

Which spy creature from Spy in the Ocean was the most challenging to build?

It would probably have to be the spy whale that was the most challenging. As you can imagine, the size of it being over 3 metres long and weighing about a ton (approx 907.2kg) in water. Just transporting that around the world was challenging. But also, the complexities of getting it to work and be waterproof, and testing it in the water. It took close to two years. I think it was in terms of making that and testing it and going back to the drawing board and changing it. And then also, we had two different whales. We had a spy sperm whale and a spy humpback whale. So then we had to change the shell a bit more. So I would say that was the most challenging spy creature for a variety of reasons.

We had other very complex creatures, like the spy cuttlefish, which had a flexible screen in its back, in its mantle. At that point in time, flexible screen technology was in its infancy. We were able to record wild patterns of the cuttlefish too, because that communication is all done on their skin. We were able to replay that pattern on our screen to effectively talk to the wild cuttlefish. Not only that, the fact that it was able to swim with all these different amazing parts, as well as having a 4K camera hidden within itself is quite a marvel.

Seeing that the species selected for the series have vastly different characteristics, did the technology vary between each spy creature or were there overlaps?

In some of the creatures, definitely both. One of the difficult aspects of building robotic spy creatures is their ability to move. It is more challenging on land but underwater, it produces different challenges. So I guess it depends. The technology for a spy crab walking on land is slightly different to what would be required for a spy octopus to walk underwater. In terms of swimming, there is a very classic way of doing it. For example, with the dolphin and the manatee, they were both able to produce a thrust that could move it along quickly along the water to get to a location quickly. But when they were getting close to animals, they were able to create this very gentle, undulating tail movement as well. Both the spies manatee and dolphin were able to do that and this is one example of an area where there was an overlap in technology.

Has any of the creatures being observed discovered that the spy creature is in fact not one of their own? If yes, how did the creatures react to this man-made device that looks like them?

The male cuttlefish is probably a good example, because at first our spy cuttlefish was giving off the signs of another male cuttlefish. He found it really curious and had a little standoff with the spy. Once we were able to change the communication display in the back of our spy cuttlefish from that of a male to a female colour pattern, the male cuttlefish recognises the spy as looking more like a female. He actually tries to mate with the spy and explores it with his tentacles. He probably realises that this isn’t quite right. But because it’s so familiar, he was very happy to stay very close to it. It is that kind of recognition of something quite similar, more so than if a cameraman was there disturbing it. It was able to get kind of unique shots from being accepted by this wild cuttlefish.

Were there any significant differences in animal behaviour using spy creatures as compared to using divers/submarines/underwater drones for footage?

An example is the hammerhead shark. With this one, the spy was designed to swim like the real sharks. It propelled naturally and silently through the water. It didn’t really have any kind of mechanics that were very loud since hammerheads are naturally very shy and sensitive creatures. We were able to send the spy hammerhead from a distance into a huge shoal of hammerheads. It swam right there amongst them all, totally accepted by the other hammerheads, which is something a diver couldn’t do, because hammerheads are scared of the bubbles and are nervous around people. Thus, with a spy just amongst them, you get this incredible insight into what it’s like to be in a shoal of sharks and how they swim in formations. Without this technology of fabricating spy creatures, it wouldn’t have been possible.

What is the one most memorable observation that each of you have seen through the spy creatures?

Matthew: So for me, it would have to be the opening sequence of the series with the spy sperm whale. I think of whales as these magnificent swimmers and creatures who breach majestically, but we never really get to see the emotion being drawn out on screen quite in the same way as I think we did in this series. Our spy whale was swimming along a family of sperm whales and then suddenly there’s this moment where a mother whale clocks our spy whale, and turns around. You get this magical moment where she’s communicating with our spy and I feel that breaks down the barrier between the animal world and us. She was communicating with our spy creature, which to the viewer feels like we are getting a glimpse of how it is like to communicate with a whale as well. She even brought the baby over as well! It was a really sweet, tender, and magical moment.

Huw: It’s always the surprises that you don’t expect in the series which kind of take your breath away. For me, it is the spy hermit crab. In the wild, the hermit crabs line up in order of size and they swap shells. One actually decided to steal our spy crab’s shell which has a camera embedded in the top. The crab was walking around with the camera attached onto his back and so you got a kind of a perspective from a real wild crab. That was one of my top moments.

Spy in the Ocean premieres on Tuesday, 20th June at 8:05pm on BBC Earth, available on StarHub channel 407, Singtel channel 203 and BBC Player.

Photography by BBC Earth
Interviewed by Raphael Ng and Liaw Jia Xuan


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