The Royal Society

Ocean drifters

Posted by on 8 June 2011

Posted by Ocean drifters, a secret world beneath the waves – Dr Richard Kirby, University of Plymouth

It has taken 3 years to get to this point in time, just 4 weeks away from the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.  It began in late 2007 when some plankton images I had taken received astonishing press coverage and I had the idea to show more of a world of life that attracts rare attention, but which nevertheless influences many aspects of our lives, and the ecology of the Earth. This is the world of the marine plankton, the Ocean Drifters, and the focus of my research. And so, in my spare time over the last three years, I have been photographing plankton from the South Western approaches to the English Channel, just off Plymouth, the city where I have my laboratories.

There are several elements of luck that have come together in this project. The first was in September 2010 when I was walking through Plymouth City centre and saw that the ICCI group at my university had hired the Igloo Vision Dome for a public event. I realised this could be the platform to produce a unique 360 degree immersive film about the plankton, and so, in collaboration with ICCI, I submitted a proposal to exhibit Ocean Drifters at the Royal Society summer science exhibition this year.

With just 6 months between acceptance of the proposal and the exhibition, it has been busy! The script had to be written and recorded, as it turned out I wrote far too much, and I had to photograph, as 360 degree panoramas, images of the South Downs, a classical English seafront, Dartmoor, and an oil refinery, amongst several other scenes that were all central to the story.

The script was written by the end of January and I asked Paul Kerley from the BBC, who had produced an audio slideshow with me called Sea Drifters for the Royal Society’s 350 anniversary year, to make sure it was not too technical. Now, I wanted someone better than myself to provide the narration, and so I wrote a letter to Sir David Attenborough asking if he ‘would be so kind?’ I put the letter in the post and determined to dismiss it from my mind for at least a couple of weeks. The next day however my phone rang at about 3pm. “Hello” I said. “Hello” came the reply. “Who am I speaking to ?” I asked. “David” came the reply. “David who ?” I asked. “I’ll do it” David said. “Do what? I asked. “Read your script”. At this point I worked out whom I was talking to! And so we soon met and within 2 weeks the script had been recorded at BBC Broadcasting House.

Here is a photo of David Attenborough reading the script at the BBC.

During this time I was driving the breadth of Britain and hiking the countryside to get those 360 degree panoramas, some of which needed both good weather and the tides to coincide. I was also going to sea to collect some elusive plankton species to help complete the story. The fine weather we have had this spring has therefore been another piece of good fortune.

The film now needed a composer and after a quick ‘Google’ to see who had written previously for films narrated by Sir David Attenborough, I contacted Richard Grassby-Lewis (The Life of Plants) who agreed to write and record the score. Richard received a storyboard at the beginning of April and we have just spent an intensive late May bank holiday weekend recording the mix helped by Nolan Pearce from Plymouth College. At this point I must say how lucky I have been to be introduced to Patrick Bishop, whom, as you will realise when you see the film, has created a remarkable piece of work from my still images of the plankton.

So, as I write, we are about 2 weeks away from completion and testing the film at Igloo Vision’s test facility in Shropshire; fingers crossed. Of course there have been other things going on too! There are the logistics of putting up a very big tent outside the Royal Society and then clearing it away at the end. There is also the promotional material and ‘team t-shirts’, and in this regard my University marketing department has been marvellous. The Ocean Drifters exhibit is also not just about the film. We will have a range of plankton sampling equipment on display and microscopes so that we can show plankton collected from around the world.

I very much hope you enjoy our exhibit at the 2011 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.