You’ll never believe this whale isn’t real… It’s actually a sophisticated animatronic model – like all the creatures here – and you can see footage from their secret cameras in a breathtaking wildlife series
- BBC1’s brilliant new wildlife series Spy In The Ocean is set to begin on June 1
- READ MORE: Killer whales are teaching each other to sink boats, say experts
Under the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, not far from the island of Mauritius, a very expensive disaster is looming. A highly sophisticated animatronic sperm whale, one of the key pieces of equipment in BBC1’s brilliant new wildlife series Spy In The Ocean, is sinking deeper and deeper beneath the waves.
Unless those in charge of this piece of machinery with its own computerised brain – which took a year and a half to build at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds – can do something quickly, it’s going to be lost forever…
‘It would have been catastrophic if we hadn’t recovered it; so many people’s dreams were pinned on that creature,’ says Philip Dalton, the show’s executive producer. ‘And there was a real chance we’d lose it. The whale was about to go into a 2km trench it would have been impossible to get it out of.’
Fortunately, two of the production team managed to grab the one-ton creature by its tail and haul it back to the surface, averting disaster. An examination revealed water had seeped into its electrical system, preventing a mechanism kicking in that would have inflated cylinders with air, allowing it to float to the surface.
‘We learnt from what happened and made sure it didn’t occur again,’ says Philip. ‘We fixed the problem and from that point on it worked well.’
Pictured, a real sperm whale. Episode one begins with the sperm whale joining a pod of real leviathans off the coast of Mauritius, with spectacularly successful results
The fake whale would go on to be responsible for some of the standout moments in the four-part series, narrated by David Tennant, which uses mechanised versions of various creatures to ‘spy’ on the real thing at close quarters.
It’s the latest incarnation of the successful documentary series that began 23 years ago with Spy In The Den, a one-off documentary made by John Downer for BBC1 that used a ‘boulder’ with a camera in it to observe a pride of lions.
The first mechanised animal, a penguin, arrived on screen in 2013 in Spy In The Huddle, and subsequent series have used versions of wild dogs, dolphins and macaque monkeys.
Episode one begins with the sperm whale joining a pod of real leviathans off the coast of Mauritius, with spectacularly successful results.
A female whale is so convinced the creature floating next to her is flesh and bone rather than silicone and electronics that she starts to communicate with it by ‘clicking’ in the way she would with members of her family. Later, she disappears in search of food, leaving her calf with just a single friend and the fake whale for company.
‘She clearly thought our whale was real and could be trusted to help look after her baby,’ says John Downer, the creative director for this series, which has taken four years to make and was filmed across four oceans.
More than 30 animatronic creatures were created, ranging from a 15cm hermit crab up to the 3m sperm whale (about the size of a calf of that species). But all the machines had one thing in common: a remarkable likeness to the creature they were trying to mimic. Perhaps a little too remarkable…
‘We were filming dolphins surfing off Western Australia, and because they moved at such a speed we had to take our spy dolphin out of the water, put him on a truck and transport him further down the coast so he could take part in the next piece of surfing,’ explains series producer Matthew Gordon.
Pictured: the fake whale. It would go on to be responsible for some of the standout moments in the four-part series, narrated by David Tennant, which uses mechanised versions of various creatures to ‘spy’ on the real thing at close quarters
The fake hermit crab takes up residence on the shore in Belize, Central America, to observe a ritual in which the crabs swap shells, each upgrading to a slightly bigger home
‘We’d done this a few times when we got a visit from a police officer. He said they’d had reports of people trying to smuggle dolphins and had a good, long look at our spy dolphin before he was convinced it wasn’t a real one. We almost got arrested.’
This latest series makes use of yet more advances in technology. Even the smallest spy creatures are now fitted with state-of-the-art 4K cameras, with one even having an interactive screen installed.
‘It’s a flexible screen on the back of our cuttlefish,’ explains series producer Huw Williams.
‘It switches colours and patterns so that at one point it matches the skin of a male cuttlefish and at other times a female’s, so we can better observe the aggressive behaviour of the male towards the females.’
Advances in technology mean the fake creatures also often move uncannily like their real-life counterparts. Each of the tentacles of the coconut octopus is fitted with a micro motor so its movement across the ocean floor can be controlled and matched precisely to the real thing.
An animatronic pig rubs noses with real wild swimming porkers as they take to the water from a Caribbean island to feed on titbits thrown to them from tourist boats
Macaque monkeys trap and catch fish in the shallows of an island off Thailand, a behaviour never captured on film before
The result is breathtaking. These intelligent creatures hide under coconut shells from the predatory black-tipped sharks circling above them off Indonesia, so the team sent the animatronic octopus shuffling across its coral reef home with a coconut shell on its head, and then watched as a real octopus took it for his own protection.
The robot then provides another shell for a family of saddleback clownfish who need a hard surface to lay their eggs on. The film shows the clownfish attempting to dig a discarded flip-flop out of the sand before, in what is thought to be a TV first, we see them unite to push the shell donated by the fake octopus towards their home in a sea anemone.
It’s just one of the previously unseen – and often hilarious – behaviours that litter the series. An animatronic pig rubs noses with real wild swimming porkers as they take to the water from a Caribbean island to feed on titbits thrown to them from tourist boats.
The fake hermit crab takes up residence on the shore in Belize, Central America, to observe a ritual in which the crabs swap shells, each upgrading to a slightly bigger home.
Each of the tentacles of the coconut octopus is fitted with a micro motor so its movement across the ocean floor can be controlled and matched precisely to the real thing
Trouble brews when one of the spy crab’s new friends takes a liking to his artificial shell – and pulls it off his back!
Macaque monkeys trap and catch fish in the shallows of an island off Thailand, a behaviour never captured on film before. And the spy sea lion is at the heart of the action when a group of marlin attack a shoal of mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico, with the fake frigate bird observing the spectacle from above.
Off the coast of Japan a pufferfish weaves intricate patterns on the seabed, fashioning a sand sculpture with his fins in the hope of attracting a mate.
Unfortunately, the spy pufferfish is no artist, although he does provide a shell for the real pufferfish to add to his sculpture.
‘It’s a finishing touch and helps make it a fully functioning work of art,’ says David Tennant.
But as we’ve seen with the fake sperm whale, not everything went to plan during the making of the series. The impostor pelican failed to stay in the sky in Mexico, crashing and breaking into several pieces, although the accident was not quite the disaster it first appeared to be.
‘We retrieved all the pieces, and if there’s a second series he’ll be good to go again,’ says Matthew Gordon. ‘Also, the tumble looked brilliant on film. The nosedive was like a real pelican’s, and we stood there thinking, “Wow, we have to include this, it’s amazing!”‘
Covid travel restrictions thwarted attempts to film humpback whales in French Polynesia. But when permission was finally granted, the spy sperm whale proved his versatility.
‘He doubled up,’ explains Philip Dalton. ‘There was no chance of us being able to afford two whales so we changed the sperm whale’s skin, head and fins to look like a humpback’s.’
John Downer believes the series offers a unique new perspective on animal behaviour.
‘The interaction with the real animals is something no human could achieve,’ he says.
‘What the spy creatures do is get inside the real animals’ heads and get a sense of what they’re thinking, based on how they interact with the spies. We believe it’s a fascinating insight.’
Spy In The Ocean is coming to BBC1 this June.
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