Steve Backshall: the ocean explorer

The world of the great blue is largely a mystery. Naturalist and explorer Steve Backshall is taking advantage of the new technology that can follow the ocean’s creatures to build up a bigger picture of their world. He’ll also be spreading the ocean message when he comes to Bath Forum this month. Words by Simon Horsford.

The naturalist, explorer and TV presenter Steve Backshall is one of life’s action men – unfazed by scaling mountains, venturing through forbidding jungles, handling venomous snakes, or free-diving with sharks. And yet maybe his most enduring talent is the inspiring and sometimes daredevil manner in which he delivers his understanding of the natural world.

That passionate drive to explore and explain has most recently been directed towards the oceans of the world. In his new book Deep Blue: My Ocean Journeys and on his current UK tour, Ocean: Bringing Marine Dreams To Life, which comes to the Bath Forum in November, Backshall offers a hymn to this fascinating environment and a demonstration of why it’s so important. As he says in the introduction to the book, “So much of our oceans is out of sight, and out of mind. We think of them too little, and understand them even less…”

I caught up with Backshall ahead of his tour and he began by expanding on his attraction to the ocean. “The biggest environment that we know nothing about is our deep seas and there are new species being found all the time. It’s right there in front of us and yet at the same time we are causing it untold damage. I have spent a huge amount of time exploring the seas and it always seems to bring some new understanding of an animal and the way it works, its biology or evolution, every time I dive. It’s been omnipresent through my life and so it seemed natural to want to build a show around it.”

It’s speculated that we have only mapped around 10% of the world’s oceans, “but how much we’ve actually seen and sent drones and submersibles down to look at, is a fraction of 1%,” adds Backshall. He believes we are on the cusp of a new perception of our oceans. “Until recently we knew relatively little about creatures such as whales, sharks and seals as they can dive to great depths, so we’ve only been able to study them in those few moments when they are at the surface. Now we have the technology that can follow them and have started to build up a much bigger picture of what goes on in their world.”

That technology includes drones and “Crittercams” that can be attached to animals to tell, for instance, how deep they dive, how fast they swim and how their heart rate changes. Acoustic monitors can also give data as to how animals communicate “in a less invasive way than just a few years ago,” says Backshall. There’s even the delightfully named “Snotbot” drone that flies through the blow of a whale as it spouts enabling researchers to figure out what sex it is, its age and if it is breeding. “It’s a very interesting time in biology,” adds Backshall.

It’s this kind of detailed information – and so many hours in the water – that allows Backshall to make his Ocean tours so captivating, using scale models, stunts and tricks to offer a sense of the size of the marine creatures. “It’s about the way these animals work and how they catch their prey,” says Backshall. The shows also make the science applicable to everyone, from families and kids to undergraduates and marine biologists, by ensuring it’s entertaining and packed with information. “It’s about engaging as many people as possible,” he says.

It’s the same with his book Deep Blue: “I wanted to create something that got across my love for the environment and everything that lives in it, while at the same time analysing the past, present and future through its most iconic inhabitants.”

The book is crammed with information about the ocean and what lives in it, woven together with evocatively poetic language – he describes a “hilariously ugly” wolf eel eating a sea urchin as being “like a toddler trying to eat a hedgehog”, a male Stellar sea lion that “buzzed over his head like a Lancaster bomber” and the seabed being “like a Dr Seuss landscape”. Well, he does have degrees in English and science. At its heart, though, is a reminder of the harm that Man has done to the seas. Destructive industrial fishing of the Mediterranean has meant that “its fish populations are teetering on extinction. In my lifetime [Backshall was 50 this year], more than 41% of marine mammals and 34% of fish life in the Med have gone…. Dive in the Med’s clear waters now, and it sometimes feels like a silent blue morgue.”

Equally shocking is the reminder that eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea each year. “The plastics issue is huge – quite often now we will rock up in remote places and find beaches that look like landfill sites they are so covered in plastic. We were [filming] on the west coast of Africa, miles from any civilisation and we found great mounds of plastic, some of it from the Far East and China.”

Backshall takes heart from the fact that “one of the problems we have switched on to more than any other is how young people have connected with [this] situation. All around the world they are campaigning about the use of plastic.” He cites an inspiring case back in 2017 when two sisters (aged eight and 10) in Bali threatened to go on hunger strike to get the island to ban single-use plastic – something which, after sustained pressure, the governor did two years later.

He is similarly engaged with the issue of pollution in Britain’s rivers, which led him to work with the charity River Action. “Last year we had [almost] 900 sewage outages per day around the country with some rivers classed as being in the worst condition of any developed nation in Europe, and more than 80% of our rivers are not considered to be in an ecologically sound state. It is a total disgrace.”

The biggest environment that we know nothing about is our deep seas … it’s right there in front of us and yet we are causing it untold damage…

Backshall, who lives in Berkshire by the Thames, with his wife Helen Glover, the Olympic gold-medal winning rower, and their three young children, is particularly heartbroken by what’s happening in his area. “When there are no outages, it can be amazingly clean and you can do wild swimming and see otters and kingfishers. Instead, we get huge amounts of raw sewage poured into it and the way the water companies deal with it is completely unethical. We need to seriously consider water companies going back into public hands. The water company regulator [Ofwat] needs to be far stricter with greater fines in place and a drive to improve the infrastructure on a national scale.”

His love of nature and adventure goes back to his childhood – both his parents worked for British Airways and Backshall and his sister benefited from free flights but small budget holidays to magical places. He says, “My first tropical coral reef was Malindi in Kenya when I was barely seven or eight; I had no idea such eye-poppingly colourful and dazzlingly exotic fish existed. I was hooked.” His parents also instilled in him and his sister an early ability to swim and be ‘water babies’.

After certifying as a scuba diver and travelling solo around Asia in 1990, Backshall became ‘Adventurer in Residence’ with National Geographic – surely the coolest job title – in 1998 and went on to host Nat Geo’s EarthPulse series before moving on to the BBC’s The Really Wild Show. Then came the show Deadly 60 on CBBC in 2009, in which he has close encounters with some of the world’s deadliest creatures from cheetahs and gorillas to the inland taipan snake (the most venomous in the world), tarantulas and bull sharks.

In all Backshall has clocked up around 116 countries, involving numerous expeditions and where the ‘goal’ has often been to create a never-before-moment, such as taking the first-ever light into a cave system, or making the first ascent of an Arctic mountain. He has had numerous close scrapes, from bites to falls to nearly drowning when his kayak capsized in a freezing river in Bhutan. Has he ever been scared? “Probably attempting to make a first ascent in Venezuela [of a sheer-sided mountain in Canaima National Park]. We got caught in furious storms, with rockfall thundering around our ears, while trying to live on a vertical rock face.” Big cities aren’t his thing either: “I can be really frightened in a sprawling city at night. It’s not my chosen environment.”

As to the future of our planet, Backshall remains cautiously optimistic. “There have been lots of announcements about the environment this year that have made us think there are positive changes afoot. Things like 30 by 30 (a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030) is massive, and [Defra’s scheme to protect] marine protected areas [in English waters] is big. So we have to hang on to those – particularly when I’m working with young people, I need to be able to give them evidence that their efforts can have positive effects.”

Backshall shows no sign of slowing down – next year he’s off to film marlin in the Pacific and to Zambia and has expeditions planned to South American rainforests. Now he has children, he is also conscious of the risks he takes on his adventures, but only takes them if he believes they are acceptable and reasonable.

“All the cliches about having kids are true,” he adds, “and you do start seeing the world in a very different way and it makes you think about legacy and what we can do to ensure our kids have a better planet. It’s about being able to look them in the eye in five or 10 years time and tell them what I tried to do.

“I’m also getting to the point in my career after doing children’s wildlife television for 20 years where young graduates are saying: ‘I used to watch your stuff and it made me want to study biology’. That’s the most amazing thing to hear and makes me very proud.”

Deep Blue by Steve Backshall, Witness Books, £22.
Steve Backshall Ocean is at Bath Forum on 13 November at 7.30pm. Tickets: under 16s £19.50, adults £26.50.