PBS is out to prove that live television isn't just for news and sports. Its "Big Blue Live" special will air live from California's Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to showcase this thriving ecosystem, including the local whale population, while talking with viewers via social media and PBS.org. Co-produced by the BBC, the event will broadcast on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1-2 at 8 p.m. EST, with a second live broadcast at 8 p.m. on the West Coast.
"Nature is live. In some ways, nature is the greatest social network that is out there," points out conservation scientist and co-anchor of "Big Blue Live," M. Sanjayan. "This is a chance for us to bring the audience along and to create that sense of immediacy. This is something that is happening right now in your backyard. For the presenters, this was a chance to bring that excitement that we always felt when we were out in nature, and to bring our friends and families and all of you along for the ride."
The title "Big Blue Live" refers to the ocean, but also to the blue whales that might show up, not to mention humpbacks, orcas and dolphins. Whales are on the move, in the midst of a migration north to the feeding grounds of Alaska. However, according to scientist and series participant Joy Reidenberg, "This past winter, 20 humpbacks stayed in Monterey Bay all winter. They don't all leave."
She anticipates some close cetacean encounters. Although laws require humans to keep their distance and not interfere with marine animals, "If an animal chooses to come up to you and look right in the camera lens, that's great. Everybody gets excited about that," says Reidenberg. "I study whales for a living, and when I see a whale breach, even though I have seen it many times, it's still a wow moment. We want to share with the audience that wow moment we feel."
Cameras will be everywhere to capture animal action, including in the sky and underwater. "We have people out there on boats, on planes. We've got drones, people on the shore with scopes, we've got the Mammal Stranding Network and whale watchers looking for animals, we've got people tweeting in when they see stuff. Everyone is involved in helping us spot the animals," says Reidenberg. "Local people know where to find them, and they can tell us where they are so we can go there."
Sanjayan is excited about the possibility of discovery. "This is a real biological moment happening in real time, and we are taking you there now to experience it. It's almost like being on a live scientific expedition," he says, and Reidenbearg agrees. "Do you realize how valuable this is for the research community? There are cameras in the water, recording things that the scientists have never seen before, and it starts a whole new research project. So we're looking forward to seeing what gets uncovered."
The program will include some pretaped pieces, such as the migration of humpback and blue whales from Mexico and birds en route from New Zealand, as well as fresh footage that was shot earlier that day. The separate East and West feeds will look slightly different, reflecting the change from day to night, and Pacific time may have an advantage where whales are concerned. For optimum whale watching, "You want to go at sunrise or sunset," says Reidenberg.
She marvels at the recovery of a place that was in disastrous ecological shape just a few decades ago. "In Monterey Bay 25, 30 years ago, 80 percent of the marine mammals in that area were on the endangered species list and were in danger of extinction, and now the whole place has recovered. The ocean is resilient. This is a really feel good kind of story. It's a conservation story that is successful. Gray whales have come off the endangered species list, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering taking humpback whales off the list," she points out. "If we protect nature, it will come back."
If "Big Blue Live" is successful, there may be another next year, or a similar program broadcast from a different location, "Another place where we have more success stories like this," Reidenberg says. "It's a positive thing because people get to interact with the animals and see them, and the more they see the animals, the more they love the animals. The more they love the animals, the more they want to protect them."