Where are the sharks?That was the question repeatedly going through the mind of Dr Nick Higgs as he sat on board the vessel at the centre of one of the most innovative British marine research projects in recent memory.
With a nine-metre whale carcass in tow, and a television crew with two celebrity presenters on board, the only thing missing from ITV’s new documentary, Britain’s Sharks, was the guests of honour.
“It was a nervous time,” says Nick, a post-doctoral research fellow and Deputy Director of the Marine Institute, reflecting on the first two days of the shoot. “The whole time we were sitting there, the directors were saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make something of this regardless.’ And that’s part of the attraction of science – you can’t guarantee results – but it’s not necessarily good for television.”
As anyone who watched the final documentary over the Easter holiday, Britain’s Sharks was ultimately a resounding success in capturing on film for the very first time how whales are ‘recycled’ by the marine ecosystem in our waters. But the story of how the programme came into being in the first place is of no less interest, particularly in the sphere of science communication.
Nick joined the University in January 2013, not long after completing a PhD at the University of Leeds and the Natural History Museum, and the opportunity to be part of the documentary came his way via his former supervisor in London.
“These types of programmes have been done in Japan, the US and Sweden, but not in British waters,” Nick says. “We’d spoken to several producers in the past who were interested in doing something similar, and so it was in 2014 that I received a call from Big Wave TV.”
Big Wave TV, which has a track record of filming nature documentaries, was offering to take care of all of the logistics, including the freezing of the animal, and had already developed links with whale stranding groups. They had also obtained agreement-in-principle from the ‘Receiver of Wrecks’ at the Natural History Museum, an historic position with authority vested in it to oversee the Crown’s interest in certain maritime affairs.
“Whales are classed as ‘Fishes Royal’, like sturgeon,” Nick says, “so technically they are owned by HM The Queen!”