The undoubted highlight of my recent summer filming whales in California for the BBC, was the moment we captured a blue whale live on camera for the very first time. I may have been a little bit over-excited in the immediate aftermath, but to me it was an important moment. Even when I started my wildlife film-making career in the late 90s, trying to film a blue whale at all would have been like trying to film a unicorn. Wildlife photography legend Bob Talbot told me the next day, that in the 80s, conservationists like him thought blue whales were already as good as extinct. And here we were, filming one live, in real time, while a dozen humpback lunged and breached about the front of my boat, drenching me in their spout spray. It was indelible, dramatic, physical evidence that if you protect environments they will bounce back. After years of hearing glum reports and doom-laden prognostications about the end of our planet as we know it, finally here was proud proof that conservation can work. So much has changed here, and it's due in no small part to the extraordinary success of the vast National Marine Sanctuary here at Monterey Bay. Established in 1992, its waters have been protected ever since. Baitfish have bounced back in phenomenal numbers, and over the last few years, mega predators such as whales have started to arrive here in the summer in unprecedented, overwhelming numbers.
My final comment of the series, was that there is no reason why we shouldn't have thrilling sights, and marine conservation success like this, right here in the UK. Not only humpbacks, but blue whales occur in British waters. (As if to illustrate my point, the very next day a photo of a blue whale just off the Cornish coast hit the national press.) Blues are but vagrant transient visitors to our seas, but Fin whales - the second largest animal ever known to have lived - are British residents. Minke whales and Orca are here, with sperm, beaked, pilot and bottlenose whales and six species of dolphin. We've even had beluga, right whales and bowheads in the last year. Basking sharks, leatherback turtles, sunfish, grey and common seals... they're all around. But there are few places in the UK where you can see them in numbers and with sufficient reliability for it to fuel a substantial whale-watching industry.
In the long term, what we need is monster protected marine sanctuaries, no-take zones on a grand scale. England's biggest is Lundy at two square miles and it's pretty special, with dramatic increases in fish and crustaceans, such as lobster, inside the protected zone. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is 4601 square nautical miles. And it's not even America's biggest! Only 4% of British seas have any degree of protection at all. That is not enough. If we want humpbacks lunge feeding and breaching off our coast, we need their food fish back in huge quantities, and that will only happen with protection; which ultimately benefits EVERYONE, including fishermen and fish eaters. Go to the Wildlife Trusts' Living Seas website and become a Friend of a Marine Conservation Zone off the UK coast. Write to your MP, let politicians know it's important to you. Give them no choice, but to protect our seas so our children and grandchildren can experience the things we saw on Big Blue Live, but right here in the UK.
So what can we as Brits do, to make our blue spaces better places? Here's my top suggestions:
Go to the beach! And when you get there, do some cool stuff. How many of you adults haven't been rockpooling since you were a nipper? You're missing out! It's the best possible way to spend a day, catching crabs on a line using bits of your left over fish-paste sandwiches (they still make fish-paste right?!), gazing at butterfish and blennies, snakelocks and beadlet anemones, even octopus and cuttlefish if you're lucky. Your local Wildlife Trust has living seas programmes. And for a social seaside experience that will also make a difference, how's about checking out the Great British Beach Clean between the 18 - 21 Sept. If you're too busy enjoying the rockpools to spend your whole day tidying, then how's about just doing a two-minute clean up job?
Beach-combing is not just for metal detector fanatics looking to find lost wedding rings and old Spam tins. Strandline searching reveals forgotten wonders the sea has left behind. Just wander along the line of detritus and seaweed that gets left high on the beach after the high tide recedes. Amazing jewellery, picture frames and sculptures can be concocted from sculpted driftwood, sea-shone glass pebbles and even weathered junk. And while you're at it, get involved with the The Great Eggcase Hunt, looking for Mermaid's Purses, the gorgeous egg cases of sharks, skates and rays.
Make a meal! The seashore is the perfect place for foraging, finding food that nature has provided. Some of the happiest days of my life have been spent collecting mussels and cockles, diving for scallops, line-fishing mackerel and Pollack, spearfishing sea bass, and then collecting rock samphire, seaweed and sea kale to cook them with, right there on the beach. It's easy, much safer than other kinds of foraging (I don't recommend foraging for mushrooms unless you really know your stuff), and leaves you feeling at one with the environment. No way of eating is more sustainable, more selective, more focused and has less waste. Some Wildlife Trusts do courses, such as sustainable seafood cookery.
Dive in! You cannot appreciate a marine environment if you only focus on the surface. It's all going off below the waves. And OK, I freely admit that over much of Britain's coastline it'll be like diving in Scotch broth as far as the visibility goes. But I've had magical dives here, with grey seals coming to stare in my mask, basking sharks cruising past with their vast white gullets billowing and eerie massive headed conger eels looming out of their dens to investigate a piece of proffered mackerel. Scape Flow up north is known as one of the finest military history wreck dive sites on earth, and there are many other sunken treasures you can swim through when you're qualified. Once you are gliding through the sinister sunken wonderland of a shipwreck, you'll feel like a proper explorer, and you may only be minutes away from town (therefore from post-dive pie and chips). BSAC is the place to start if you want to learn to SCUBA dive, but I spent most of my childhood just snorkeling, which can be just as rewarding. Also, if you call it 'freediving', then you have way more street cred, and sound like your doing something rugged.
Shop sensible. The subject for a whole book - but a few fish you can eat without fear of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall turning up and giving you twenty lashes, include mackerel, herring, sardine, mussels, oysters, Pollock and trout. Things to steer well clear of include Bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod and Halibut, Orange roughy, monkfish, sharks, skate and sole. If you want to be saintly, then only buy MSC certified fish. I know it's a bind, and not everyone can afford to eat organic, but if you can, think carefully every time you shop, read the labels and make good choices for our rivers and our seas. I swear it tastes better when you know you haven't contributed to the extinction of a species merely by having supper. Greenpeace also has a good section on the seafood you can eat guilt free.
Plastic Not Fantastic. If you dump litter on land, it will end up in storm drains and flushed out to sea. Seabird chicks are washing ashore with stomachs full of plastic, leatherback turtles choked to death on carrier bags. Too many smokers feel a cigarette butt doesn't count as proper trash, but they are the number one litter items in the sea, and a tasty morsel for birds and seals. Another biggie is not to use cosmetic scrubs with plastic microbeads in them. These little evils never break down, but pass through our water treatment plants, out to sea, and end up in fish, in cataclysmic amounts. We need to ban them! Don't flush nappy wipes, cotton buds and face wipes down the loo, they never dissolve and end up littering our beaches. Recycle containers such as shampoo bottles, drinks cans, plastic food-trays, there are gyres of plastics in our oceans the size of continents, most of which comes from the land.
Surfing is the source! No one appreciates the sea like surfers. You're in it, seeking to become one with it, getting a rush of adrenalin and a serious physical workout. Look at the face of a kid who's just come out of the surge having caught their first wave. It's infectious, and never too late to learn. No one is more keen to protect our seas than the people who understand them intimately. Not surprising Surfers Against Sewage have made such waves; (!) who wants to spend their evenings picking used loo roll out of their dreadlocks?
Sea kayaking. OK, so I'm slightly biased, but I believe the finest expedition tool of all is the sea kayak. You need to learn a lot about tides, navigation, weather and currents before you can be truly set free, but once you have the skills, you can just pack up a boat with tent and fishing line, before disappearing off into the sunset. I did all my training with Seakayakingcornwall.com and for my final course, paddled the open sea stretch between the Scilly Isles and Land's End. It was the best British wildlife day of my whole life, with whales, dolphins, turtles, basking sharks, sunfish and extraordinary birds our constant companions. Paddleboarding is making great leaps and bounds, and if you're minted you could always take up sailing. But for me, nothing beats the purity of me, the sea and a kayak!
Get out there! There's nothing more certain to inspire and help us appreciate what we do have, than seeing it for yourself, for real. No one ever forgets their first blast of whale breath, their first leaping dolphin, diving gannet, whirring puffin or soaring fulmar. Places like Skomer, Lundy, St Kilda, the Western Isles, the Farne Isles... they have marine wonders both above and below the waves that will convince anyone. If you don't fancy being out on a boat all day, head for Moray Firth, you can see bottlenose dolphins while standing on dry land! Or try Cardigan Bay.
Bang the drum. There are so many campaigns you can get involved in, so many causes for you to get passionate about. Some of them, we really stand a chance of making a difference, and making huge changes in our marine environments. Two that I'm involved in are bite-back.com petitions, aiming to make shark fin soup a thing of the past, and sharktrust.org's No Limits No Future campaigns. We are taking 100million sharks from our seas every single year, and if it continues we will make them functionally extinct in my lifetime. Like sharks or loathe them, they have been on our planet, apex predators patrolling our seas, for at least 400million years. Remove them, and we face knock on effects we simply cannot fathom.
Steve Backshall's Wild World tour is nationwide from 15 October-15 November 2015. For dates and tickets please visit stevebackshall.com/tour