Big brother is watching. And he’s a bit furry. Five years ago, Spy in the Wild broke new ground by snooping on wildlife with cameras cunningly disguised as animals. Aquatic follow-up Spy in the Ocean (BBC One) set out to explore our seas using similar tech. Undercover robotic creatures immersed us in a watery world of wonder.
In Thailand, Spy Macaque swam with free-diving monkeys and saw them catch fish with their bare hands – behaviour never caught on camera before. Spy Sea Lion took us inside a swirling shoal of mackerel to see swarm intelligence in action. Real sea lions cleverly corralled them but after eating their fill, threw the leftovers to hungry marlin, like a sort of marine food bank.
The Natural History Unit’s human camera crews have a golden rule: don’t interfere. These robots had no such qualms. Spy Puffer became an artist’s assistant, enabling a male Japanese puffer fish to complete its sand sculpture and attract a mate. Spy Crab donated its shell, complete with hidden camera, to a real hermit crab. Spy Octopus helped its real counterpart hide from predatory sharks. It got a tentacled cuddle in gratitude.
Best of all were the sperm whales, owners of the planet’s biggest brains. The largest spy creature ever built – at three metres long, the size of a newborn whale calf – aroused the maternal instinct of an adult female and was adopted by her extended family. We heard these inquisitive, trusting creatures communicate with clicking noises. A rare social gathering of whales seemed to be deep in conversation. It was a privilege to eavesdrop.
Footage was astounding and frequently affecting, but David Tennant’s narration tried too hard to be cutesy, anthropomorphising the animals at every opportunity. A twee soundtrack added to the tacky feel. This production needed the confidence to let its impressive images speak for themselves.