Meeting David Attenborough

Meeting David Attenborough

Meeting David Attenborough

When JCU marine geologist Rob Beaman was asked to be involved in the documentary David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef, he embarked on a months-long journey involving scientific expertise, 3D modelling, and a meeting with Sir David Attenborough himself.

Rob Beaman is interested in what lies beneath the Great Barrier Reef, and wants to understand the geological history of the area, as well as the influence that has on marine life.

“I want to know what’s down there – that’s what has always driven me,” he says. “I’ve spent much of my life on this ocean sailing, first as a naval officer and then later as a marine scientist. While I was out there at sea I was very intrigued by what’s down there.”

The Alucia research vessel used for the program

Photo: Rob Beaman, supplied.

Thanks to modern tools and technology, Rob is now able to figuratively peel back the ocean and see what’s on the sea floor, and it’s this work that drew the attention of Atlantic Productions, the company behind the documentary series David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef.

Not many people can say they have been interviewed by Sir David Attenborough, but Rob is one of them.

“We spent several hours talking and filming with me trying to put in words the complexity of this three dimensional landscape which they were going to sail upon,” Rob says. “What I was amazed about was how quickly he could take in the scientific story as I was expounding it and quickly turn it into a succinct question. The challenge for me was to give a succinct answer back to him.”

Once the cameras had stopped rolling, Rob was able to chat with Sir David while the crew packed up their equipment.

“He is the nicest man, I must say. He put me at ease very quickly,” he says. “I heard that he’s quite fond of chocolate so my two kids, who are pretty young but know who David Attenborough is, insisted I give him a bag of chocolate frogs as a present. So I did that, and he was quite chuffed about it.”

In total, Rob thinks he spent about three hours with Sir David, but his journey with the documentary didn’t end there. He then spent many months working with the production company via email and Skype to clarify the science.

“I’d explain something as best as I could as a scientist, then they would interpret it the way they wanted before reading it back to me,” Rob says. “I’d then say it wasn’t quite right and I’d have to correct it so there was dialogue backwards and forwards that went on for many months before we were all happy.”

Computer imagery of the sea floor

Photo: Rob Beaman, supplied.

Rob considers his involvement in the documentary to be a highlight of his career.

“It doesn’t get much higher than that – it was a buzz,” he says. “The 3D model became an important part of the story and I’m really pleased with how it was used. People have very little understanding of the sheer scale of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Even after the documentary has made its debut and his work has been viewed in homes all over the world, Rob will still be aiming to find out what’s at the bottom.

“We want to understand the deeper parts of the Great Barrier Reef, beyond those sunlit scuba diving coral-filled waters,” he says. “The new frontier for us is understanding what’s living in the deep, dark depths of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Cover image: Rob Beaman

Published 10 May 2019

Featured JCU researcher

Dr Robin Beaman
Dr Robin Beaman
My role as a marine geologist is to drive the ocean mapping required to unlock the secrets of Australia's underwater landscape. Ocean mapping science can help reveal the geological origin of the seafloor and explain the distribution of important
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