Interview with producers of PBS’ underwater mini series Spy in the Ocean

Spy Hammerhead Shark photo credit: Credit: Didier Noirot / © John Downer Productions.
Spy Hammerhead Shark photo credit: Credit: Didier Noirot / © John Downer Productions. /

Get ready to dive under the sea with a brand-new mini-series! Spy in the Ocean takes you on an aquatic adventure through a multi-episodic program. According to PBS, “The ocean depths are full of mysteries, but luckily there are intrepid spies up to the task of discovering them for us. New animatronic spy creatures explore the seas and capture never-before-seen animal behavior in a new four-part miniseries.” Viewers will find a new perspective of aquatic life from the eyes of a “spy” animal. If this sounds like a show that you’re interested in, we have more for you. We sat down with key members of the production team: Philip Dalton, Matthew Gordon, and Huw Williams. Read the interview below to learn more about the series from them!

Culturess: Please introduce yourself!

Philip Dalton: My name is Philip Dalton. I’m the executive producer of Spy in the Ocean.

Matthew Gordon: I’m Matthew Gordon. I’m the series producer of Spy in the Ocean.

Huw Williams: I’m Huw Williams, producer on Spy in the Ocean.

Culturess: So all of you have played a creative and executive role in this project. I want to know from each of you, What fascinates you the most about documentary storytelling? 

MG: I think what I love most about the way we make our wildlife programs is that we’re not afraid to touch on those stories that reveal hidden behaviors and emotions of the animals. And so, you can tell a really emotional story throughout the series, and explore things a little bit more than we would have probably done in our academic backgrounds ourselves,- because we’re all biologists ourselves, and we’ve trained in that area. It gives us that freedom to explore a little bit more into those emotions. And you will see that in particular in episode two called ‘Deep Feelings’,  where we do look into the feelings of the marine sea creatures.

PD: Similar to Matt, what I enjoy most about documentary filmmaking in the style that we do is that it’s a bit like starting all over again. You’ve got a new palette, certainly with the techniques we use. So, using spy creatures, these remote animatronic spy creatures, to do the filming as well as interacting with the animals, it feels unique. Nobody else is doing this sort of work. Every time we deploy a spy creature, we get something surprising, unexpected, and insightful. So, you could go to a familiar subject that we’ve seen before in wildlife filmmaking, but when you introduce the spy creature, we get something totally unique, and that’s what I enjoy. And when we let the animals tell their stories in front of our remote cameras and spy creatures, there’s always something novel and different there.

HW: I mean, that sums it up very well. Really getting kind of an in-depth view of some of [the animals’] behavior, which these spy creatures are able to get out of them, and then getting this kind of intimate perspective from them, kind of feels like you’re right there next to the animals themselves. It brings you into their world, this method of filming, which I just really love.

Culturess: My next question rolls right into that. I found the premise so fascinating, and I really thought that utilizing animatronic animals to act as spies was so cool and had never done before. I want to ask you, since you are the experts, where do you see this as it pertains to the future of underwater surveillance?

PD: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. With technology rolling forward at such an unprecedented rate, I think our only limit is imagination. I can certainly see a future whereby we have underwater totally remote-operated research vehicles that look like the animals, that move like the animals, very much like what we’ve been doing; But they probably have a mind of their own. Maybe they’ll utilize the latest artificial intelligence to sort of mimic their behavior and respond appropriately to their behavior. In terms of control parameters, maybe they’ll be able to stay underwater for years at a time and then surface to send the data to satellites in space, and then we get all the data back, maybe live data. That’s how I see it. My imagination is a bit overactive. I think we’re just touching on something. I think that they will, further into the future, serve to be quite useful scientific tools to give us a greater understanding, really, of what’s living in the oceans.

HW: For our spy Hammerhead, for example, scientists have gotten in touch asking about whether we could use it for population counts of the wild hammerheads because we would just release it in the current stream, and then it would get amongst these huge shoals of the hammerheads without disturbing them. It was a great way of getting this close view without the need for divers. So, things like that could be a great tool.

PD: Certainly with your spy hammerhead, it could go places that we couldn’t as humans go, because they’re a bit sensitive for divers to get in amongst them, whereas the robot could go in seamlessly. So, that’s another advantage of them.

Spy Hammerhead Shark photo credit: Credit: Didier Noirot / © John Downer Productions.
Spy Hammerhead Shark photo credit: Credit: Didier Noirot / © John Downer Productions. /

Culturess: Such an insightful answer. Honestly, I was so curious about it, personally, so I’m happy that I got a little bit more information. I wanted to know from each of you which episode was your favorite. I personally loved ‘Deep Relationships’. That one, for some reason, just touched me in a very specific way. What about you all?

MG: That’s interesting. So, for a long time, I kept switching between episode two and episode three. I do like “Deep Relationships” as well. I’d be interested to know what aspects you like. But I think with episode two, it goes back to that first answer I gave, where you’re touching more of those sort of abstract areas of animal behavior. That’s why I think that’s my favorite. It also contains probably my most amazing sequence, I think, which is the spy cuttlefish shoot that Huw did, where we’re getting this interaction, which was always our dream in this one.  Now we’ve made them look really realistic, we’ve made them behave like [the actual animal], but this time we wanted to get more interactions, to really see their behavior more easily than is sometimes possible with traditional wildlife filming. So, in this case, we had an LED display on the cuttlefish that was able to mimic the same sort of patterns that a real cuttlefish does and then it was able, by depending on what display we showed, to elicit the different behaviors of the real cuttlefish as well. So, for example, if we showed a male display on the skin of our spy, then the real cuttlefish would react in a way that he would do, which was to come in on the side, which is how he would react to a male.

MG: Whereas if we changed it to a female display, which was more subdued, then he would be more relaxed and be happy to come around the front of the spy cuttlefish. The reason why they do that is that he feels that the mouthparts of a real cuttlefish could be dangerous if it was a male cuttlefish. Whereas on a female they would approach from the front-hand side. So that was really a remarkable revelation there. That’s why episode two was really my favorite.

HW: Just to be a little different, I really enjoyed episode four, which I found really varied in that it contained a number of dramatic, incredible spectacles such as the sea lion hunting the tuna, which just kind of took my breath away. Then you’ve got ways that animals deal with the hardships of life, a lovely kind of hermit crab sequence, and even our spies getting into trouble with our spy pelican crashing into the waves, which is totally unexpected. But it all in all kind of made the sequence in a way and I just thought it was a very interesting kind of approach to an episode.

PD: I guess for me, I’ll be a bit more predictable. I think episode one was my favorite. For example, with the sperm whales. We all know that they’re known to be super intelligent. They’ve got the biggest brains, but when you see them from the boat, in reality, we’re very privileged to be put in a position where we can observe these amazing animals. I remember sitting on the boat looking at these things, they’re like giant submarines and I thought, gosh, they don’t look particularly intelligent, and you just get a fleeting glimpse of them cruising past. They are very difficult to relate to. And so, I was a bit worried. We want to show these guys as being really intelligent. How are we going to do it? And so, the reaction [from the real whales] that we had with our spy sperm whale was totally beyond all our expectations. That, for me, was just, like, the defining moment of the series because our spy robot was enabling us to get a glimpse into how their minds think and to have that moment where the female, she stops, leaves the pod. And then she comes and investigates our spy, and she’s trying to communicate with it and using clicks that she would normally use for her family members, and she was applying that to our spy very [closely]. It was so insightful.

PD (CONT’D): Then, she goes away and we think it’s all over, and then she brings in a calf from the family. That was magic because clearly, she thinks this thing is friendly and poses no threat and she wants the youngster to learn about it. So, in that sequence, there’s a lot of insight and emotion and you really do get to feel that these creatures have an intelligence that is way beyond anything we could almost imagine. And that’s all made clear thanks to the spy. And of course, Spy Octopus is such a character and again exceeded all our expectations. It had a bond, really, with the real octopus. They became seemingly good friends, and we got under the skin of how octopuses feel and behave, and we saw a lot of how their minds work, thanks to the spy. So, yeah, that’s my reason, I think, for choosing episode one.

Spy Crab. Photo credit: Simon Enderby / © John Downer Productions
Spy Crab. Photo credit: Simon Enderby / © John Downer Productions /

Culturess: With ‘Deep Relationships’, I grew up thinking sharks are very vicious and just because of how the media has portrayed them. So it’s really interesting with shows that are more documentary style that actually showcase how they actually behave. Not all sharks are man-eaters. I really loved that and that’s why that specific one was my favorite. I just love seeing animals interact with each other. I’d say ‘Deep Trouble’ was my least favorite because I don’t like seeing baby whales in danger. That just turns me off. Obviously, there’s a lot of technology used in this series, and I know it probably wasn’t always smooth sailing. Were there any specific mishaps or even surprise revelations that you saw during the shooting of this series?

HW: Yeah, I mean, for me, one of the big surprises is the macaque sequence. In episode one, we were filming them using rocks as tools to break into these clams along the shoreline and using our spy macaque. It was coming up out of the water and all of a sudden, we noticed a little bit of action by the surf. And these macaques were kind of fishing with their hands, like grabbing these tiny little fish from the surf line, which takes amazing reaction time and dexterity. That was something that hadn’t been filmed before. And it was just a real kind of revelation, another aspect of these intelligent animals, and finding out how they’ve learned to adapt for island life in these ingenious ways. And that was a nice surprise for me. The other one would be when the hermit crab stole our spy shell from our spy hermit crab, which is just something you can never predict, but we got some fantastic shots from the POV of what it’s like to be a real hermit crab. So, things like that. Just those surprises from using spy creatures were always a delight, really.

MG: The first time we ever deployed our largest spy creature as well, which was the spy whale, we had a spy humpback whale and a spy baby sperm whale. Not only was that incredibly difficult to construct, took over a year and a half to make – and then shipping it around the world during a pandemic was obviously really difficult and complicated. Then filming wildlife in general and in the oceans is a task in itself. Just trying to find things like the humpback whales. So, everything has to be perfect on any one day to get everything working. I remember on one of the shoots, we did film humpback whales in French Polynesia. We finally got the whale out there after a year and a half of waiting, and then we put it in, and now finally the real humpback whales are there. Then suddenly, [the spy whale] has got a leak and it’s like, “Oh, no.” So, we have to bring it back out and repair it. But then actually we always tried to make the best of a situation.

MG (CONT’D): So, while that was being repaired, we had a spy dolphin with us as well. We then deployed spy dolphin and, as you’ll see in episode two, we got this very sort of unique interaction between the real baby humpback whale and our dolphin, which also then highlighted the difference in the way they would react towards a dolphin. And then eventually when we did deploy the spy baby whale as well and the real baby whale wanted to play more with our bpy whale and acted in a different way to the way it was with the spy dolphin, which was more looked at with curiosity. It was like a toy, almost a plaything for him. So, from mishaps, some really positive stuff can come out. Thanks to the fact that we had over 30 different spy creatures throughout this series as well.

PD: One of the first deployments in the field with the spy whale, we nearly lost it. As Matt said, we were haunted with technical problems because nobody has ever built a full-size baby whale before. It tested everybody to the limits and it sprung a leak and started sinking in water that was very deep. It was about 2,000 meters deep. So luckily, we had an underwater crew that managed to save it just in time. Had it sunk to the bottom, it would have been irretrievable and that would have been the end of our dreams. That was a very close call and thank goodness we managed to rescue it, I suppose. Lovely little surprises. Mimic octopus was a great one. Very surprising to see how many other animals that they mimic. We had no idea and the great surprise at the end was that it tried to mimic our own spy octopus, which just goes to show how remarkable those creatures are. So, I remember that being a real surprise for all of us.

Spy Cuttlefish Swimming with Five Cuttlefish. Photo credit: Huw Williams / © John Downer Productions
Spy Cuttlefish Swimming with Five Cuttlefish. Photo credit: Huw Williams / © John Downer Productions /

HW: Actually, there was that one time that [something] went wrong. I just remembered another one when we’re filming with the spy hammerheads in the pinnacle in the ocean off of Columbia, and there are these incredibly strong currents going past the pinnacle at all times. Then, all of a sudden, the current changed and went straight into the pinnacle without anywhere to go. It just went straight down. And so the crew got sucked down, getting drawn down so quickly that their ears burst because they couldn’t control how fast they were descending. So, with the spying hammerhead in one arm, they were grabbing the rocks on this side of this pinnacle with the other as this current was streaming down. But luckily, they’re a very experienced crew, so they knew what to do to get out of a situation like that and kind of inflated their BCDS and came up to the surface. It was quite a close call for a minute there. But thanks to their expertise and everything, it was all okay. We got some amazing footage very shortly after that of these huge hammerhead shoals.

PD: See, I wouldn’t have been any good on that shoot because I would have panicked in that situation and I would have said, right, spy shark, you’re on your own. You can go,  I’m not holding on to you. I’m going to hold on to my life.

HW: That was my first question: “Did you bring back the spy?” (Laughs)

Culturess: Oh, gosh, yeah. That is scary. I’m imagining it, as you were saying, and I’m like, there’s no way that I could even fathom being underwater during that time. But what I love too about documentary series specifically with underwater creatures, is that you’re discovering a whole new world. Even if you’re not a marine biologist or anything related to aquatics, you can discover new information that you wouldn’t have known. So I wonder for you guys, what do you think about viewers who are watching the show? What do you think they can take from this that they can apply even to their own lives?

PD: Wow. Yes. I think for us, it’s about connecting with the animals that you’re seeing underwater and feeling there’s a sort of a commonality. They’re not just alien creatures that are out of sight. Once you immerse yourself into their world and we get our spy creatures engaging with them, it’s actually fairly clear that even the most alien-like forms of life are similar to us in some ways, in the way that they think and they feel. They share a lot of the same hormones that govern our feelings and behavior. So, there’s a lot to relate to that feels familiar. I think for us, that’s the key thing to take away, really, from this series is we’re all linked, so to speak, and they’re genuinely fascinating creatures that deserve our curiosity, respect, and protection. So, that’s generally how I felt throughout the series and the making of the series.

MG: I guess for me, one of the biggest challenges I think I wanted when we were making this was to not allow it to be like when you go to an amazing aquarium and you look at some of the stuff and you’re going, “Wow, that’s beautiful. Look at those fish.” Even when you watch other documentaries, wildlife documentaries, you’re seeing them hunting or whatever, or those very classic behaviors. I think what our program was aiming to do, and I think we’ve done that, is to break down that barrier between us and them in certain ways with the help of the spy creatures. For example, with the sperm whale sequence that you see at the beginning, it’s not just showing these majestic creatures swimming past and maybe a breaching whale, and you just go, “Wow, look at that.” It’s also then going, “Okay, now look at the mother, how she’s turning around and clocking it and taking it all in.” You start to see the intrigue and then it starts to communicate and you’re like, “Wow, so that’s how she does this.” Then, you learn more about their behavior and then, as Phil mentioned, she calls over her baby to come and have a look as well. You’re not just a passive observer from afar. We really got into their lives. That doesn’t mean just getting up close and personal with them. It’s to expose really those hidden behaviors. That’s what I got from it.

HW: Yeah. How do I top those two exactly? I think using these spy creatures, we’re only scratching the surface, sorry for the pun, on some of the behavior and knowing more about the animals, and changing certain ideas. Like you said about the sharks, we grow up thinking a certain way about what we don’t understand. This is kind of showing people what they’re really like and making people fall in love with, not just the familiar whales, but down to the crabs and the smaller animals, too.

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The Spy in the Ocean mini series premieres on PBS on Wednesday Oct. 25 and continues airing until Nov. 15. Keep up to date with Culturess for more PBS interviews!