The Whale in the Living Room

Underwater cameraman, John Ruthven, talks to us about a lifetime of exploring the deep. He is also a producer of Sir David Attenborough's The Blue Planet.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
Whale in the Living Room

The Blue Planet, with John on the left. © John Ruthven

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week, we’re jumping overboard with wildlife documentary-maker John Ruthven. He’s one of the producers on The Blue Planet who has worked with Sir David Attenborough.

John, welcome to the show. You’re a zoologist and a professional dive cameraman who’s made some fifty films for the BBC and other broadcasting companies, showcasing the fascinating creatures that live in the oceans of the world. You’ve done about fifty sea films, I hear, and in terms of diving hours, you spent a massive total of some three weeks underwater.

During Covid, you decided to write it all down, and the resulting book is called The Whale in the Living Room. Now, I gather that you’re not only an underwater cameraman, but a director and a writer as well – just about everything else. You do the whole package.

John Well, I also worked in radio a lot. I’ve had quite a long career now, about thirty-five years, I should think. And I started as a sound manager, a studio manager on the World Service in radio. That’s the technical side. And then I moved over to writing scripts in the science unit. Eventually, because I have a zoology background, I have a PhD in zoology, I went to the Natural History Unit.

I never dreamt as a boy that I could ever work on programmes, like Life on Earth, which I was seeing when I was about seventeen. It didn’t even occur to me. But very luckily, by a series of fortunate events, I managed to get into the Natural History Unit in Bristol.

Peter Were you always involved with the sea? The sea has been a first love of yours?

John I’ve loved the sea. I have a YouTube channel called Indoona, which is named after my father’s boat, because he loved that when he was a boy. So the sea and the maritime background was always in the family. But it’s really because I’m interested in zoology and the stranger types of creatures that are found in the sea – as opposed to on land. My research work was actually on a tarantula spider, which is also a very strange creature, but I love all the different adaptions which are so apparently alien to us land creatures.

Felice And where were you born? Where did you grow up?

John Oh, I mainly I grew up in North Wales and, again, that fostered a love of wildlife because I was very lucky and grew up on a farm. And that farm was a centre for lead mining in the Victorian times and probably going back to Roman times.

I’d sometimes pick up a stone, which was unusually heavy, and I knew what it was. I smashed it and it broke up into a lovely silver, shiny metal, and it was a solid lump of metal. It was galena, which is the lead ore with a small amount of silver and nickel in it as well. So beautiful, and also very strange because you don’t expect to see that inside a stone. That fostered an interest in nature and in some of the more unusual types of nature, which is what really my theme is.

I started doing underwater photography because I was interested in cuttlefish. I dived off Devon, where every spring the European cuttlefish, which are about two feet long, they caught. I wanted to see them close up and did a lot of diving photography, and was interested in their behaviours because they’re very strange…as I was saying earlier, alien animals, although I’m sure they think we’re strange. But it’s just that fascination with other life forms and different life forms, which led me to be interested in the sea.

I was lucky that a series of events happened then after that, because just as I’d got into that underwater photography hobby, I was working at the Natural History Unit on various films for Shark Week and so on, but also because I had a background in diving and in underwater photography. I got a place as a producer on The Blue Planet, which was really the key to unlocking another ten years of work on the sea.

Peter So you obviously know Sir David very well?

John I don’t know him very well; I know him pretty well.  I’m one of maybe three hundred producers that have worked with him. He’s a very nice man, very polite, incredible survivability. I mean, if you think about the fact that he’s ninety-eight now and still working. I suppose if I can keep myself fit, I aim to do a David Attenborough, in which case my career has only just started.

Whale in the Living Room

The Blue Planet. Photo: © John Ruthven

Felice And you’ve got a BAFTA for The Blue Planet.

John There’s a few, you collect a few things along the way. I’ve got a BAFTA and an Emmy. The BAFTAs were for things that were part of The Blue Planet team, and the Emmy was for a show I did for PBS in America on the ecosystem of coral reefs.

Peter But I think it’s important to point out that you’re a man with some pretty deep skills. I mean, I use the word advisedly because you’re a deep sea diver, you’re a cameraman, you’re an editor, producer, director. I mean, you’ve done a lot.

John Well, yes. I mean, they’re all allied things. You know, when I talked about radio earlier and, indeed, podcasting, I had an older colleague who used to say, ‘Oh, you mean radio,’ when I said podcasts. Because basically that’s what it is. But all those things are allied…and writing…they’re all about different ways of getting over ideas and documenting things. I like documentary.

Yes, I do have all those skills, and I do editing and video editing and all those sorts of things too. But it’s pretty difficult to make a living in making films about sharks because they’re not wanted. My son was saying he wanted to be a chemical engineer. I was thinking, ‘Good on you.’ He didn’t want to be a poor wildlife filmmaker.

Peter Well, you’ve chosen lifestyle over fortune.

John Whether it was a conscious choice or not, I think my subconscious led me there. I think that’s true of all of us. That we are led by our subconscious because we don’t know. Unless you’re a particularly together person, you don’t usually make detailed plans about how your career is going to work. You kind of jump from one step to another based on: ‘Oh, that sounds good.’

Felice How did you get into filmmaking from zoology?

John Well, so I talked earlier about working for the World Service, that’s how I got into the BBC. I was doing PhD. They sent me to Frankfurt for a year. My mother was Austrian and I speak German, so I worked with a German research group…but that’s not the point of this. That was 1984, and I was listening to the World Service every single day for a year. And then when I got back to the UK, lo and behold, in a magazine – an advert for a studio manager, which is people that run the radio studios in the World Service – turned up, and it was a traineeship.

I was a pretty naive student and I just walked into the interview and the five people on the board panel, and I didn’t realise there were 2,000 people applying for ten jobs. And so, because I had listened to the World Service every single day, there wasn’t a question on the World Service that I didn’t know the answer to.

Then with my technical background as well, and recording sounds, and I got one of those traineeships, and that’s like having the gold ticket in the Willy Wonka chocolate factory, and you were able to go throughout radio. So I worked on the Today programme for Radio 4, BBC orchestral, programmes for BBC2, the Sound Studios in Maida Vale, where they do the sound effects for Doctor Who and all that sort of stuff. So lots of interesting programmes, and the news. And then I worked for the World Service for about three years.

When you talk to people about how they got into the BBC, what I’ve noticed is the answer is many different ways. Usually something that is a bit unusual, perhaps, or at least to have something unusual on your CV, which just draws attention to you above the hundreds of other people that want to get in.

Peter So going back to the sea for a minute, you obviously learned to dive and have the full PADI and everything, but when you do it on an industrial level, it’s quite a different thing.

John So for diving for work, you are under the Health and Safety Executive rules, HSC, and it used to be called HSC Part 4. Now it’s called, I think, Scuba Professional. But basically it’s a high standard of diving. And you have to do multiple courses, basically so you don’t kill yourself.

Peter How deep have you have you been and where?

John Well, you can only go 50m on compressed air. On mixed gases you can go deeper, but you’re getting into some pretty difficult technical diving. And unless you are filming deeper creatures, it’s much better anyway to be in the surface waters. A lot of what you want, particularly on things like coral reefs are in some really good light in the shallows down to ten meters.

To some extent, depth and safety, I think people think that if you go deep, it is more dangerous. And it is, I suppose, up to a point. But if you’re within the compressed air diving range of 0 to 50m, it’s fairly good as long as you’re well trained.

Felice Have you had any accidents?

Whale in the Living Room

Very large school of scalloped hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos. Photo: © John Ruthven

John The worst things…people think that sharks are dangerous. They think that all the wildlife down there is what you should worry about. But what you need to worry about is current and getting swept out to sea, particularly in places where there’s no support. So, you’re just going to die at sea if that happens. And that’s the most dangerous thing.

There was one incident which I’ve written about in the book, which was diving off Cocos Islands, off Costa Rica, about 400 miles off the coast of Costa Rica at night, because we were trying to film whitetip reef sharks, which do somewhat cooperative hunting. It’s in the first series of Blue Planet.

So, what happens is that a night about twenty or so whitetip reef sharks get together and they start hunting around the coral heads, and they force fish through the gaps. But because there’s so many of them, there’s another one waiting on the other side of the gap. So they get it.

So we were trying to film that, and we were dropped off a subsidiary island, a small island in the dark, probably about 10pm. So, pitch black in the tropics. I was on the lights and had a cable, which I knew was 600ft long, and it was attached to the generator, and diving with a cameraman called Bob Cranston.

So Bob and I were dropped off first, and I was his support and his lighting. Soon I found that the cable had become tense, so I knew I was 600ft in a very short time from the rib that had dropped us off. So, Bob says, ‘I think we’re in trouble, John.’ Basically, we were swept towards Costa Rica.’ So 400 miles of open sea between us and Costa Rica, and nobody would be there to rescue us.

I had a whistle, basically, that’s powered by the compressed air of your tank, and it makes a hell of a noise…on for about fifteen seconds. My ears were ringing and Bob said, ‘No, I don’t think we’re in that much trouble, John.’ No, it was the American cameraman that we work with, they’re quite funny.

But a friend or somebody who was looking after our back, basically, because you have a team of, of maybe six people, and the boat crew as well. He was a local guide and local knowledge is really important. He came along the seabed because we’ve been caught in a very big current and we’d been dropped in the wrong place. And he came along the seabed at 40m. Because we go along the seabed, there’s no current when when you’re close to the seabed. And he knew exactly what had happened to us, and he popped up. His name was Peter Craig and he said hello. He’s a Dutchman, and he said, ‘You’ve got to come with me. You go down to 40m and we’ll go back.’

So that’s what we did. Next minute you’re on the boat and everything’s hunky dory and that’s the sea all over. It’s mostly benign, but occasionally you will find yourself in a situation like that and suddenly it’s life-threatening. I think it was Jacques Cousteau that said, ‘Never be complacent with sharks.’ But you could also say that about the sea in general.

Whale in the Living Room

Peacock Mantis Shrimp. Photo: © John Ruthven

Felice Do you have a favourite creature in the sea, the one that fascinates you more than others?

John Yes, I like the mantis shrimp, which I write about in the book, but it’s an extraordinary creature.  It’s a large shrimp with extraordinary eyes. The eyes are like golf balls on the top of its head, on two stalks. They don’t have sockets. And these things can swivel at least 180 degrees. And they’re doing it constantly in different directions.

The thing about those eyes is they’re probably one of the most sophisticated in the animal kingdom. There are many species of mantis shrimps, but the most beautiful is called the peacock mantis shrimp. You’ll find it in in Sulawesi in Indonesia, and in that area, which is called the Coral Triangle.

It needs to see for some reason in very, very detailed colour. It’s been said that it can see in up to twelve different types of primary colour. Who knows what that means. But, in terms of our perception, because we have three primary colours. Although there are some women who can see in four. In fact, in paint companies, women are used more than men to do colour analysis. But that’s beside the point. But it is about the theme of how this mantis shrimp can see so many colours, and it can also see in ultraviolet.

There’s several theories about why it can see in such colour detail. And that’s because maybe it’s helping it discern something about the patterns of its mates and how fit they are and nature evolution very quickly, fine tunes, that sort of thing. The number one rule, of course, is natural selection and even more powerfully, sexual selection. If the female doesn’t like you, you’re evolutionarily dead.

In other ways, in other different creatures, it might be the male that’s choosing. So anything like that is very much channelled in evolution. That could explain why it’s got such sophisticated eyes. But it does look like it’s looking at you all the time…almost to the extent where you feel embarrassed.

I love those sort of weird and wonderful things that you see on the seabed, particularly in that sort of habitat, actually, that’s in Sulawesi, which…they call it muck diving. But actually it’s not muck, it’s pumice, very small grains of pumice. It looks like a quarry when you’re on there. A black, sooty quarry. When you look at it, pumice is the size of dog kibble.

It goes on for miles and miles. And you think, why have I come to this underwater quarry? And then you realise that everything is absolutely teeming with life, because those little particles give surface area, and there’s food and there’s space to live and there’s eels everywhere. There’s frogfish, nudibranchs, which are colourful sea slugs, and all sorts of species of fish, some quite dangerous species of catfish, which hunt collectively. They’ve got toxic spines; that’s why they’re dangerous, but fantastic. I mean, things even like the flamboyant cuttlefish, which can make patterns that look like flames going down its sides.

Felice Going back to the mantis shrimp. How big is it? I can’t imagine it.

John Well, I describe it in the book as being like a colourful rat. That’s about the size of it. Yes, it’s quite big, as big as your hand at least. They also punch an incredible weapon underneath their body, which is like the bolas of a Mexican cattle rancher. They’ve got these things on strings with two balls on the end. Well, if you think about that ball and the lever, a lever behind it is underneath, and it can propel this thing so fast that it makes steam in the water.

We filmed it once in a high speed, and sure enough, there was a bubble in front of it with a bit of steam in that bubble. If you keep them in an aquarium, they can crack through the glass, no problem. It eats clams and things and it smacks them and absolutely destroys them. But of course if you were to pick it up, it would do that to your hand as well.

Felice Now, apart from filming underwater and producing and directing underwater, you have also specialised in venomous snakes in Asia.

John Well, I’ve done a lot of terrestrial filming as well. That particular film was quite interesting. It was for National Geographic and it was called Asia’s Deadliest Snakes. The thing is, all of our work needs an audience, and particularly now, where there’s huge amounts of competition, you need to gain an audience. Anything with danger and teeth does better than many other things in wildlife. I used to be a bit sceptical about that, but then I ran the YouTube channel Indoona and top-performing videos and all the ones that are about deep sea fish with big teeth.

John So going back to the snakes, that was a that was a very interesting project based in Singapore. I sometimes worked in other production centres, so I’ve worked in Singapore, Washington and Dunedin, and that was about five months in Singapore. We basically had to answer the question, ‘What is the deadliest snake in Asia?’ Then you analyse what ‘deadly’ means – and it’s the ones that are causing the most trouble to humans. We go up through the top ten, basically.

We were with a very good scientist called Doctor Frey, who was an expert. We had several other experts with us, as you need if you were filming snakes and, in fact, we had captive snakes as well, because on the average budget…if you give me a budget of £10 million, I will find you snakes in the wild in their natural conditions. If you give me a budget of £50,000. I’m sorry, but I’ve only got two days in every location, so you know I can’t do that. So you do have captive snakes with you, and you need a snake wrangler.

We went, for instance, to the Western Ghats, where we did things like take a king cobra out of a woodshed, because the locals don’t want them in their houses, of course. And a king cobra is a magnificent but pretty dangerous creature, if you’re going to disturb it. It’s probably got enough venom to kill fifteen people.

The Indian species is particularly beautiful. It’s cream and chocolate striped with a head as big as your fist. Brian, our scientist, took this out from the woodshed, manually handling it. But knowing how to handle such a snake.

Again, there’s some interesting bits of science. For instance, a snake like that, if you take it away from the human habitation and then rerelease it…let’s take it 20 miles away so it never bothers them again. That would be the wrong thing to do because they go a bit crazy if they’re taken out of their area. So what you do is take them about a mile down the road and release them, although you don’t tell the person who’s woodshed it was.

But we released that one over a swamp. And one of my amazing memories of that is of the snakes swimming. This cobra can swim beautifully over the water, almost like a Loch Ness Monster doing a little weeding thing. Just extraordinary really.

So I suppose what comes out of that is I like talking about facts like that to getting that science in. We’d do it on things like Shark Week as well. I did a thing about how it was called Tiger Shark Beyond Fear. Again, it was that’s the sort of title that works well on Discovery Shark Week. Again, that’s what that was about, a tiger shark attack which happened in Maui, actually, a horrific one where a woman was dismembered by two tiger sharks and her husband saw it, because he was running the plantation nearby. He was the manager of the plantation, and they had a lovely bungalow on the edge of the sea. She went swimming every day, and just this one day this happened.

They started culling tiger sharks after that attack, thinking that there’s a rogue shark. But again, the science doesn’t show that. And they started funding science because of that attack. There’s a guy called Kim Holland who did a lot of science there, and he discovered that tiger sharks can be within any of the Hawaiian islands, within a day, the same one. So again, you’ve got some science behind the sensational.

Whale in the Living Room

Sea Bass, Comino Island, Malta. Photo: © John Ruthven

Felice You also worked on a drama inside a World War II U-boat?

John That was, again, what I do, really. I research a topic and sort of take it to bits and then see how we can put it back together again as a film documentary. And that was about a submarine called U-480, which was done in a series called Deep Wreck Mysteries. The chap I was working with, Crispin Sadler, had a company that specialises in that sort of thing, and he’d realised that there were a lot of deep wrecks which have unexplained stories. Because modern technology can get deeper and deeper wrecks, there’s there’s an endless supply of stories.

But this one is about a submarine called U-480, which was sunk off the Isle of Wight in 1944, and is in about 60m of water, so just below standard diving depth. So it turns out that it’s covered in rubber. And not only that, the rubber has got holes in it. So it’s got a structured  rubber coating. So what on earth can that be for? Well, all the intercepts are still kept. You know that we intercepted all the U-boats during World War II? I can give you a levels of detail on this and go on about it for hours, but I’ll just summarise it.

We discovered that the coating was to make it resistant to sonar detection and it was virtually invisible. And in fact, the code name for it, the German code name, was Alberich, which is the dwarf in Wagner’s Ring. Alberich is invisible when he puts an invisible cloak on. The intercepts show that they’re talking about Alberich, and also it destroyed about four ships in the channel, all of which didn’t report what was happening to them.

We know about that story in great detail, did reconstructions of it in the only U-boat of its type still available, which is in Kiel in Germany. We did some drama scenes in the middle of the night when we were all deadly tired, which actually helped because it made the students who were working with look very tired. And as they would do in the world war.

Felice I know what I need to go back to. I want to ask you about coral reefs because I’m really interested. We we’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef twice, and we love snorkelling – not diving.

John They’re wonderful. I mean, I’ve spent a great deal of time filming coral reefs, especially for a project which was to document them all around the world for six years with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, which is based in Washington. I got a wonderful contract with them several times, which was to go with them to French Polynesia. We went to British Indian Ocean Territory, which few people ever get to.

They were trying to document the current state of the reefs because everybody says the reefs are declining, which they are. But unless you know what the baseline was, how can you say it’s declining? Because you’ve got to know, compare it year-on-year. So they’ve now got good maps done pretty manually, just taking quadrants down with twenty divers. They had a big ship which took scientists from all over the world, from local scientists in particular when we were in French Polynesia or whatever, they would do, samples of all the different species of coral you saw bleaching yourselves.

John It’s quite remarkable and very shocking, really. When we were in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which is also called the Chagos Islands, we were there to bleaching event, but just at the start, where the water temperature was 40 centigrade at the surface, which is extraordinary. The coral had gone multiply-coloured: pink, yellow and blue, and really bright. It was quite striking. And that, apparently is the first response. Those pigments are sunscreen pigments. So even under the water you’re getting quite a lot of sun.

So we saw that. And of course the white, which is when the coral expels its algae. You probably know that algae and coral live together in symbiosis. They’re called zoanthid, but they’re basically a type of algae and barely, because the photosynthesis, I believe becomes too toxic at higher temperatures. And that’s happening quite regularly now. It’s happening, it would happen every 20 years, but it’s now happening every five years. And that’s a sort of a critical thing because it takes coral about five years to recover. So if you get underneath the recovery time, then you’re going to just destroy the reef.

Peter We live in a very scary world. It’s been fascinating talking to you. Tell us about your book, The Whale in the Living Room.

John I thought that was, particularly in lockdown, a good opportunity to write down my first-hand ideas and views of the sea. But also how extraordinary some of the things are that I’ve been lucky enough to see first-hand. And doing things like filming the blue whales for The Blue Planet. There’s a lot of interest in The Blue Planet, of course.

Felice If people want to look at your YouTube channel, what’s the name of it?

John It’s called Indoona, which was the name of my father’s boat, so that’s why I took it.

Peter John Ruthven, it’s been great talking to you, and we wish you the very best of luck for the future underwater, and of course, on land as well.

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. By the way, we’re no 7 in the Top 20 Midlife Travel Podcasts.

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