Film – Synopsis
It is late spring, and new blooms of tiny plant-like organisms, or phytoplankton, begin to form in the cold clear waters off the Scottish Isles, in the very northernmost reaches of the North Sea. Seen from space, they form huge blue-green swirls as they gather in their billions and drift south, driven by the relatively warm currents flowing in from the Atlantic. After the cold hungry months of winter, the arrival of this food bonanza sets off a chain reaction of activity.
The phytoplankton are food to newly hatched zooplankton, or tiny floating animals, which are now rising to the surface waters to graze on this slow flowing moveable feast. They in turn form the main food source to a whole variety of sea life, from oysters and shrimp to herring and even one of the largest fish in the sea, the eight-meter-long basking shark, who gather each year to feed along this rugged coast of Scotland.
The biggest effect these tiny sea animals have however, is serving as food to sand eels. They are now emerging in the hundreds of thousands from the seabed, forming huge glistening shoals. These small silvery eel-like fish are at the center of a giant food web that supports the bulk of all life in the North Sea. From fish such as cod and haddock; to sea mammals like common dolphin and grey seals; to a large range of seabirds, including gannets and the charismatic puffin.
Along with many other cliff-breeding birds, puffins time the hatching of their young with the arrival of this seaborne feast. We follow the brightly coloured birds as they dive for sand eels. Each pair has just one chick to feed, but that means repeatedly diving to over 20 meters to catch around 400 sand eels a day.
The current draws us further south, to where the sea becomes shallower and under the influence of the outflow of Europe’s largest river, the Rhine. This vast delta region, which makes up a good deal of the western Netherlands is of particular interest as it functions as one of the most important nurseries for fish and shellfish in the North Sea.
One of its most exotic visitors are cuttlefish, which each year swim up the Channel to the warm sheltered waters of the Eastern Scheldt to mate and lay their eggs. The underwater landscape here takes on a Mediterranean feel as sea-horses jostle between bright coloured anemones. This tidal estuarine arm fed by the rivers Rhine, Maas and Schelde is also a sanctuary to sea mammals such as common seals and harbour porpoises.
In this unique cinematic portrait, we follow the main currents, and the plankton blooms they carry, as they make their slow anticlockwise journey around the North Sea. The film explores the intricate relationships that support one of the most productive marine environments in the world. One that is also the most intensively exploited — crisscrossed as it is by shipping lanes and dotted with oil platforms and wind farms, while also being heavily fished.
These human impacts form a backdrop to our story, but we focus mainly on the diverse natural systems and the strategies they are using to adapt to these various pressures, including those of climate change.
As the currents take us further round the western shores of the North Sea we encounter the dramatic coastal scenery of Norway’s fjords. Here steep rock-faced mountains dive directly into the sea, whose waters are clearer and deeper than those in the south. This icy world is also full of colour and home to giant red king crabs with their two-meter leg span; and the electric blue and orange male cuckoo wrasse and his harem. A male is aggressively guarding eggs in a dish-shaped nest he has made of algae for one of his many females. This male is old and when he eventually dies an extraordinary transformation occurs. The largest female will slowly change sex and take over the position of dominant male.
After years of decline, fish stocks and other marine organisms of the North Sea are starting to show signs of recovery, aided by concerted conservation efforts from all countries who share its untamed beauty and its resources. A new dawn is rising for the Wild North Sea, and with it the prospect of a reconciliation between wilderness and humans.