At 90, Sir David Attenborough is more alive than many people half his age, simply because he continues to be driven by the joy of learning something new. The famous naturalist is currently plotting a visit to the centre of the Gobi, the largest desert in Asia. He certainly doesn’t let age get in the way of discovery.
Over the years, we have grown accustomed to the Brit’s plummy yet kind voice through the various BBC documentaries he has narrated. Ahead of yet another BBC programme he has lent his voice to, The Hunt, Attenborough discusses the secret to his drive, the mysterious ocean, and the possibility of life in space.
Does the world seem smaller and less mysterious than it did when you started out?
It is the experiences you have that teach you how amazing and unpredictable things can be. When you’re young, you learn things about animals and think you know what’s going to happen but in fact you don’t. You only have a tiny understanding of the complexity.
How do you maintain this wonderful enthusiasm for your work? Do you ever think about just putting your feet up?
Putting my feet up is all well and good, but it’s absolutely boring. I can think of an awful lot of people who work at a job for 10 or 20 years and think they’ve had enough of it but they’re really stuck because that’s what their career was. And when they get to 65, they’re just counting down the years. I’m fantastically lucky to be able to say “I think I’ll go to the Amazon next year”. I’m just grateful that people still want me to do things.
Are you aware of the number of different groups that try and get you to promote their cause e.g. conservation etc.?
I certainly embrace conservation causes but I suppose part of my problem as a BBC broadcaster is that the one thing that you do as a TV producer is not impose your views of any kind. So when I, by accident, found myself in front of the camera I still kept that stance. I wasn’t there to put out opinion and scientific facts, and for that reason I was somewhat behind on the business of climate change. I didn’t come out with my views on climate change until a while later because I’m not a climate scientist. My job as a good broadcaster was to put the climate scientist on television and make sure he got a proper say.
What do you think the planet will look like in another 90 years?
That’s a long time and life doesn’t stand still. If you wanted to know what a particular animal is, you may have to go back to the films that were made 90 years ago to find out. What alarms me more would be the size of the human population. Whatever we do it’s not going to go down.
Does that thought alarm you? Is there anything else that we can be optimistic about?
The only optimism is something called the Global Apollo programme. We presented in Paris at the UN climate conference, with the idea being that if we could hatch 1/5000th part of the energy that comes from the sun that hits the planet every day, we could meet all the demands of humanity and we don’t even need fundamental scientific research to do that. If we could improve the means of collecting/transmitting global energy, it would be cheaper than carbon-based fuels.
Do you think there is more to explore in the ocean?
Definitely. We know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the surface of the Moon. Every time someone goes deep into the ocean, they come back with something we’ve never seen before. One of the most thrilling discoveries of my time were the plates of the Earth. The continental plates are approximately 900 to 1,200 metres below and there are creatures there that are still unknown to us.
What about the Giant squid? Do you want to see one?
When you get to that depth you’re in submersible water, and what you see is exactly what they (researchers) see. I did a commentary with NHK World, and they are very inventive with those things. They caught this giant squid in the most genius way. There are fabulous pictures of the giant squid but the one problem is that they are huge animals with tentacles, and hence, rather dangerous.
Is going to space that something you would have liked to do?
No. Maybe if you landed on the moon and you were going to see new flowers or a worm, but it’s just dust and it’s taken you 6 months to get there. And you can’t even get back for a cup of tea! Astronauts love the new technology but I can barely work a mobile phone so I would be hopeless in space.
Do you think there is life out there in space?
Mathematically speaking, there must be something out there. However, if it would take you longer than a human being’s lifespan to travel to where it is, then there’s no point. It’s an interesting theoretical concept, but it’s not as interesting to me as compared to something like a new species of hummingbird.
This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of AUGUSTMAN. All images are credited to BBC.