March 2009

The crew on a dingy suited up for snorkelling in Malaysia.

Extraordinary luck

Jet lag is only limited amounts of fun. I am blinking to stay awake and thinking about breakfast even though it's one o'clock in the afternoon. And Mexico is a memory. Well, a memory and 30 tapes in a cardboard box.

We were warned that getting into Mexico could take hours. The process has a habit of being bureaucratic and slow. There is an old 10 foot fence that lurches over the landscape and sketches the division between Mexico and the USA. A milk crate would have got us over. Even without a milk crate I felt I would be in with a good chance.

But it seems the authorities have had enough so a new brighter, shinier and taller fence is in the late stages of construction. It has cost countless millions to build. Our fixer turns to us in the bus and jokes, "There is a way to penetrate the new 15 foot wall of steel," he says, "A 16 foot ladder!"

While pick-up trucks and family cars piled with cases and bed-rolls are dismantled by uniformed guards in dark glasses, our visas are stamped and we are through in no time. That was the way things went in Mexico.

We prepared for the worst, and it never came. We gave the grey whales three days in the schedule (just in case), and on the first morning, they lined up ready for their close up. And so it went on. No matter how unlikely the demands of the schedule seemed, the animals were there right on cue. It was a bit unnerving. We were hoping to encounter whale shark, and we saw 10 of them. We had talked of finding sperm whales, and along they swam. Stephen decided early on that someone was in league with dark forces and such extraordinary luck could only come in exchange for someone's soul.

We started the trip with grey whales. We were filming from little boats with outboard motors. The whales obligingly circled, fluked, and gently lifted our little boat. "They scratch their back on the bottom of the boat" explained Mark as we all fell about and a huge dark shape passed beneath us.

Tim Green, series producer, and Sue Doody, assistant producer, review tapes in Brazil.

The grey whale is known as the friendliest whale. This is quite something when you consider that, within the lifetime of some of those we encountered, the bay we were filming in was used by whalers to trap the birthing mothers and harpoon them. It would have been great to film Stephen in the water with the grey whales but the bay is also home to great white shark so we stayed boat bound.

The most dramatic encounter was the one I was most worried about. Blue whales, said to be the biggest animal to have ever lived, are now endangered. Some estimates say that 90 percent of their numbers were taken by whalers.

Blue whales are less predictable than grey whale so we used a spotter plane and followed in an ocean going boat. When Sandy, our pilot, yelled out across the intercom and performed a dramatic handbrake turn we knew she had found what we were looking for. We drew as close as we dared and spent two days watching the vast creature as it arced out of the water, blasting a jet of spray into the air before dipping again and sometimes raising a mighty tail in the air before disappearing.

We chased many animals for Last Chance to See. The laborious business of filming generally outlasted the team's natural inclination to stand and stare. This wasn't so with the blue whales. We shot them in every way we could think of and when the filming was finished we still stood there, watching the sea for one more appearance. None of us could really say why. Perhaps it is something about being in the presence of such a truly massive animal (up to 200 tonnes) that makes it so hypnotic. Perhaps the very fact that our sighting could not be guaranteed made the encounter all the more dramatic.

Encountering the blue whale was spectacular and, it has to be said, a relief. We have our film somewhere in the 30 odd roles of tape in the cardboard box. The only task now is to get it down to one hour.

Tim Green, Series Producer, Last Chance to See

Exclusive: Radio

Douglas and Mark during the original Last Chance to See journey. Photo by Mark Carwardine

Twenty years on

Listen to the original series with Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine.

Your questions

Stephen and Mark in Madagascar. Photo by Sam Gracey

Dignity or captivity?

Stephen and Mark answer your questions while on location.

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