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'Big Blue Live' review: PBS special beams marine life right to TV

A Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) pup stretches

A Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) pup stretches on the beach at Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, in a scene from PBS' "Big Blue Live." Credit: Claudio Contreras

THE SHOW "Big Blue Live"

WHEN | WHERE Monday, Aug. 31-Wednesday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This three-night telecast, airing live from California's Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary, looks at an annual gathering of ocean life. It's narrated by Dr. M. Sanjayan (host of "Earth, a New Wild") and British TV newscaster Liz Bonnin. (The BBC also aired a version in the United Kingdom last week.)

MY SAY Just to clear this up at the outset, "Big Blue Live" is not about the New York Giants, with some live cam set up outside the training camp at MetLife Stadium. It's about whales -- of the blue and humpback varieties (and maybe killer variety). It's also about otters, and great whites, and dolphins, oh my. They are at this moment swimming amok in the wide expanse of Monterey Bay just south of San Francisco, and "Big Blue Live" is on hand, or on boat, to bring you all the action.

Umm . . . why?

My plausible answer: Have you ever seen a humpback whale breach? Or a thousand-pound male elephant seal loll around in the sand, its blubber rippling like a vast tub of disturbed Jell-O? Or otters dive, or dolphins spear the surface of the ocean, or a flock of grebes torpedo the water in pursuit of a "bait ball" actively under surveillance by an orca or two? Seeing this live is better than taped, at least in theory.

As such, this could be one of the coolest things that PBS has ever done, and I'm not just using that word "cool" lightly. The bay water is so, so cold it could snap your fingers off.

Besides the cold and the fog (or "marine layer" as it is euphemistically referred to out there), this is a fascinating, beautiful and historic place. It was overfished for years, and when the sardines disappeared, the canneries along the shore emptied out in the '60s, rusted over and nearly tumbled into the bay, but not before John Steinbeck immortalized them in "Cannery Row."

Developers later discovered the shoreline, which is now a tourist trap thronging with Europeans taking advantage of the strong euro.

But out to the west is where the real action is, and because of slightly warmer than usual waters (relatively speaking), there's a real crowd of humpbacks there right now.

I've seen some of the BBC version, which is charming in a tea-and-crumpets sort of way. You almost expect (or hope) to see Sir David Attenborough poke his head in front of the camera to blurt out, "Here I am, surrounded by red-throated loons and rhinoceros auklets."

If Monday night's U.S. version has even half that charm -- along with actual whales -- it could be a winner, too.

A final note:  

How bitter and cynical, righteous, angry and fearful some of us who send our lives in front of the TV have become (see: The news of last week, and the news which continues....)

What's the point? Let's just turn off the tube, dry up and blow away...

And then, along comes this curious, charming, lovely, passionate, life-affirming whale show.

Perhaps few watched, but those who did now know what I do -- There's a God in the heavens and in the seas too, as it happens....

Because this was mostly live, my review on Monday [above] could of necessity offer not much else beyond a question mark, so consider this my second bite at the bait ball, so to speak.

But "Big Blue Live" was a winner. The message -- conveyed by those preening, breaching, magnifcent whales, along with the otters, sharks, seals, rhinoceri auklets and who knows what else -- is elegantly simple: All lives matter.

Americans -- as British TV newscaster Liz Bonnin said at conclusion -- "should be incredibly proud" of the restoration of Monterey Bay and the life that has returned.

Americans should be.

You can see the three hours at PBS on Demand.


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