Monday, February 15, 2010

Sea Monsters (A Walking With Dinosaurs Trilogy, 2003)

Billed as "A Walking With Dinosaurs Trilogy", Sea Monsters (2003, BBC) is actually a 3-episode spin-off of the Chased By Dinosaurs series, itself a spin-off of the original six-part Walking With Dinosaurs program which first aired in 1999.

The most notable difference between the Chased By... series and its Walking With... predecessor is the addition of a live narrator and guide, zoologist Nigel Marven.

In Sea Monsters, Nigel, along with his equipment and crew, time-travels to various eras of prehistory to take the audience on a you-are-there tour of the world's most dangerous seas.

Some purists feel these Chased By... episodes caused the series to jump the megalodon by trying to inject cheap Crocodile-Hunter style action and theme-park thrills, rather than maintaining the scholarly objectivity of Walking With Dinosaurs' invisible narrator. But you know what? I like me some theme-park thrills. And Crocodile Hunter was... well, it was just fine. Did I mention I like theme-park thrills?

To me, Sea Monsters combines the instant gratification of fast-paced reality programming with the wonder and thrill of a dinosaur-themed amusement park ride (realized through practical models and CGI imagery...the reduced color palette of the underwater world helps conceal the trickery), all the while sprinkling in just enough actual science to pass as educational viewing. Let's dive in, shall we?


Upon arriving in the Ordovician period (450 million years ago), Nigel must take breaths from an oxygen tank to compensate for the high CO2 content of the atmosphere.


He displays a lobster-like sea scorpion that he goosed up from shallow waters.

Here he's rigging a giant trilobite carcass he recovered from shore with a hidden camera for some underwater photography.

The trilobite-cam captures what looks like a giant squid.

A subsequent dive reveals a giant Orthocone.

Nigel is threatened by a group of sea scorpions... of which the orthocone devours.

Moving on to the Triassic Period (230 million years ago), we encounter a lizard-like Northosaurus. Here Nigel really gets hands on, gripping the beast from behind for a short ride.

Nigel examines some captured underwater footage with the crew. Here they're looking at a cymbospondylus. Moments like these help sell the whole experience as an actual nature documentary and not merely an exercise in special effects.

A chilling encounter with the massive cymbospondylus. Nigel has an electrified prod in hand in case it gets too close for comfort.

Moving on to the Devonian Period (360 million years ago), Nigel has caught a placoderm, an armor-plated fish that he'll later use as bait.

Nigel is protected by a spheric shark cage for a close-up look at a Dunkleosteus.


Nigel displays a modern photograph of a basilosaurus skull. We'll be traveling to the Eocene Period (36 million years ago) to find a living one.

Recordings of the basilosaurus mating call, broadcast from an underwater speaker, lure this specimen to the surface.

Nigel will now pursue megalodon in the Pliocene era (4 million years ago). Here he stands for scale inside an actual megalodon's jaws (a set from the modern great white can be glimpsed behind him for comparison).

First they visit the gentle odobenocetops leptodon, which they suspect is megalodon's favorite meal.

The crew assembles an artificial version of the walrus-like prey and troll for sharks.

Nigel on shark patrol spots a massive black fin.

A thrilling close-up encounter in the shark cage follows.

Nigel is trying to spear the behemoth with a remote camera.

He gives up on the shark cage and tries attaching the camera at the surface.


For the final episode, we first travel to the Jurassic period (155 million years ago) to swim with a school of leedsichthys, which, at 75-80 feet in length, are the largest fish to ever live.

From the safety of the ship, Nigel and crew watch a sickly leedischthys take a few nips from liopleurodon, a reptilian predator.

Nigel returns to the site for a night dive, wearing a specially equipped "smell suit" that can release a noxious burst of chemical repellent if things get too hairy.

This night dive is pretty intense, with several liopleurodons emerging from the inky depths to tear away at the rocking carcass.

Moving on to the Cretaceous period (75 million years ago), Nigel uses a periscope camera to view xiphactinus, a 20-foot long predator. According to Nigel, "If the devil kept fish, this would be one of them."

Later while below deck, the crew are awakened by a massive thud against the hull. Seems they've rammed into an archelon, or giant sea turtle. Or should I say... half a giant sea turtle. The poor thing has been bitten in two. Evidence, Nigel says, that the giant mosasaur must be near.

A pteranodon flies past the bow.

Meanwhile a remote-controlled submarine camera captures a school of elasmosaurus.

While considered dangerous, the ROV camera also detects a living archelon, and Nigel risks entering the water for a chance to ride its back.

But this magical moment is disrupted by the sudden arrival of a family of mosasaurs, who upturn their inflatable raft.

Chased By Dinosaurs (which includes all three episodes of Sea Monsters) is available on DVD here.

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