Skip to content

MBARI technology featured in an episode of BBC Studios Natural History Unit’s landmark series

MBARI’s advanced deep-sea technology helped bring the Octopus Garden to life in Planet Earth III, an eight-part global series produced by BBC Studios Natural History Unit. Image: © 2021 MBARI

MBARI technology featured in an episode of BBC Studios Natural History Unit’s landmark series

The Octopus Garden—an octopus nursery off the coast of Central California—captured the curiosity of millions of people around the world. Now, MBARI has helped BBC Studios Natural History Unit share the story of these deep-sea octopus moms with global audiences as part of their new series, Planet Earth III.

Promotional art for the Planet Earth III series featuring the BBC logo with B, B, and C in black boxes, the text “Planet Earth” in uppercase black letters, and three transparent vertical rectangles representing the Roman numeral three. The background is light blue with a screen capture from underwater video of a school of pygmy devil rays. Larger images of six pygmy devil rays are layered on top of the Roman numeral three, as if swimming out of the three rectangles.
The second episode of Planet Earth III, “Ocean,” explores the largest habitat on the planet. Viewers meet marine animals from the shallow seas to the dark depths. Image: © BBC Studios Natural History Unit

Produced by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit and presented by Sir David Attenborough, this eight-part series premiered in the United Kingdom on October 22 on BBC One and iPlayer and began airing in the United States on BBC America on November 4. The series’ second episode, “Ocean,” features footage filmed by MBARI in collaboration with BBC Studios.

“The Octopus Garden is a really special place that teems with life. Thanks to MBARI’s advanced deep-sea camera technology and our collaboration with BBC Studios Natural History Unit, we’re able to give global audiences an intimate look into the lives of these heroic octopus mothers,” said Senior Scientist Jim Barry, who leads MBARI’s research at the Octopus Garden. “I hope meeting these devoted mothers inspires a new generation of ocean explorers and encourages us all to consider our connection to the deep sea. Like us, deep-sea animals seek safety and shelter, so it’s more urgent than ever that we work to protect the deep sea from threats like climate change.”

“It was a huge privilege to spend so much time filming these remarkable animals with Jim and his MBARI team. To see what the octopus mums go through in such a hostile world was hugely touching and, after two years, they almost became old friends. To witness the moment their young leave and the mums pass away was very emotional,” said Will Ridgeon, producer and director of “Ocean.” 

The Octopus Garden is located 3,200 meters (10,500 feet, or about two miles) below the ocean’s surface near the base of Davidson Seamount, an inactive underwater volcano 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Monterey, California. Earlier this year, MBARI researchers and their collaborators revealed that this location provides a reproductive advantage for the pearl octopus (Muusoctopus robustus). Hydrothermal springs at the base of the seamount bathe the octopus’ eggs with warm water. Warmer temperatures shorten the eggs’ incubation time, providing the offspring with a better chance of successfully hatching.

An MBARI remotely operated vehicle underwater. The robotic submersible has a bright yellow float on top of a black metal frame with a pair of black metal manipulator arms, a large camera, and a number of colored wires. The robot was photographed shortly after deployment, with its tether visible at the top of the photo. Bright blue water and one of the twin hulls of an MBARI research ship are visible in the background.
Operated from MBARI’s research vessel Western Flyer, the ROV Doc Ricketts helped researchers observe life at the Octopus Garden. Footage filmed by the robot’s cameras was featured in Planet Earth III. Image: Randy Prickett and Erich Rienecker © 2018 MBARI

MBARI’s advanced deep-sea technology helped uncover the secrets of the Octopus Garden. Our remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts—controlled by scientists and submersible pilots aboard the research vessel Western Flyer—allowed researchers to observe nesting octopus and deploy scientific instruments.

“The deep sea is one of the most challenging environments for science and technology. Thanks to the expertise of MBARI’s engineering  and marine operations teams, we were able to successfully gather data and images from the Octopus Garden. Our engineers developed new tools for filming nesting octopus, and our skilled submersible pilots deftly deployed these instruments on the deep seafloor,” said Barry.

The footage collected by Doc Ricketts provided valuable research data, as well as an opportunity to share the story of the Octopus Garden with the world. 

Over two years and five expeditions, BBC Studios Natural History Unit filmmakers accompanied Barry and the rest of MBARI’s Benthic Biology and Ecology Team to the Octopus Garden to capture the events unfolding at the nursery.

During the early dives, “Ocean” episode producer Will Ridgeon had to virtually tune into MBARI’s expeditions from his home in Bristol, England. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, not all parties were able to physically be aboard the ship. 

In response to the pandemic, MBARI had developed a telepresence system aboard our ships, which allowed colleagues from around the world to communicate remotely with the at-sea team. Through this setup, Ridgeon was able to view the ROV’s video feed live in his own home and direct filming with the submersible from thousands of miles overseas. 

A robotic arm placing a camera on the seafloor to the left of nesting pale purple octopus. This screen capture from underwater video shows octopus oriented upside down with their arms and suckers exposed as they nest in between greenish-brown boulders to the right of an underwater camera. Several pale orange sea anemones are interspersed among the nesting octopus. The camera on the left has a black housing, a silver metal base, and a silver handle. A black and blue cable extends from the back of the camera, offscreen to the left. A yellow cord is tied to the handle, and extends offscreen to the left. The robotic arm at the top of the image has a silver metal claw and white plastic base.
Using the robotic manipulator arms on MBARI’s ROV Doc Ricketts, researchers and filmmakers carefully deployed a portable 4K camera and underwater lighting to capture close-up footage of octopus nests for Planet Earth III. Image: © 2021 MBARI

After travel restrictions eased, Ridgeon joined MBARI researchers and ROV crew in the Western Flyer’s control room in person. With Ridgeon directing in one seat and a pilot controlling the Doc Ricketts in another, the submersible’s robotic arms precisely positioned underwater lights and cameras to capture shots of nesting octopus. 

Doc Ricketts has a variety of cameras onboard for science and navigation. The vehicle’s main camera is the MxD SeaCam, a first-of-its-kind 4K underwater imaging system developed by MBARI engineers in partnership with DeepSea Power & Light. This camera recorded footage of the Octopus Garden in 4K ultra high-definition resolution. Additionally, researchers and filmmakers used the vehicle’s robotic arms to deploy a smaller 4K camera to capture close-up footage of octopus nests.

4K cameras are a relatively new—and invaluable—innovation in deep-sea technology. Their higher resolution allowed scientists to see more details than would have been possible previously. For example, when studying the nests, MBARI researchers needed to differentiate individual octopus mothers to keep track of how their eggs were developing. The 4K cameras could zoom in to give scientists a closer look at octopus nests without losing picture quality or disturbing nesting mothers. Up close, the scars and other distinguishing features of individual mothers became clear. Researchers could even examine the developmental stage of octopus eggs as the embryos within developed eyes and arms. 

A pale purple octopus nesting in a rocky crevice. This screen capture from underwater video shows a female octopus oriented upside down with her arms and white suckers exposed. Underneath are several pale white, sausage-shaped eggs. Developing octopus embryos with small black eyes and milky-white bodies are visible inside three eggs. Brownish sediment and small organisms encrust the greenish black rocks.
Using 4K ultra high-definition cameras, MBARI researchers and filmmakers from the BBC Studios Natural History Unit captured close-up footage of pearl octopus (Muusoctopus robustus) mothers brooding their eggs in the hydrothermal springs at the Octopus Garden. Image: © 2021 MBARI

Stunning closeups of the brooding mothers personalize an animal that might otherwise be unfamiliar to viewers. The slow pulse of a siphon, the glimpse of an inky purple eye, and the mesmerizing movement of arms gently caressing pearlescent eggs—all these behaviors paint a picture of the last, long, laborious act these mothers perform to best ensure their young ones’ survival. 

Through careful planning and patience, MBARI researchers and BBC Studios Natural History Unit filmmakers were also able to capture the extraordinary moments when eggs hatched. The sight of a baby octopus jetting off into the darkness provides an unforgettable closure to viewers’ journey with this species. 

“The more time I spent observing these animals, the more I began to see them as individuals rather than simply points in a dataset,” said Barry. “To watch the mothers diligently protect their clutches, even as they weaken from their effort, and to watch the babies take shape within their eggs until they are born, gives you a clear impression of the sacrifices these octopus make for the next generation to survive. It provides a deeper understanding of the struggle for life faced by these deep-sea animals that otherwise seem so far removed from us.”

Scientists have uncovered all sorts of fascinating stories of resilience in the deep sea, with many more still waiting to be told. However, time may be running out—even the deep sea is not immune to human impact. Pollution, mining, and climate change threaten the health of deep-sea animals and environments. As part of NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Octopus Garden at Davidson Seamount has some protection against these pressures. But other yet-undiscovered places might not end up so lucky.

Several pale purple octopus nesting in between greenish-brown boulders. This screen capture from underwater video shows octopus oriented upside down with their arms and suckers exposed. Several pale orange sea anemones are interspersed among the nesting octopus, including a large peach-colored anemone in the center and a large pale-orange flytrap anemone on the left. On the right is a pale purple octopus moving along the rocks.
Biological hotspots like the Octopus Garden teem with life and need our protection. Sharing images and video of deep-sea animals and environments can inspire stewardship of these living treasures. Image: © 2021 MBARI

MBARI’s education and outreach efforts are raising awareness about the importance of ocean health. We hope meeting the amazing animals of the deep inspires conscientious stewardship of marine animals and environments. 

To this end, MBARI’s SciComm Team shares discoveries by our scientists and innovations from our engineers with the public through our website and social media channels. When opportunities arise, the team works with media partners to further extend the reach of our stories.

The “Ocean” episode of Planet Earth III is the latest in a series of collaborations between MBARI and the BBC Studios Natural History Unit. In 2006, MBARI was involved in the filming of the ancient coral gardens on the slopes of Davidson Seamount for Planet Earth (2006). MBARI footage was also featured in Blue Planet (2001) and Blue Planet II (2017), and MBARI has contributed video to several other productions by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit. Collaborations with the BBC and other media partners are important opportunities to amplify MBARI’s work on a global scale. 

In past productions with BBC, MBARI’s stunning deep-sea imagery was woven into a larger tapestry of stories celebrating the beauty of life on Earth. In Planet Earth III, the simultaneous fragility and resilience of this beauty take the spotlight, as human activity changes our planet at an unprecedented rate. 

The series takes audiences to some of the most amazing wild places on Earth. It encourages us to reflect on what humanity can do to ensure the continued future of these spaces. Fostering emotional connections between humans and animals like the pearl octopus is crucial to inspiring empathy and conservation for animals that may be rarely seen, but still need our protection. 

MBARI hopes that audiences the world over will enjoy Planet Earth III and come away with a greater love for all the diverse life that thrives on our planet.


Story by Science Communication Fellow Madeline Go

For additional information or images related to this news story, please email

Planet Earth III is currently airing on BBC One and streaming on BBC iPlayer in the United Kingdom, and airing on BBC America and streaming on AMC+ in the United States. More information about Planet Earth III. More information about the “Ocean” episode.