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PBS is bringing a live whale watch into the nation's living rooms - and throwing in some seals, sea otters, dolphins and pelicans.
For three evenings starting tonight, Aug. 31, the public broadcast station is airing a collaboration with the BBC about marine life in California's Monterey Bay. "Big Blue Live" will have separate East and West Coast feeds.
PBS calls it "one of nature's great reality shows," made possible by the bay's unique geography and a turnaround from severe pollution that curtailed marine life there for many years. Nutrients from deep-water canyons flood the bay at this time of year, turning it into a prime feeding area, said Bill Gardner, PBS vice president for programming and development.
Producers and camera operators are already preparing, having traveled to Mexico to film whales that migrate to Monterey Bay, and to New Zealand for birds that make the long journey over the Pacific Ocean. Ships, even drones, are being employed to keep producers informed about the areas of greatest animal activity.
The BBC, which is doing its own live broadcasts during the week before U.S. viewers see it, instigated the project. It made perfect sense for PBS to join in, Gardner said.
"This is live natural history that can engage our audience and it was right in our backyard," he said.
Since no one can be certain that whales will be most active precisely during the broadcasts, stories are being prepared in advance for the quiet times. One story will profile a scientist studying shark migration and another will illustrate the bay's rejuvenation through the return of sea otters.
The hour-long telecasts begin at 8 p.m. on both coasts. That's still late afternoon for West Coast viewers, but it will be getting dark for East Coast prime time. While that might mean less live footage for western viewers, they'll also be able to see the transition to nighttime animal activity.
"You can never guarantee anything live," Gardner said. "But we feel that we've hedged our bets so that we can have something that will keep people riveted."
The U.S. broadcasts have three anchors: M. Sanjayan, a senior scientist at Conservation International; Liz Bonnin, a British host of BBC science programming; and Joy Reidenberg, a marine mammal expert who has been on the PBS show "Inside Nature's Giants." A website will stream continuous live views from the bay for viewers interested in a deeper dive.
Participants say that all the attention won't have a negative impact on the animals involved. Strict rules govern how close observer boats can get to the whales, for example, and it generally takes that professional help to know where the animals are, Reidenberg said.
"It's a positive thing because people get to interact with the animals and see them, and the more they see the animals, the more they love the animals, and the more they love the animals, the more they want to protect them," she said.