When David Attenborough came to Moab
When he came to Moab in Spring 1988, David Attenborough was a sprightly 62-year old. Although a modest, friendly and very affable man, with many fascinating travel and film location stories to tell, the queen of England had recently laid a sword on his shoulder to declare him a knight of the realm. He was already “Sir David.” If you had not heard of Sir David in 1988, or the natural history documentaries he had already made for the BBC, it is likely that you have heard of him by now, as his documentaries have gone from strength to strength as his lifetime achievements have accumulated. As I write, Sir David is still going strong, aged 94, and is among one of the world’s most effective advocates for respecting and treasuring Life on Earth, the title of one of his best known documentaries. His life’s work has focused on respect and reverence for our beautiful Blue Planet (another spectacular series).
Sir David was in Moab, in 1988, to film scenes for the documentary Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives. I had recommended a number of sites where David and his crew could get spectacular shots of dinosaur tracks, and interesting stories about what they meant. We had agreed on sites that are part of what we call the Moab Megatracksite, where carnivorous dinosaurs, likely similar to Utah’s state fossil Allosaurus, had been active. The abundant tracks were left on the shores of a shallow, 160-million-year-old sea that had flooded into the area towards the end of the Middle Jurassic Epoch. They are still clearly visible in the area west of Klondike Bluffs.
Sir David Attenborough (left) and his film team at work on the documentary Lost Worlds, Vanished
Lives, in Spring 1988. The tracks are in 160-million-year-old, Middle Jurassic sandstones of the Moab
Member near Klondike Bluffs. Photo by Martin Lockley, Moab Giants.
Sir David has always been interested in paleontology, lost worlds and vanished lives as well as the living world. He has a personal collection of amber and has often been invited to give keynote speeches to many of the world’s leading paleontological organizations. Coincidentally his older brother the late Sir Richard Attenborough, is famous as an actor and film director, who had a role in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. Did ‘young’ brother David get the jump on Richard, by filming a ‘factual’ Jurassic Park scene in Moab five years before his older brother, helped create the fictional Jurassic Park? The Attenborough brothers are both erudite ambassadors for the BBC and media more generally. Lost Worlds is a direct reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 1912 dinosaur-filled novel The Lost World, and the equally-famous, 1925 silent movie of the same title. Conan Doyle knew that paleontology required Sherlock Holmes style detective work.
On a personal note, I was lucky to have known David Attenborough and his work since childhood. My father was involved in Natural History and I remember going to a lecture by a young David Attenborough when I lived in the UK. I was seven or eight years old but knew that Attenborough was already famous as a young promotor of science and nature. This was the mid 1950s and we did not even have TV, but we respected the BBC and my parents told me Attenborough was a very important person – a young VIP. After his talk he asked if there were any questions, and I naively wondered who would be bold enough to question this celebrity. Some bold, tongue-in-cheek adult, asked “When are we going to get color TV?” Innocently, I thought ‘how dare someone ask such a cheeky question unrelated to his nature talk?’ But David laughed and
had a friendly answer. I reminded Sir David of this incident when we were in Moab 30 years later and he laughed again.
He and his film crew had fun trying to order wine in one of Moab’s more famous restaurants.
More important for the paleontological reputation of the town and county is that Attenborough and the BBC chose Moab as a key location for one of his classic documentaries. In 1988, Moab was only just emerging as a potential dinosaur destination, ten years before the Dinosaur Diamond was created. Sir David would also film dinosaur tracks in Colorado again in 2003. On the second occasion I asked Sir David if he remembered our 1988 meeting. His answer was “Of course, you’re wearing the same T shirt!”
Sir David Attenborough helps University of
Colorado paleontologists excavate the track of a
Jurassic carnivorous dinosaur, near Klondike
Bluffs in Spring 1988. The research work was
done under a Bureau of Land Management permit.
Photograph by Martin Lockley, Moab Giants.