Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A moment to remember for ever and a day......

This is an old column I wrote for a diving magazine - not too sure it's entirely uplifting and feel good, but the sentiment is more pertinent than ever.....anyway.....

I’ve just enjoyed a terrific week on the liveaboard Blue Horizon, trolling through the southern Red Sea and diving the classics. Little Brother, Daedelus, The Salem Express – all names justifiably revered in the diving world, and all of which I’m delighted to say thoroughly lived up to the hype.
There were twenty-four of us on the boat, and as with most liveaboard trips the group seemed to span the entire social spectrum. We had a raconteur extrordinaire (a mini-me style ex-Serviceman with a vast catalogue of outstanding stories), some diamond geezers, a nutty professor, a professional Kiwi, a deliciously eccentric doctor, and a spattering of nationalities and characters drawn in by the opportunity to share the big blue spaces with a few sinuous shadows. We all had a great adventure over the course of the week – stormy nights, threshers, curious grey sharks, lone hammerheads, and a profoundly atmospheric wreck. It all culminated in a night that involved apocalyptic volumes of tequila and – to my deep regret and eternal shame – some dancing. When I dance it looks very much like someone has propped up a deep coma victim before repeatedly tazering them. The truly horrifying truth is that – when a certain critical percentage of blood alcohol is reached – I actually think I’m quite good at dancing, and that the extraordinary collection of tics, spasms and flailing limbs make me quite attractive to the opposite sex. I think it’s more the fact that they are drawn in by the bewitching spectacle of someone undergoing a series of what appear to be full blown seizures in a public place.

Anyway, I digress. I’m sitting typing this in a cafĂ© in Hurghada, nursing a hangover and a cappuccino, and reflecting on the trip. By the way, here’s a thing. Why does the expression “nursing” apply only to drinks and headaches? You “nurse” a drink, or a splitting migraine. It’s a bit like “sporting” something (you know, “He was sporting a …….”), which as far as I can figure out applies only to particularly magnificent hats. And erections.

Right, back to the column (as it were), and the striking of a more sombre note.  Foremost in my mind when I came on this trip was trying to get a photograph of an oceanic white tip. This is pretty much the only large species of shark I’ve never dived with, and I was beside myself at the prospect of hanging just below the surface and facing this most curious and bold of sharks. I was gutted when Dray – our excellent guide for the week – mentioned that we were at the very tail end of the season for the white tips and possibly wouldn’t see any. I was – in turn – breathless with excitement when one appeared beside the boat as we moored at Little Brother. On entering the water and hanging in the blue under the bow – a distinctly un-nerving sensation – I was finally joined by the shark in the last ten minutes of the dive. Led by it’s entourage of pilot fish the white tip passed inches away from me, turning on it’s own body length to return to investigate again and again this strange collection of electronic signals, bubbles and flailing limbs that hung in its path. Head on the massive pectorals look like the swept wings of a glider, while the snowy white tips of the fins remain in view even when the grey body has melted into the gloom after the shark has passed you by. You can see them dancing and gyrating against the reef wall like strange disembodied creatures with a life of their own. This is a particularly beautiful, bold shark – a magnificent predator and one of the greatest shark encounters of my life.

As the shark melted away into the blue, and my particular encounter with it drew to a close, I hung beneath the boat for a moment – alone with my thoughts. I idly wondered if I would ever see an oceanic white tip again.

We all know about the eradication of the shark – of course we do. But here’s a few statistics to focus our collective minds.

The oceanic white tip was thought to be one of the most abundant large predators on the planet a mere thirty years ago. The IUCN website (which monitors the status of various species on behalf of the UN) notes that between 1992 and 2000 numbers declined by 70% in the NW and Central Atlantic. That’s nine years ago – nine years of steady development in fishing technology, increased demand for sharks fin soup, and larger, wider ranging long liners.

In the Gulf of Mexico a survey in the late 1990’s, noted a decline of 99.3% since a similar survey in the 1950’s. I’ll say that again. A decline of 99.3% of all oceanic white tip sharks in the Gulf of Mexico in forty years – a sea now devoid of elegant shadows and graceful design.

I know I’m preaching to the converted – divers are invariably passionate and vocal about protecting the sea. But I’ll say again – as I have so many times before – that what will future generations think when that look back on our own? Will they ask – aghast – as to how we could have let this happen? I suspect they will, as they hang beneath the hulls of dive boats, and wait, and wait, staring into the empty, echoing, silent ocean around them.


Monday, 22 April 2013

The London Marathon - Chafing, cheering, and the man who nearly won (but not quite....)

I type this in my dressing gown from my kitchen, sipping a cup of tea and muttering to myself like an addled octogenarian. The reason for this complete physical and mental disintegration is the London Marathon. Or more precisely, my attempt to cuff the London Marathon.

To put this in context, it’s important to remember that a marathon is really quite a long way, something that seems to have escaped me in the run up (and never were those last two words less appropriate). I was actually training reasonably well up to about six weeks before the event, before being struck down by a bout of man-flu / manthrax. This caused me to take to my bed, occasionally summoning just enough energy to weakly ring a man bell so Tam could bring me things (I made that last bit up, if I did try that the said bell would be expertly inserted somewhere which would cause me to jingle at every step). Nonetheless I was pretty much wiped out for a couple of weeks, and what’s more Tam and Isla got it too (although in their case it was obviously normal flu NOT man-flu). The only healthy mammal in the place was Reubs, who by this stage was pawing frantically at the door trying to exit the house of plague.

Anyway, having recovered, it was off to Japan to film for two weeks. This was less than ideal, as it involved long flights and very long (knackering) days, with the occasional trot slotted in during the evening. After two weeks of this, we flew home, with me folded up like some novelty pen-knife in a hilariously small airline seat for twelve hours.   

And so to the race itself. Aha, one tiny last point though. The single thing you should never, ever do, ever, is buy new trainers just before a Marathon. So I did. Long story, but basically my old ones were completely, utterly stuffed, and what with Japan and all that, I hadn’t had time to get any news ones. The decision was to either a) run the race in something approaching a pair of ballet pumps, or b) throw money at the problem. So I bought some new, gleaming, pumped up, marshmallow soft, gangsta yardie trainers, and squeaked my way to the start line feeling rather / extremely self conscious. 

I should hastily point out that I had figured out my tactics before hand. This would be a gentle amble through old London town. I would high-five every spectator. Perhaps I would take a sip from a pint or two, maybe even pop in some quiet bistro for a frothy coffee. So why, when the hooter sounded, did I set out like Mo Farah? Some deep, dark part of my psyche actually thought I might win, with an epic sprint finish down the Mall and the commentators frantically thumbing through their notes to find out who race number 26856 was. 

The first thirteen miles were awesome. Dare I say I ran with the sort of high knee’d gait one associates with sprightly Olympians. I grabbed water bottles at a sprint, hosing down my sweaty features in the approved elite athletes fashion before casting them aside as they interfered with my aerodynamic perfection. The crowds were awesome - as they always are at the London Marathon - with a nice line in “Cam awm mah Saaaaaan” bellowed from many a pub. I flew on winged heels, I surfed the roars of adulation, I was a San Bushman floating in the shimmering heat of the Serengeti. And then, at mile 13, suddenly I wasn’t.

At mile 13, my legs began to feel....quite...peculiar. And then the rest of me began to feel quite peculiar. Banana Man overtook me at mile 14. Then a chap dressed - for reasons best known to himself - as a massive orange. A seventy year old man in a man-kini cruised by at mile 15. By now I was moving along in a loose limbed, slack jawed shuffle seen in the better types of zombie movies. Occasionally I would glance up and manage a wave and a delirious lop sided grin to the crowd. I even shouted my thanks at one point - “Thackwachatmaha” was how it came out, causing at least one woman to gather her child close to her and hiss at me like I was a mad person.

Only eleven miles to go then. I realised at this juncture that I might not win, so settled on getting to the end without a) soiling myself, b) fainting, or c) being sponged down and reassured by alarmed St John’s ambulance types. My previous high knee’d gait had been replaced with a crab-like, head wobbly, drooly weaving accross the road. By mile nineteen I was being overtaken by pantomime horses and very, very old people. At mile twenty a very short, generously upholstered lady sprang past - “Keep going” she trilled. I tried to punch her in the head, but couldn’t lift my arms. 

I won’t go into detail about the last six miles, but suffice to say the were....harrowing. BUT - and here’s the thing - you are borne along on a tide of cheers, a great, city-scale tsunami of goodwill that carries you to the finish. This is London at its finest, resplendent in it’s Sunday best, giving voice to every creed, religion, race, age and culture. It’s wonderful, and is worth the pain of the previous twenty miles just to get there. 

It’s also, by the way, the reason why people like the Boston bombers will never, ever prevail.

Anyway, suddenly there was the finish. What a moment, what a sensation, what a shambles as I crossed the line, with both arms raised, and both legs at entirely different angles.

A lovely lady put a medal round my neck, and I thanked her “Thanewferrymush”. I then went a found a tree, and leant against it for a while, looking down at the smoke coming out of my trainers.

Why all this effort. Well, there’s an initiative called PISCES being set up by the World Wildlife Fund, which is trying to support sustainable use of our seas. This is such important work, an effort to give our shallow, inshore coastal waters a bit of breathing space. We all want to hand over clear, vibrant seas to our kids, and things like PISCES seem to me to be the way to go. So, it was all to raise money for that really. Here’s the justgiving page if you fancy popping in a bob or two......

Anyway, it’s a great race, a great day, a great city, and a great celebration of people at their very best. Well done to everyone who turned up to run, and turned up to cheer. I’m chafed so much my inner thighs are as red as a fire engine, I’m foot sore, had to come down the stairs using the banister and the dog for support this morning. I feel like I’ve been worked over with cricket bat. Never. Ever. Again. Until next year.......

PS. Oh, and the time was 3hrs 54mins. It would have been 2hrs 6mins, but something odd happened to my legs. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

Animal Farm

Spring has sprung, the grass is ris, it’s all nodding daffodils and pronking lambs. 

Yeah right. I walked down to let the ducks out of their hut a few mornings ago, and it was like a mini Polar expedition. The latch was welded shut by blasts of Siberian wind, the pond was frozen over, and my choice of clothing (flip flops and a dressing gown) suddenly seemed a tad inappropriate. Even Reubs hadn’t come along - he’d poked his nose out of the kitchen door, then backed away hastily with a kind of “you’re own your own pal” expression, tip tapping back accross the tiled floor of the kitchen to curl up next to the aga. Blimey, how middle class do I sound...

Anyway, when I came back in, gibbering and blowing on my fingers, I shuffled over to where he was lying, booted him out of the way, and had the truly phenomenal experience of turning my frigid buttocks to the glowing worktop. This allowed gusts of warm air to percolate up the hem of my dressing gown, all toasty and tropical. It’s one of life’s great pleasures, and makes getting frost nip on your extremities entirely worthwhile. Tam came in to find me cross-eyed and making small appreciative noises at no-one in particular.

As you may have noted from all that, we now have ducks. We also have chickens. And two cats. They are called - Baron Greenback, Long Distance Clara, Betty, Winnie, Hilda, Pickle and Marmite. Reubs is indifferent about the ducks, mildly curious about the hens, and absolutely cock-a-hoop about the cats. He loves cats, mainly because he think’s they’re delicious, so there has been a somewhat tense atmosphere in our house since we got them.

And why do we have them? It’s simple. Every time I go away - and I go away a lot - Tam gets another animal. I’ll come home after the next trip to find a giraffe in the garage and an sloth in the shed. I like it though, because when you do come home you’re greeted by a cacophany of delighted clucks, barks, quacks, and purrs, and that’s just from Isla. 

Isla is a star, but of course I’m going to say that as I’m her dad. She remains freakishly strong, and spends most of her day handing me smashed things. She’s learned to walk, and therefore is happily employed with chasing nervous animals around the house and the yard, waving her pudgy fists at them and cackling like a loon. She basically just wants to cuddle them, but as the result is invariably cracked ribs and internal hemorrhaging, the animals aren’t that keen.

Having said that Spring is taking it’s time, I do think it’s actually here now. I really, genuinely, love this time of year. Re-birth, the tilt of the earth on it’s axis to turn our frigid little island towards the sun, it’s all heady stuff. England has it’s faults, there’s no denying that, but the rolling green hills and low mists of a Spring morning take some beating. 

One of the sounds I associate with the change of the seasons is the low burble of the outboards on the boat. We’re starting to run more trips now, particularly as it means the skipper actually regains the feeling in his or her face within an hour of getting back in. It’s all beginning to happen out there along the coast - the seals are looking sprightly, the peregrines are starting to refurbish their nests, the gannets have a gimlet look in their eye, and all is getting ready for what will be a splendid, shimmering, baking summer. You heard it here first.

Right, must dash. Lots and lots to talk about in the next blog - exciting things happening with filming a new series (which is a VERY hairy bottomed project indeed), there’s talk of a deal with Land Rover which could lead to all manner of snorting expeditions, and Tam will probably have adopted seven lemurs and a gnu even as a write (I’m typing this on a train - the bloke opposite me keeps peering at me. I know exactly what he’s thinking “I know that guy from somewhere. Blimey, I’ve seen him on the tele. Well, what do you know, it’s Monty Don” I get that a lot).

Anyway, more to come soon. Welcome to Spring everyone. We made it through another winter, and long, balmy days, mahogany tans, and melting ice cream cones are just around the corner.

All the best, Mont         

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Isla the mermaid......

No blogs for five months, then two in three days. I'm on fire (not literally, although if I was and had the kind of cool, British phlegm to let the emergency services know via my blog, then that probably indicates that I'm made of the right stuff).

Anyway, speaking of the right stuff, I wrote this blog a year ago in a moment of hormonally deranged pride on the arrival of my new wee lass. It was originally for a magazine column but never saw the light of day as the mag went into administration (they still owe me £450 I hasten to add). So here it is - still makes me smile.


Well, hello Isla Grace,

Like most of us after a good long dive, when you finally had to surface I must say you looked fairly annoyed it was all over. Having had nine months suspended in a liquid world, muffled and weightless, to finally emerge to a place of bright lights and bustling figures must have been quite a shock.

But a long dive requires a long ascent and you made several stops on the way, all of which proved somewhat emotional for your mum. But emerge you finally did, and were instantly the most fabulous and beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The fact that you actually looked quite a lot like a furious, ginger Winston Churchill seems to have passed me by. You were perfect in every way, a veritable supermodel, albeit a rather petulant one who howled in outrage at the indignity of it all.

But you’re a good strong Cornish lass, and you soon got over it. The county of your birth has a boundary that is 80% coastline, so you entered this world surrounded by the sea and that’s the way I hope you’ll live your life.

So, where to begin? You are born an islander, with the blood of ocean voyagers in your veins. Your ancient ancestors almost certainly arrived with the crunch of a bow on a shingle beach, and the vast majority of your people appeared from beneath the horizon sailing on fickle currents under a temperate breeze. Your nation is a lump of rock moored at the eastern edge of a vast ocean, and at the western edge of a continent. Your relationship with the sea is already as strong as anyone in Europe, it’s in your blood. The whisper of the waves is the backing track of your life. It’s your heritage and your identity.

And so I can’t wait to wrap you up warm and carry you down the steep cliff path that leads from my door. I can’t wait to show you the sea, to watch you take that first deep breath of ozone, and to listen with you to the percussive explosions of breakers exploding on the rocks of the Lizard Peninsula beneath our feet.

You’ll grow up with sand between your toes, and I’ll watch over you as you venture further and further from shore. I’ll show you your first crab in a rockpool, like some armoured monster from another world and better than any Hollywood movie. Your first fish I’m sure will be a real event, one that will make you run shrieking through the shallows as it explodes like quicksilver before you. You’ll never have seen anything move so fast, they leave vapour trails of bubbles. We’ll take our first breath together underwater, and I’ll hold your hand as your eyes widen at the wonder of it all. And then Isla Grace, when you return to your liquid world, that’s when the fun will really start.

We’ll explore shipwrecks, heeling time-capsules emerging from the fog of the sea floor. We’ll hover together off the isolated volcanic rock of Roca Partida, five kilometres of water beneath our fin tips, and watch manta rays pirouette up from the deep blue to meet us. They are the size of vast, black dragons, two hundred times your weight, and yet they’ll sweep so close to you that all you will feel is a soft sirocco of water as they pass. They’re so gentle that you’ll never want them to leave. We’ll slip off the back of a boat in Tonga and scull towards humpbacks as they sing a melody so powerful you’ll feel it in your marrow. It’s a tune that has echo’d along thermoclines since long before our time, with lyrics we still don’t understand. Then we’ll hang in a cage in the Killing Zone beside the bedlam of Dyer Island, and watch the most impressive animal on planet earth materialize out of the gloom before us with a half smile of predatory intent.

By the time you’re a fully-fledged, adult diver, I wonder where technology would have taken you? You’ll look back on us now with our twin cylinders and boxy rebreathers and you’ll laugh. But I suspect you’ll also be a bit jealous, because we are still savouring the great adventure of a sport that is still so young, one that even today requires a whiff of the pioneering spirit. When you’re my (considerable) age, I suspect going for a dive will be like a walk in the park – all silent computers and oxygen rich gels.  

You’ll grow up in an uncertain world, with the oceans broken and beaten by those that have gone before. But for all the pessimism there is also real hope, and signs that with the right people and a little bit of precious time, perhaps your generation can halt the damage that’s been done by mine.

I’ll travel with you for the rest of my life, tracing the blue curve of the earth, and together we’ll follow the shadows in the sea.

Can’t wait.

Lots of love, Dad xxx

Friday, 4 January 2013

I'm back!

It appears to be five months since I last did a blog. This is ridiculous, akin to some weird flexing of normal time that means a week or so suddenly extends from July to January. So sorry to anyone who happened to be following the blogs - it's been a busy old few months I must say. We've moved house, Isla has quadrupled in size, the business has boomed in what can only be described as an alarming manner, we've acquired three ducks, and I've had a new tv series commissioned. In fact, it's just dawned on me that the reason I haven't had time to write a blog is that we've moved house, Isla has quadrupled in size, the business etc etc - all great bloggery material ironically. I shall do my best to summarise....

First off - and randomly - the Olympics. Slightly late to point this out I know, but blimey they were good. I laughed, I wept, I leapt off the sofa and punched the air, I even thought One Direction were quite good in the opening ceremony. By the time the paralympics had finished I was a husk of a man, emotionally wrung out but needing soaring highs and lows just to get me through an evening. Thankfully I was saved by The Great British Bake Off (Brendan, you were robbed), which provided the type of mainlining, amphetamine style range of sensations I now required.

Anyway - the new house. Lovely old barn conversion with - slightly dauntingly - a bit of land attached neatly divided into paddocks and pens. It's daunting because although I have a mental image of myself hauling up turnips the size of basketballs, of course you have to do a fair amount of work to make that sort of thing a reality. I've been saved by the rain, which turned it all into the sort of quagmire seen only      at Ypres. No point in planting anything of course, but come the Spring I shall be a man possessed. As it's been such fine weather for ducks, we've now acquired three - Baron Greenback, Betty, and Long Distance Clara. They're Indian Runner ducks, and are greater natural comics than even Ed Miliband, although they do have a similar permanently baffled expression. Here's a piccie of the land and the ducks....

You may notice that I have a person on my back. That's Isla, two stone of sleek muscle and extensive flatulence. There are low pressure systems over Fastnet that generate less wind than my daughter. I am - of course - completely besotted with her, and much of this stems from the fact that although she's only one, she's as strong as an ox. She chinned another baby in the ball pool at Ikea the other day, and outside of no rules Mixed Martial Arts cage fighting, I've seldom seen a punch like it. The other parent glanced round at me to see me beaming in pride, before delivering a telling off to Isla that at best could be described as half hearted. Getting her into her cot nowadays is approaching a fair fight all round, a situation that I imagine will only get worse over time. She's a legend, and although not quite walking yet has learned to hang onto Reubs with pudgy fists of steel, and basically goes wherever he does. Here's a piccie....

The business has boomed. Nothing to do with me I hasten to add - I've been very lucky to employ Rach, Alana, and Sophie who essentially have entirely taken charge and run it with military precision. I roll up in the morning - well, some mornings, I'm on the road so much nowadays it's ridiculous - and am sat in a deck chair like some addled pensioner and told what's happening that day. It's great. Removing me from the administrative process means that we've had a great year, and the girls continue to come up with al sorts of bright ideas. I am essentially a walking cash point and boat driver. Lots and lots to come this summer, but I'll be telling you about that in my regular and pithy blog. Here's us all at Christmas dinner........

And finally (for now) the new series. It's a set of projects this year to seek out the mysteries in the oceans around the world - top banana. Much of the diving is technical stuff, and I always had a slight feeling that my bum isn't quite hairy enough for this sort of thing. I've been training hard though (not on the bum hair bit, turns out this is just one of those things you can't change and mine remains resolutely peachy), and am thoroughly enjoying the challenge. More to come on this, but here's a shot of me trying not to look baffled in some fairly Gucci diving gear.
 Oh, and we went diving in South Africa too.....brilliant and very sharky.....

Right, that's it for now. MUCH more to come. Hope you had a wonderful New Year, and here's to a fat, dumb, happy, blog filled 2013.

All the best, Monty