Marine biologist, beachcomber, TV presenter and Reuben the rescue dog's best friend talks about his new series 'Monty Halls' Great Irish Escape'
Monty Halls is a marine biologist and professional diver who first came to the attention of the British Public in Monty Halls' Great Escape where he spent six months with a former rescue dog Reuben living the life of a 21st century beachcomber. The second series, set in the Outer Hebrides, saw him resurrecting the wildlife ranger post that disappeared six years previously due to a lack of funding. The third series, starting tonight, sees Monty setting up digs off the rugged west coast of Ireland.
Your new series, Monty Halls' Great Irish Escape, starts tonight. What was your goal this time?
It was returning to my roots as a marine biologist, really, and working with an organisation called the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. The coast of Connemara has been very little studied, really, in term of its whales and dolphin activity, so it was an opportunity to do that for six months.
The press release says the show will feature an 'explosive autopsy of a beached whale'. I’ve got to ask – what does an explosive autopsy of a beached whale involve?
(With a hint of sarcasm) That was a lot of fun! Basically whales decompose from the inside – they wash up and die, then rot from the inside out. I went down to the beach and did a whale autopsy. I did it with the head of the Irish Whale and Dolphin group who is a real expert at doing them and he insisted that I cut it open – for reasons that very swiftly became apparent!
It just kind of exploded. Blubber didn’t fly up 400 metres or anything, but it was horrid – fetid, decomposing entrails everywhere. It was like a mortar going off. There was this real ‘bam!’ when I cut into it.
It’s in the first episode. Worth waiting up for!
So the series starts with a bang?
One of the other studies you undertook while you were there was to see if a particular pod of dolphins spent the whole year in the area.
Yes. I got really, really excited about it too. We’d had plenty of sightings and reports about these dolphins being seen on a very regular basis. This was right off the island where I was living, an island called Inishnee, close to the village of Roundstone.
There are only four resident pods around the entire coast of the UK and Ireland. What a resident pod means, obviously, is that it is there all year round. That’s really significant because it means you can study them, you can set up the area as a protected area and, in terms of eco-tourism, it’s a huge input into the local economy. So it’s pretty significant finding something like that out.
When I first got there the local people said, “Yeah, we see them all the time.” So part of my mission over the six months was to try and establish whether the pod actually was a resident pod. If it was, it was something of national importance.
So I did a lot of photo ID with them, and set up an acoustic listening pod in the bay to see how often they were actually using the bay. All is revealed in the last episode!
What did you enjoy most about that part of Ireland?
Oh it’s just so wild. The expression I kept using was that it was Europe’s veranda – you looking straight down the barrel of the Atlantic. But there are also these little communities dotted along the edge of it, with a very strong Irish culture. It was lovely. And the people are just so connected with the sea as well.
The funny thing is, I didn’t want to do this third series. I’ve been on the road for years now, going away, doing these projects. And when the BBC offered this one I wasn’t sure if I had one more in me.
But then I chatted to Simon from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group about the job and it sounded interesting. I remember actually turning up and phoning my girlfriend back in England and just saying “This place is just heaven!” I still regard my six months in Connemara as some of the best times I’ve ever had.
You mention the communities. I know the general premise of the series is just you and nature and getting away from it all, but the feeling I get, from watching the shows, is that a really important part is your interaction with the local communities.
Yes it is. It really is. You couldn’t do these shows without the local people helping you out. I’m the classic kind of Brit in that I’m fairly tightly wrapped. I keep myself to myself when I go travelling. If someone talks to me I look horrified.
One of the lovely things about doing the shows is that they make me go and meet people. I have to go and speak to the fishermen. I have to ask them where they are seeing the dolphins. I have to go and meet someone who is regularly walking along the coast and ask what they’ve seen. I have to go to animal sanctuaries. It makes me get up and go out and meet people. By the end of your six months you’ve got friends. I can honestly say I’ve got friends there now that I’ll have for the rest of my life.
It also reveals a lot about how the local people live and their connections with the land and the sea. If I’d gone there on holiday I wouldn’t have necessarily have seen that. You’ve got to work with local people as opposed to just passing through. You’ve got to get right in there.
It seemed too that you were dragged into community events and celebrations as well.
Definitely. By the end, as we were leaving, one of the local ladies came up and said, “You are from Connemara now. You are a Connemara person. You have to come back. This is your home.” Certainly, my girlfriend is pining for Connemara. She’s desperate to get back.
What interested me about those communities is that they are isolated, but that human element is important to them as well, to survive in these areas.
For sure. That was never more apparent when we did the series in the Outer Hebrides. They almost don’t have villages. Just little clusters of houses.
It’s a very odd thing. They’re very self-reliant and yet they rely 100% on the people around them. They’re constantly helping each other out, constantly putting their shoulder to the wheel if the bloke next door has got a bit of a problem. They don’t even think about it. They just go off and help each other.
And in Roundstone it was the same. Everything was organised on a community basis, decisions were made on a community basis. It’s really prevalent in small communities and it’s something we’ve lost to a certain degree in large communities, in towns and cities.
Reubs (the dog) was with you. No offense, but it seems he has become the real star of the series. Is he really the perfect companion he comes across as on the show?
It’s funny, whenever I give talks people always ask about Reubs. The way I like to explain it is this: it’s like your best mate is being filmed, but all people see are the edited best bits of your best mate. So people end up thinking your best mate was an absolute saint. They’d only ever see him buying you a beer. They’d never see you buying him a beer.
That’s the way TV works. It’s all edited to show all the cute things Ruebs does. They never show when he’s chewed up the sofa or he’s jumped on the duvet covered in mud. That’s never shown.
He is genuinely a really, really nice dog. Everyone who meets him says it. But make no mistake, he can also be a massive, hairy, vomiting, flatulent, destructive pain in the butt...
A best mate, basically.
You started out in the Royal Marines. And you were involved in integrating former ANC fighters into the armed forces in South Africa.
That’s correct. They were being repatriated into the country. There were huge numbers of them – about 40,000 of them. That was like 40,000 Taliban being integrated into the British Army. These guys had been the avowed enemy of the South African defence force and all of a sudden the South African people were being told that these guys were now going to be part of the army. So I was one of 30 guys from the British Army sent over to monitor the process, umpire it and make sure tensions didn’t spill over.
That was the start for me of a very close relationship with South Africa. I think it was miraculous what South Africa pulled off during that period. I really, really do. I’m lost in admiration with the way they dealt with it. There really was the feeling when we went out there that it was going to be civil war. That, unequivocally, these 40,000 guys were going to run amok and the whole country would kick off. It’s quite nice to be a part of a historic moment in time.
You’ve filmed rare crocodiles in Belize. You’ve dived wrecks all around the world. And you’ve discovered the underwater city of Mahabalipurum, just off the coast of India. It all sounds very Indiana Jones. Which adventure proved the most challenging?
Probably the Mahabalipuram one. It was quite a remote area, particularly in terms of diving. So we had to transport all our gear down there. If we’d had an incident out there it would have been very, very serious. We were a very long way away from what you would regard as a diving medical facility.
The conditions were pretty tough too. We were using local fishing boats where the skippers didn’t speak a word of English. We were working with a bunch of volunteers with varying levels of diving skills. There was a lot of politics involved as well.
And sickness. We had real problems within the team going down with all kinds of bugs. It was only in the last three days of the expedition that we discovered these extraordinary ruins. Ironically, we did some basic surveying, and the plan was to come back from the UK with a proper archaeological team, but the Indian government said no.
We’ll take over from here...
Essentially. Their rationale, I think, was that they couldn’t have an international team surveying a site that was plainly one of real significance. They wanted an Indian team to do it, which is fair enough. They’re Indian ruins.
It’s quite extensive isn’t it? Legend has it that there were seven temples. And there’s only the one on shore, above water.
It’s huge and there’s no way we found it all. We had some underwater cameras with us and filmed some extraordinary structures. Unequivocally man-made.
I’m no expert on this, by the way. I’m no marine archaeologist. I haven’t got a background in archaeology. I was there on a logistical capacity, to lead the team, to lead the expedition, to keep everything together in that respect. We had Indian archaeologists with us and had this seminal dive just three days before the end. But when we all surfaced we had no doubts about it. There were walls, you could see the lines, there were right angles everywhere. Absolutely amazing.
What’s your next adventure?
I’m working in Cornwall as fisherman. The idea is to tell the story of Britain’s inshore fishing fleet – the history, the heritage and the culture that surrounds it and the fact that it’s dying out because of big trawlers. So I’m working in a tiny little fishing village in Cornwall until the end of the year, working as a crab and lobster fisherman.
These are the last hunter-gatherers in Britain, the last people who hunt wild food. Everything around it: the history, the traditions, the culture, they’re all going too. The singing of sea shanties, it’s all going to disappear. It’s sad.
It’s only when you’re in the heart of this village, working with them, that you realise what an extraordinary way of life it is. And what an amazing group of people they are. They have an extraordinary work ethic. I was on my knees after a week. It was unbelievable.
Then what? Feet up for a while?
Yeah, my girlfriend is pregnant and we’re thinking of moving to south Devon. I’m going to try running some natural history and wildlife filming courses and natural history tours from wherever we end up in south Devon.
I’d like to finish up talking about one of your other loves – Rugby.
I’m a fanatic!
I see you very cleverly timed your 'research' into sharks in South Africa with a British Lions tour there.
I think the word ‘research’ is a slight exaggeration. Essentially it was just me and some mates. We shot a little film, did some PR stuff about shark conservation, but to be honest it was a group of lads having the most fantastic time.
The whole country goes insane when the Lions turn up. We did some amazing diving. And it was a terrific test series, really close. Probably one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. I’d love to say it was all deeply scientific and we undertook cutting edge research but we didn’t.
The big question of course – who do you think will win the World Cup this year?
It’s got to be the All Blacks. They’re playing great rugby. They’re at home. Surely they can’t choke this time.