In his latest series, explorer and marine biologist Monty Halls goes in search of the real story behind some of the world’s greatest underwater mysteries. From underwater cities in Japan to an African lake that could be hiding a safe full of gold, Monty pushed himself to the limit on dangerous, deep dives.
Many of the dives took Monty to the margins of survivable depth, and each location presented their own unique challenges. He spoke to Peter Moore about his love of diving and how he was driven to unlock underwater secrets.
What is it that draws you to diving and to the sea?
I don’t want to come out with a whole lot of statistics, but if you’re not diving you’re ignoring 71% of planet Earth. And of that 71%, 6% of it has been explored. It is the great last frontier. And every time you jump into the sea, you have no idea what you are going to see. You could see a basking shark go by. You can see anything on any dive and I think that always draws you deeper and deeper. So your horizons are pretty limitless diving and I think that always mesmerises me. That’s always fascinated me. It’s a bit of no-brainer really.
Where did the idea for this series come from?
It’s one of the strangest things. It came from a spur-of-the-moment comment. I was in a commissioning meeting with Channel Five and we talking about a number of different concepts, about exploration and getting out there and didn’t really come up with anything solid in the course of that meeting. Then, just as I was walking out of the meeting, I turned to Steve, the commissioning editor, and said: "Steve, the funny thing is that all the great mysteries that are left in the world are all covered in water."
He said: "Stop right there. Come back, sit down and let’s talk about that." So we talked about it, developed it a bit. I said the way to do it would be to put together a truly world class team of divers and recreate the Cousteau thing almost, going off and trying to find these mysteries. And that’s what we did.
Right from the start it’s a very Boy's Own adventure, with that whole Indiana Jones, lost treasure, mystery kind of thing.
Oh yeah, without a doubt. I tell people this was my mid-life crisis series. The divers I was working with were my heroes in the diving world. Imagine you loved rugby and you got a chance to put together your dream team – Richie McCaw, Martin Johnson – and you get to play at number 10, the Jonny Wilkinson role. That’s what it was like.
Plus we got to do some pretty intense dives. In the Namibia episode, when we were looking for the Kaiser’s missing gold, we were diving at 60, 80, 90 metres, sometimes with very limited visibility and a very long way from anywhere. 300 feet down and in the middle of the Namibian bush. If something had gone wrong, we’d have really been in trouble. It did have that feel of genuine exploration about it, which is a rare beast these days.
Each of your dives seemed to have that element of peril in it. In Japan, you were dealing with the currents. In the US it was the extreme cold.
It was on a sliding scale of peril, really. There were times when it was very intense. Some of the deepest stuff in Namibia were very intense indeed.
Other times it was just tough. Being knocked around by currents. I also had various ear problems in Japan because we were changing depth so frequently and we were being thrown around by the swells so much. I had to sit down a couple of times in Japan because my ears played up so much.
So those dives were just physically demanding dives. It’s just hard work swimming against strong currents and big ocean swells. So you have the whole spectrum, I think. Some quite demanding, but some quite edgy as well.
You’ve had experience before filming underwater. You’ve started up a production company, Sea Dog Productions, specialising in that. But I got the sense you were pushing some boundaries in the filming aspect as well, using some new kit and some new technologies.
Yes, absolutely. Particularly with using re-breathers. Re-breathers open up that area from 40 to 100 metres that is pretty much unexplored. It’s genuinely a new frontier, a twilight world that we haven’t had a good look at yet.
Filming down there presents a whole set of new challenges as well. It’s a bit like filming high altitude mountaineering. There’s a danger, when you film up there, that you forget about the environment that you’re in, so it was managing the filming within the constraints of being in quite a dangerous place.
But the one thing re-breathers do is buy you time. We all knew we had a bit of time down there to do what we needed to do. The guys who did the pioneering stuff in Namibia, all those years ago, on open circuit, normal scuba kit in the 80s, that was right on the edge. I’m not surprised that some of them had some pretty serious issues. One of them lost an arm down there. They were lucky to walk away from that one, I think.
The Namibia dive was all about trying to find sunken treasure. The Japan dive, however, was more about the mystery of an ancient underwater city.
It’s called Yonaguni and basically it has divided the archeological community for a very long time. Back in the 80s, a local diver found what seemed to be a sunken temple. I’d heard about it for years – years and years. The Yonaguni temple.
We also thought it was a nice mixture of mysteries. Everyone loves the idea of Atlantis and gets carried away by the thought of Atlantis, so we thought it’d be good to have a bit of Atlantis in there somewhere. It was interesting. It was a two-week expedition, and when we finished it, the team was pretty much divided straight down the middle about whether it was man made or not. Really, interesting one.
Then in the States, you come across a wreck that is one of the most complete and untouched wrecks that you’ve ever come across.
Yeah, under Lake Huron. The amazing thing about it is that it’s been down there for 111 years and it’s pristine. It’s still got rigging on it. It was freshwater and it was very, very cold. That was the challenge there. 3 degrees Celsius and you’re in it for a very long time, and it’s a deep dive, so you’ve got a lot of decompression, there’s a lot of challenges in that. We found the cold very hard to deal with. It was pretty brutal at times. We feel we pretty comprehensively answered that particular question, about what happened to the vessel and indeed the crew. The crew just vanished.
So was the show about solving the mysteries or just investigating them a bit further using the new technologies available?
We tried as much as we could to solve them. And in most cases, I think we did. But there are always going to be other opinions. There’s always going to be other theories. But we left feeling pretty secure that we had found the answers to a lot of the riddles we were looking at.
You also went to the Blue Hole in Dahab, which has a pretty notorious reputation as a dive spot.
The Blue Hole in Dahab was a funny one. I was very wary about going off on this whole ‘This is the most lethal dive spot on earth’ because, ironically, it’s also one of the safest. If you dive it responsibly and safely, using the right kit, it’s a phenomenally safe environment. But most people don’t. That’s the snag.
We basically just wanted to find out why it was killing so many people and we’re fairly sure again that we did find out. It wasn't that complicated, as these things invariably aren’t. That was a really enjoyable investigation. We did a very methodical, forensic examination of what happens to divers when they jump into that environment.
Basically anyone who goes on holidays now to somewhere sunny ends up getting their PADI certificate. Do you think people are pushing themselves and doing things they shouldn’t as a result?
Not really. Not so much nowadays. But understand a lot more these days that if you’re diving below 50 metres on a single cylinder, you’re going to have problems. There’s a good chance you’re not going to come back. That’s sort of hard-wired now into people.
You get the odd muppet, but you’re going to get people who aren’t experienced climbers, climbing without ropes. I think most people are sensible and I think the education's pretty good. The way these packages are put together is pretty damn good. So, no, I think it’s a good thing. And I think it’s a very safe sport just as long as you follow the rules.
With more and more people heading to the furthest corners of the globe diving, are there any new places left to discover?
It’s ironic you say that. Just recently I was thinking, we’ve done all this great stuff, but what do we do now? And I thought that I should just turn my attention closer to home, because there are some amazing sites in the the UK. We’ve got 11,000 miles of coastline. We’ve got incredible history – and a lot of wrecks – that haven’t really been looked at.
So about a month ago, I started putting something together called The Great British Diving Expedition. And the idea of that is to go and find sites that no one has ever dived before. Completely unique sites – high altitude lakes, waterfall plunge pools, little islands that are unexplored but with lakes on them. And we found some absolutely extraordinary sites. So that’s something I’m putting together right now.
Mysteries of the Deep with Monty Halls starts 9pm 25th November on Channel Five.
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