HUGH FEARNLEY-WHITTINGSTALL’S recent campaign to change our eating and shopping habits focused strongly on the sea. As part of Channel 4’s Big Fish Fight, he joined forces with Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal to make programmes highlighting some of the unsustainable practices decimating the world’s fish populations.
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “fish fight” was arguably the best researched, challenging the assumption that imposing catch quotas on British fishermen may not be the best solution
to over-fishing, resulting as it does in a terrible waste of fish thrown overboard as “discard”.
Unsurprisingly, Hugh is a passionate diver, and one the episodes featured him diving
in the Maldives, where he had gone to show the benefits of catching tuna by pole and line.

When and where did you learn to dive
I originally learned when I was working at the River Café in London in about 1989. One of the waitresses was a member of the BSAC-run Cormorant Dive Club, and I diligently attended what seemed like interminable pool sessions in Swiss Cottage.

Are you saying you didn’t enjoy the experience
No, not at all, it was just that it took months before I did a proper dive. Eventually we did a club trip to Hurghada. I couldn’t believe the colours under water, and the brilliant psychedelic appearance of the fish and corals. It was literally mind-blowing.
But what astounded me most was that some of the other divers moaned about their dive and said it was “rubbish”, because they hadn’t seen any sharks or something huge!

Was that because they were much more experienced
Obviously I was inexperienced, but I remember seeing a Napoleon wrasse, and all this fantastic colour. I made a promise to myself that day – that no matter what kind of a dive I ever had, I would never, ever complain about it. It always seems to me to be supremely ungrateful that any human being should think that they somehow have some sort of divine right to see something “special” on a dive.

Have you kept that promise
I think so. Someone once told me that if I’m bored on a dive, I should just swim up to a rock or a piece of coral and stare at what’s a few inches in front of me. And sure enough, there’s always something happening, something moving or growing there that I might not have noticed if I hadn’t pressed my face close to it.

Did you ever get beyond your BSAC Novice qualification
Well, I have a confession to make; I never quite got my certificate signed off. And for about 10 years, every time I went on a diving holiday I had a battle to convince the dive centres that I was certified.
I always took my BSAC temporary card and my log-book, and usually it worked, though a couple of times they made me do a resort course, which was a real pain.
Then, about 10 years ago in Seychelles, I decided I needed to sort it out properly, so I took a PADI Advanced course at the Underwater Centre on Mahé. That golden PADI card shines like a beacon in my wallet, something that I’m much more proud of than my driving licence!

Do you know how many dives you’ve done
Certainly two, maybe three hundred. I’ve dived every year for over 20 years. I’ve been lucky enough to dive in places like Seychelles, Mexico, the Red Sea, Madeira, Maldives, the Bahamas and South Africa.

Ever been scared under water
Yes, in Stoney Cove, when I lost my regulator and couldn’t find it. I panicked and shot to the surface, blindly forgetting all my training. Luckily I wasn’t very deep, but I had to force myself to go back into the water, or else I might have been put off for good.
And once, somewhere near Durdle Door [Dorset], I got separated from my buddy. It was around Easter and the water wasn’t warm or clear and I felt really frightened for a while until I spotted his bubbles.
Oh, and in Kenya I had to share air with my divemaster when he took me off on a long swim at the end of a dive.

Are you interested in diving kit
Do you own any

I own everything, but I couldn’t tell you who made it without looking at it. My computer
is at least 10 years old, a Uwatec. I love it. I have two prescription masks, ‘cos I’m quite short-sighted. I bought a spare, and I acquired some contact lenses so that I could use a full-face mask for the filming we did in the Maldives.
Part of that programme was about the way we mistreat the marine environment. Is that something you worry about when you dive
Yes, and it comes back to what I said about what we think we have “a right” to see when we dive.
If we don’t see the fish we want, or we come across something ugly under water, then maybe it’s because of what human beings have done.
Man-made problems may just be what you see when you dive. And that’s why I don’t think we have any special right to “demand” that we see a shark, or whatever it is we expect to find.

Do you have a diving wish-list – or something you’ve always wanted to see under water
It used to be a manta ray, and that’s what I got to see in the Maldives at Lankan. And my first-ever encounter with mantas was caught on camera, which was great, and why I probably sounded ridiculous on-screen, but I was beside myself with excitement.
I went back into the water later without the cameras and had well over an hour with the mantas. There’s only one way to describe what it felt like; just such a pure privilege. As for a fantasy underwater sighting, it would have to be a giant squid fighting with a sperm whale. Not very likely.

Is there a marine creature that you might find frightening
I’d love to see a really big shark, and I might find it frightening.

Stephen Fry once described you as having “the silliest hair in Europe”. Has it ever been a nuisance under water
Wearing a two piece semi-dry, it did tend to get pushed forward and get trapped under the mask seal, but I’ve recently had it cut!