âThereâs something gripping about a 10m shark swimming towards you with that massive open mouth.â
Britains secret seas
I GREW UP IN ELM PARK, Essex, and was generally hopeless at school. I remember the early 1960s, when my life’s heroes were in their prime. Hans Hass was using military diving gear to film his fabulous shark documentaries. Jacques Cousteau had co-invented scuba-diving, written the Silent World and was exploring the world’s seas on the ultimate diving expedition aboard Calypso.
And my big hero at the time, Mike Nelson, was up to his neck in Sea Hunt adventures. Beautiful women were hiring Mike for diving lessons, and at the end of each programme I would swear that he was talking directly to me with his words on diving safety.
I had just failed my 11+ exams, hated school, loved the sea and knew nothing. Except that I wanted to be a diver.
More than 40 years later, I travelled around some of the world’s top diving sites to present my BBC documentary series, Oceans. During that year of glorious diving, I began to plot my dream television series – diving in UK waters.
And as I sent the programme ideas in to the BBC from our exotic locations, I found it easy to think that, with the success of a big eight-part series like Oceans, it would be straightforward to get a series about our own waters agreed and commissioned.
In fact, when I came home from the Arctic episode of Oceans, I was certain that Oceans UK was in the bag.
But what followed was more than a year of thrashing out ideas, endless meetings, corridor crusades and those near-misses when I’d listened to bad advice and gone out and bought champagne, only to be disappointed (and hungover) the very next day.
IT WAS A LOVELY WARM DAY when I finally got the word; Britain’s Secret Seas had, in TV language, been “green-lit”. There was no chance for immediate celebration. I went out to the garden and fell asleep with relief.
I’d had an extraordinary amount of help and encouragement from the UK diving and marine-science community
to work out ideas and dive targets. Particularly significant was the Natural England survey, which demonstrated just how little the general public knows, or even cares, about our waters.
Large numbers of us seem to celebrate our coastline but are oblivious to what’s going on under the surface a little way offshore. This gap in knowledge represented a great opportunity for us, and helped to make the series happen.
Our BBC production team then worked up the plans, found even more great targets and completed a massive amount of research on each story, turning our ideas into the magic of storytelling for television.
The operational work of finding freelance crew and organising equipment, boat operators, specialist contributors, expert help, scientists, accommodation, transport and everyone’s schedules continued constantly from those meeting-room days to the very last day of studio voice-over and editing. There was an odd moment during the early planning period when things were tied up in contract negotiations, and I had no idea who my co-presenters might be.
So I left to run another Greenland expedition, and just kept my fingers crossed that this wasn’t going to be the start of yet another delay.
Luckily, things worked out as I had hoped. I came home to confirmation that Frank Pope and Tooni Mahto were on the team.
Tooni and I had worked together well on Oceans. I had enjoyed diving with her, and seeing marine life through her marine-science perspective.
Frank and I had worked on overlapping marine projects, and had bumped into each other at conferences and talks. He is a brilliant oceans correspondent, and I thought it would be fun to work with him and learn from his insights.
Also, Frank had given Oceans a stinging review in The Times, and it seemed only natural to hope that he was with me on the next one.
DIVES FOR NON-DIVERS
So what are we showing There are four one-hour episodes; North, South, East and West, each one having a core theme linking all the stories together.
Frank, Tooni and I dived in whichever combination made the most sense for each particular story, and in a similar way we shared the ownership of each theme – with Frank leading the history and ocean eco-systems stories, Tooni leading the marine science and me being the lead diver/expedition-leader.
My big hope was that we could make a great programme that revealed the true wonder of Britain’s seas and made them look easy and attractive to explore.
I kept thinking about a family of non-divers watching, and hoping that our programme might inspire them to find their local dive shop and club.
I would love to see that family experience basking sharks as we did.
We snorkelled with a shiver of about 12 huge sharks only 100m or so from the beach at Porthcurno.
They are shy of noise, and bubbles from open circuit or jumping in from the boat sends them away, so the snorkelling approach works well.
We found that if you just float motionless at the surface, they come very close indeed. It’s exciting; even though we all know that basking sharks are not predatory, there is something gripping about a 10m shark swimming towards you with that massive open mouth.
How about that as part of a family day at the seaside
SOME OF OUR STORIES were at very familiar and popular easy dive sites such as Lamorna Cove, where we made both day and night dives to tell the story of night hunters.
The visibility at Lamorna was about the worst I have seen there, yet those dives were beautiful; flat-calm sea, easy entry down the boat ramp, masses of underwater life, a simple dive to find the way back, and one of the best seaside cafes on the planet.
Our dives at St Abbs brought back very happy family memories for me; I never had treated us to a sack-truck, so carrying all the family’s gear around the harbour wall had been our pre-dive warm-up, and helped to burn off the bacon sandwiches from another of our fabulous seaside cafes.
Needing to keep the costs down, we had camped, of course, and that left enough money to pump huge amounts of food into my son Scott, so that he didn’t die from hypothermia in one of my handed-down wetsuits.
I’ll never forget being in that first gully on the way to Cathedral Rock and seeing Sheila, Scott, a seal and a small school of wrasse all surging about among the kelp.
For Britain’s Secret Seas we managed to get special permission to make night dives at Cathedral Rock. This revealed the fluorescing sea-squirts and their part in an amazing eco-systems story about how their cells can help us to understand early development in human embryos – and to track cancer cells.
To relate the success story of grey seals, we based ourselves at the Farne Islands. Again, all that was required were straightforward snorkelling or diving skills.
It’s another perfect family experience, with a great choice of boat operators and dive sites. Moving with the family and those seals through the kelp in shallow water, floating at the surface and getting close to them as they squirt up the beach is an ideal natural balance for the great pubs, candy floss and chips at Seahouses.
Our series is packed with dives and experiences that should encourage non-divers to come and join us.
DIVES FOR DIVERS
We also made dives that were not for the beginner, but were brilliant and told important stories.
On the morning of 18 March, 1967, the then-largest oil-tanker in the world, the 297m Torrey Canyon, ran aground off the Cornish coast. The 119,000 tons of crude oil she was carrying gushed out into the pristine Atlantic waters.
She had run into one of the infamous Seven Stones rock pinnacles, 15 nautical miles west from Lands End and seven from the Scilly Isles.
There was no single identifiable cause for the disaster, but the skipper had in effect cut a corner. Also, it was the cook who was on watch at the time.
There was widespread confusion about how to deal with the massive spill. The Royal Navy dropped bombs and petrol and fired high-powered rockets and even napalm at the wreck and surrounding waters to burn it off, but to little effect.
The 20-mile-long oil slick triggered a massive environmental catastrophe when it reached the Cornish coast, turning the golden sands black and killing more than 25,000 seabirds.
The fumes could be smelt throughout Cornwall, and with the low-flying bombers making their runs to the wreck site, a version of black hell seemed to have arrived.
A huge clean-up operation began, and many beaches and cliff areas still show signs of the effect of using aggressive detergents. Six months after the spill, some untreated beaches had recovered, while treated beaches were a wasteland.
THE TORREY CANYON is the largest shipwreck in British waters, and as it sits a long way from shore among the same hazardous rocks onto which she ran, it’s not the easiest to reach. There are also constant huge Atlantic swells, bouts of storms and general bad weather in the area.
We had a long, bruising 17 nautical miles to run. It’s too dangerous to position a hardboat among the Seven Stones, so our boatman Charles Hood towed an inflatable behind. This would ensure that we could manoeuvre precisely around the rock reefs, and there would be little damage to the boat if we did hit one.
Blessed with good weather, at the wreck site we could easily see both Lands End and the Scilly Isles. We arrived just before low slack, and could identify the tops of the rocks by surging seas and waves breaking over them.
The immeasurable power of the sea makes this an exciting place.
Kitting-up, rigging the dive gear and transferring to the inflatable was made hard work by the never-ending swell, constant big surges and some crew sea-sickness. But we had timed it perfectly, as it was rough enough to do justice to the story of the wreck, reveal the power of the area and still be diveable.
As I rolled off the boat into those heaving waters I entered a great swaying underwater forest of kelp. The water was gin-clear, and the huge fronds were in a mad rhythm of bending then standing straight, swinging and heaving to the forces of the sea. I’ve suffered from motion sickness in such conditions in the past, but was fine this time.
It was a great, vibrant start to the dive, but I thought we had missed the Torrey Canyon. The wreck is said to be well broken up over 2sq km of the seabed.
I then realised that I was on it! The huge hull-plates have so much life on them that they look just like rocks or the bottom.
Things then started to make sense. As I swam along the steel plates I joined large schools of wrasse, pollack and pouting, some moving purposefully along the wreck sides, while others had relaxed into shoals beneath and inside the wreckage.
I USED THE BIG SURGES to drive myself forward, then I held on during the backwash so that I made good fast progress around piles of machinery, winches and twisted steel plates, all completely camouflaged with weed, anemones, bryozoans, starfish and colourful urchins.
As I whizzed round the corner of the superstructure, I hovered over one of the many bombs that had been dropped on the wreck, and was relieved to see that it had exploded. But it was a healthy reminder that there are hundreds of unexploded bombs on and near the wreck. I was delighted when Charles found the bridge and Gavin, our underwater cameraman, and I squeezed through the passageway and hoped for still water.
But there was no chance of that, so we wedged ourselves in as best we could, and I was able to tell the story of that scene on the bridge of the largest super-tanker in the world.
One minute the vessel is making good time in good weather, the crew watching the birds, reading, enjoying a coffee. And then the unthinkable, she’s aground!
I can well imagine those seconds of unreality, followed by sheer panic and the overwhelming horror of realising they had triggered the largest maritime environmental disaster in history.
This series could not have been made without the support, encouragement and hard work of the UK diving community. You made it happen – thank you!
In next month’s DIVER I’ll be covering more in-depth and behind-the-scenes tales from Britain’s Secret Seas, including diving with the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team with live 1000lb bombs, the complications and controversy of scallop-fishing, how to get a school of fish to read the script, why diving with a colour chart is a disaster, and how I almost drowned in a bucket!
Britain’s Secret Seas, Sundays at 8pm on BBC2 from 8 May.