Our new life on the British Barrier Reef (and you can share it with us every week), says Monty Halls
The TV action man has relocated his family to Dartmouth. And he's joining Weekend magazine with a new column about their adventures in one of our great wildlife havens.
22:30 GMT, 27 April 2012
The white spray washes our faces, and as we glide out of Dartmouth harbour into the open sea we’re soon bouncing across the sparkle-tipped waves.
At the helm of our powerful rigid inflatable boat is Monty Halls, whose adventures through his hit Great Escapes TV programmes have included everything from living in two isolated Scottish communities and monitoring sharks and dolphins in Connemara, to investigating the demise of Cornwall’s fishing industry. We’ve also seen him diving with crocodiles and deadly jellyfish in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Now, after years of wandering, Monty, 45, has settled in Dartmouth, along with partner Tam Smith, five-month-old baby daughter Isla, and of course, his ever-faithful black Alsatian-Newfoundland cross Reuben, or Reubs as Monty calls him.
Relocation: Monty Halls with his ever-faithful black Alsatian-Newfoundland cross Reuben
‘The south Devon coast is teeming with marine and wildlife,’ he explains. ‘It is as magical as almost anywhere else in the world for its natural wonders.’
From next week Monty will be writing about his new life in an unmissable new weekly column for Weekend magazine. ‘My mission is to chart the changing seasons, report on the wildlife, keep an eye on the eco-system and environment and keep everyone up to date on how I’m settling in,’ he says. ‘And of course I’ll have lots of stories about the joys of new fatherhood. I’ll make sure there’s plenty of news about Reubs, too – everyone is far more interested in him than in me.’
Through his programmes, Monty, a ruggedly handsome ex-Royal Marine known as the BBC’s Action Man Attenborough, has become a celebrity. But as we cut through the waters, sitting watchfully at his feet as always, his nose twitching with curiosity, is the real star, Reuben. ‘I’ve never known a dog who loves the sea so much. He barks at the waves. As soon as he sees the sea he sprints over and jumps straight in. He even swam alongside me in the sea for a mile as I kayaked home the other day.’
Through his programmes, Monty, an ex-Royal Marine, has become a celebrity
Monty, who is a marine biologist, has named the boat Jason, after his best friend who lived in Dartmouth and was killed on active service in Iraq ten years ago. ‘The boat is my magic carpet,’ Monty shouts above the throaty roar of the engine. ‘It’s the gateway to all the most fantastic experiences we’re going to have along this exciting coast.’ Monty says it’s time he put down some roots. ‘All my life I’ve been all over the place, never staying anywhere for very long. I loved all that, but in my heart I liked the idea of finding somewhere I could call home. A place that would be as familiar as the back of my hand. Now I’ve found it.’
Some of his friends have wondered if picturesque, bustling Dartmouth might be a bit, well, tame, for him. ‘Not at all. There are so many hidden coves and beaches and I’ve always said that no matter where you live in the UK you don’t have to go too far to find genuine wilderness. I can point the nose of my boat straight into a sea that’s like a British Barrier Reef, with huge basking sharks. Then there’s the plankton which lights up the sea around you. Inland there’s a deep river estuary with a wooded valley that twists away and where the forests are crackling with birdsong – it’s what I call The Amazon With Cream Teas. You’d be surprised just how much wildlife is out there if you’re prepared to take the time to stop and look.’
There are so many hidden coves and
beaches and I’ve always said that no matter where you live in the UK you
don’t have to go too far to find genuine wilderness.
As if to prove the point, our boat reaches the Mew Stone, a rock rising out of the sea like a massive wedge. There, we see a colony of plump and mottled grey seals. ‘Look at the rock next to the seals,’ he enthuses. ‘There are herring gulls, cormorants and black-backed gulls – they’re one of the largest seagulls on earth. I know my birds but I don’t know much about their habits so this is one of my projects – to get to study and learn so much more about them.’
At the heart of all this is Monty’s Great Escapes shop in the centre of Dartmouth, from where he runs his new tours, photography and lectures business. ‘From the moment we arrived, everyone has been so welcoming – there is a really vibrant community here and the River Dart is the pulse of the town,’ says Monty. ‘Everyone here has an intense relationship with the river and the sea. It’s my passion to have an intimate relationship with the local community. Someone popped in to the shop today to say they’d seen a dolphin, another had seen some guillemots, and I’m getting loads of people saying they’ve seen about a thousand Manx shearwater birds flying over. People are telling us what’s going on. And for me that’s what this is all about.’
Dartmouth will be his base for the foreseeable future, although he still intends to go exploring and make TV programmes. ‘It’s marvellous to get some permanence. Every day Reubs and I go for a run along the river bank. He’s a big star everywhere he goes and he takes it all in his stride – he’s a very cool celeb. Afterwards, we go back to the flat and he sits on the balcony overlooking the town, which he quickly adopted as his domain.’ Monty can’t walk down the cobbled streets without being stopped and praised for his TV shows. ‘I can’t complain,’ he says. ‘If it gets too much I just disappear into the back of the shop. So does Reuben. After all, he’s top of the bill and I’m the supporting act to a dog.’
Family man: Monty with Tam, baby Isla, and Reuben
A month before filming the first Great Escapes series, Monty’s original dog Maya, a collie, was run over. He went to the local animal rescue centre in Bristol and asked if they could recommend an up-for-anything canine companion to go on his adventure to Applecross and everyone suggested Reuben. Within days Reuben had swapped his concrete run for the backseat of Monty’s Land Rover and a silver sanded beach on the west coast of Scotland. The bond was instant. ‘Reubs is a legend and my best mate. He’s six now, 45 kilos and getting bigger thanks to everyone popping into the shop and feeding him titbits.’
The big difference in Monty and Tam’s life – not to mention Reuben’s – is baby Isla. ‘Our little pink bombshell,’ Monty calls her. ‘I’ve come into this late but am loving being a father. Tam and Isla come with me now if I’m filming, but putting down roots is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Now it’s all coming together. Luckily, she’s a good sleeper. That’s not down to great parenting, it’s just our good fortune. When she wants to make her presence known, though, she can – and very lustily. Tam and I are both keen divers, and she’s inherited our diver’s lungs. She’s just like her mother – very strong-willed and knows her mind.
‘Reubs is wonderful with her. He sleeps by her cot and instinctively knows if she’s awake even before the baby monitor goes off. Every morning he washes her by licking her face, and if she cries he gets very worried.’
Reuben has his own fluffy rug in front of the shop and it’s never more than a few seconds before some passer-by stops to stroke him. ‘The shop is home from home but what I’m really excited about is the tours,’ says Monty. ‘I’ve already had so many exciting encounters, from kingfishers to a stoat that was swimming right in front of me. I discovered they can swim a mile and a half off shore. Reubs thought it was a giant squirrel and I had to stop him leaping overboard. We can’t wait for the arrival of the basking sharks – the second largest fish on earth. It’s like waiting for a herd of elephants to thunder onto the horizon. It’s incredible to think you can be at sea in your little boat with a creature the size of a double-decker bus right beneath you.
‘Another amazing experience was kayaking at night where we saw bioluminescent plankton that glows if you disturb it, leaving a fiery path like a scene from Harry Potter. I thought to myself then, “I’ve been round the world, but this feels like coming home.” I now appreciate what I didn’t before – that life doesn’t end when you start a family; it begins.’
Don’t miss Monty Halls’ new column in next week’s Weekend magazine