Great Ocean Adventures

Wednesday Feb 28
great ocean adventures: the spinner dolphin (8/8) 19.15–20.00

Daredevil explorer Monty Halls concludes his investigation of magnificent beasts of the deep by finding out more about a much-loved marine mammal. Brazil is his destination as he heads off in search of the spinner dolphin, which is among the most acrobatic of sea creatures.

Monty starts off in the city of Laguna in southern Brazil. This quiet fishing community is known for a remarkable and long-standing example of cooperation between man and dolphin. Bottlenose dolphins here engage in a ritual that involves rounding up mullet, then rolling around on the surface of the water as a signal for fishermen to throw in their nets. In this mutually beneficial arrangement, some of the fish caught fall into the dolphins’ mouths. So important is the dolphins’ role that if they don’t turn up on a given day, the fishermen don’t even bother to cast their nets.

These dolphins and other wildlife in this area are now protected by strict legislation, but this was not always the case. The southern right whale, for example, was once hunted to near-extinction. Thankfully, subsequent efforts to save it mean that Monty can take to the skies for a bird’s-eye view of these stunning creatures at the Santa Catarina whale sanctuary.

Even more stringent wildlife-protection legislation is in place at Monty’s final destination, 350km east of the Brazilian coastline. The idyllic archipelago of Fernando de Noronha is made up of 21 islands whose unique geography make them a natural haven. “If I was a fish this is definitely where I’d want to live,” enthuses Monty, who encounters a stingray, a moray eel and a spiny lobster on his first dive here. More striking still, however, is what he calls “one of the largest fish shoals I’ve ever seen” – a tightly packed group of sardines swimming in unison, to hypnotic effect.

On another dive, Monty comes face to face with a green turtle, then later finds out about the Tamar Ibama project, whose aim is to protect these and other endangered sea turtles. Thanks to the efforts of projects like this, numbers are increasing.

But foremost on Monty’s mind is the fact that Fernando de Noronha is home to the largest colony of spinner dolphins on the planet, and this is what he has travelled all this way to see. He has found out that the dolphins come to Dolphin Bay to rest, before heading out in search of food. The fact that they generally turn up between 5am and 7am means that Monty must contend with a “hideously early” start. Armed with binoculars, he joins local expert Fabiana on the cliffs high above the bay, and is quickly rewarded with a sighting of the dolphins. The fact that they are heavily protected means that there are severe restrictions on the amount of contact allowed, particularly in the bay itself. But Monty has been given special dispensation for a single dive as the dolphins are leaving the bay. He is full of hope as he leaves his clifftop vantage point and heads out in a boat. Will his dedication be rewarded with the ultimate close encounter?

Wednesday 21 February, 19.15–20.00 pn FIVE

Daredevil explorer Monty Halls continues his investigation of rare and magnificent beasts of the deep. In tonight’s programme, he is in Canada on the trail of the white – or beluga – whale.

Monty’s adventure begins in the cold, fogdrenched waters of Newfoundland on Canada’s eastern seaboard. It’s an area with a history of commercial whaling, but this bloody practice has long since been banned, so the numbers of species like humpback whales – once hunted to near-extinction – are now rising. At Petty Harbour, local dive operator Rick Stanley takes Monty out in search of these 50-foot creatures. After only moments on the water the pair are rewarded with a sighting of a whole family of the creatures. “It’s a thrilling, thrilling sight!” enthuses Monty, who is humbled to think that the whale’s pectoral fin alone is more than twice the length of his own body.

And the thrills don’t end there. Later, Monty helps marine-mammal specialist Dr Jack Lawson track a humpback and take a biopsy – a small sample of skin and blubber that will provide vital information about the creature’s lifestyle and history. Ironically, the tool Monty uses to capture this sample is a crossbow not unlike those that were once used routinely to kill the whales. The difference here is the specially designed arrows, which only penetrate the whale so far before recoiling back out. As the arrows return, they contain samples that enable scientists to learn more about the creature they are looking to help.

There are no beluga whales in these cold waters, so Monty leaves Newfoundland and heads northwest into Canada’s interior to Hudson Bay. His specific destination is the small town of Arviat on the western side of the bay, where beluga whales gather in large numbers in summer. The Inuit people who make up the majority of this town’s community are still permitted to hunt beluga to get them through the long, harsh winters. Local fisherman James Tagalik agrees to take Monty out in search of the whales. Unfortunately, two hours of speeding around the bay prove fruitless so the pair head back to land – where there is an unexpected wildlife treat of a different kind.

Although Arviat’s main caribou hunt – a major local event – is not due to take place for months, James and Monty get word that the herd is on the move. “For the people who live here this is a really great opportunity to stock up on some meat,” explains Monty, who is once more struck by the close relationship between the townspeople and their natural environment.

Back on the trail of the beluga, the team decides to head 200 miles south down the coast of Hudson Bay to the tiny community of Churchill, home to some 850 residents and, each summer, around 3,500 belugas, who migrate here to calve in the shallow fresh waters of the Churchill River. Also prevalent here are polar bears, whose cuddly appearance belies the fact that they are highly dangerous. There is even a local practice of leaving cars and buildings open so that passers-by can use them as impromptu refuges if they come face to face with one of these large predators.

But when Monty heads into the Churchill River estuary, which flows into Hudson Bay, he has only one creature on his mind. He has been told that a beluga sighting is almost guaranteed in these waters, which apparently often resemble “a carpet of whales”. But as he has learned from previous ocean adventures, nothing can be taken for granted. “To see whales at all in their natural environment is a real privilege,” he says. “I just hope that the beluga whales I’m looking for will grant me that opportunity.”

Wednesday 7 February: 19.15–20.00

Continuing this evening is the gripping series of wildlife documentaries in which daredevil explorer Monty Halls investigates rare and magnificent beasts of the deep. In tonight’s programme, Monty is on the trail of the elusive thresher shark, an animal that very few divers will ever be lucky enough to see.

To have any chance of encountering a thresher, Monty must travel to the tiny Philippine island of Malapascua, a tropical paradise fringed by coral reefs. The island’s small community were subsistence fishermen until the 1990s, when interest in the threshers brought tourism, and a subsequent revolution in the local economy. The locals – who Monty finds to be warm and friendly – continue to rely on fishing as a source of food and income. Their island lies within the ‘Golden Triangle’, a triangle of rich biodiversity outlined by the coasts of Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, which is home to more species of fish than anywhere else in the world.

On his first dive of the trip, Monty encounters a wonderful array of reef animals including the bizarre frogfish, which has stumpy pectoral fins that allow it to walk along the sea bottom. It boasts the fastest strike of any animal, with the ability to open and close its mouth within six thousandths of a second. Nearby, a huge barrel sponge is covered with sea cucumbers, long white caterpillars that clean parasites from its surface. The thresher, however, remains elusive.

Monty is at pains to point out that a modern method of fishing – dynamite fishing – threatens these fragile coral environments. Without a reef for small life forms to colonise, the foundations of the food chain are destroyed, spelling disaster for all the animals – even majestic predators like the thresher shark. Another environment that is receding fast is the rainforest with which Malapascua was originally covered.

On another of his dives, Monty teams up with local photographer and thresher enthusiast Scott ‘Gutsy’ Tuason. Gutsy has some amazing pictures of threshers, taken at a spot which guarantees some fascinating sights. At a ‘cleaning station’, many different species gather to enjoy the attentions of the cleaner wrasse – small, brightly coloured fish which eat the parasites that gather on the skin of others. It’s a little late for a thresher encounter, however – the sharks prefer low light conditions, so Monty and Gutsy spend the remainder of the day placing a section of artificial reef on the sea floor as part of a regeneration project being carried out by the local people and the dive centre, both of whom rely on the area’s continuing biodiversity.

At four o’clock the next morning, the sun has yet to rise, but Monty and Gutsy are already heading out to sea. The pelagic (open-ocean) thresher shark is easily spooked, and spends most of its time hunting in depths of up to 150m – hence its large eyes. The two divers must remain very still on the ocean floor if they are to catch a glimpse – and before long their diligence is rewarded. From out of the gloom an unmistakeable shape glides into view. Its tail – almost as long as the rest of its body – undulates gently behind it, making its total length up to three metres. Although it’s a big shark, it poses no danger to humans – with its small bite radius and teeth, it eats only small fish, which it stuns with a slap of its huge, strap-like tail. As it drifts closer, this rare and exceptional animal gives the divers a privileged glimpse of a vanishing ecosystem. Some call it the ‘freak’ of the shark world – and it certainly cuts an unusual silhouette as it glides through the water. Yet its grace is undeniable, and Monty and Gutsy are left in awestruck silence as the thresher disappears back into the gloom with a flick of its huge caudal fin.

Wednesday 31 January: 19.15–20.00

Continuing this evening is the gripping series of wildlife documentaries in which daredevil explorer Monty Halls investigates rare and magnificent beasts of the deep. In tonight’s programme he seeks out a creature that has suffered from 500 years of bad press – the killer whale, or orca.

Monty’s first stop is Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. Thought of by many as the killer-whale capital of the world, the island has become a draw for tourists in recent years, but Monty is impressed by the fact that the waters here are heavily protected by local legislation. And while these regulations mean he won’t be able to dive with the orca, there is no better place to find out about their remarkable behaviour.

To this end, he meets local orca specialist Dr Paul Spong, who tells him a bit about the creatures’ lifestyle. “Orcas live in very close family groups for their entire lives,” he says, explaining that each family group has its own dialect and that each orca uses its own family’s particular sound to identify which group it belongs to. Monty also finds out that, despite the killer whale’s reputation as a fierce predator, it is primarily salmon that they feed on here.

There are three distinct types of orca that use these waters: the resident family groups that stay here all year; the ‘offshores’, which generally hunt in the open ocean; and the ‘transients’, which move through the area hunting mammals. Voyaging out to sea, Monty gets a tantalising glimpse of some transients, but only from a distance of around 100 metres away.

In order to get closer to the animal he is seeking, Monty travels 10,000 miles to the Lofoton Islands in the cold northern waters around Norway. This is one of the few places where it is possible to dive with these impressive beasts. The orcas arrive in winter to feed on the huge numbers of herrings here, so Monty need not worry about becoming prey himself. Unlike at Vancouver Island, there are few guidelines protecting these waters – which might be liberating, but it is also a cause for concern. Local orca researcher Heike Vester explains how the recent boom in whale-watching tourism appears to have affected the whales’ behaviour, with males uncharacteristically venturing out alone away from the rest of their family groups. It is not clear what is causing this potentially worrying trend although it could be that the males are scouting the seas to check for possible danger in the form of whale-watching parties.

Having talked to Heike, Monty realises that, at worst, dives such as his could be making life hard for the very creatures that fascinate him. “This sort of tourism can be a force for good,” he concedes, “but only when it’s properly regulated – and only when it puts first and foremost the welfare of the animals themselves.” Will he attempt a dive – and even if he does, will it prove fruitful?

Wednesday 24 January: 19.15–20.00
Continuing this evening is the gripping series of wildlife documentaries in which daredevil explorer Monty Halls investigates rare and magnificent beasts of the deep. In tonight’s programme Monty heads for the island of Bali to find and dive with the largest bony fish in the sea: the great ocean sunfish, or mola-mola.

Reaching fin-to-fin heights of over four metres and sometimes weighing in at over two tonnes, the bizarre-looking mola-mola is one of the true giants of the sea. Monty has headed to Bali to see if he can find one and dive with it, and sets to work talking to locals and dive operators to find out where the huge fish are usually seen. He starts on the northeast coast of the island, which boasts some of Bali’s finest diving. At Tulamben, he investigates the wreck of the Liberty, a World War II cargo ship now covered in diverse coral species and inhabited by all kinds of marine fauna. Some of these creatures are cleaner wrasse fish, which make themselves useful by cleaning larger fish of parasites – a service the mola-mola frequently need to avail themselves of.

Back on land, Monty meets someone who has been campaigning for the protection of the molamola: dive operator Michael Cortenbach. He describes how ‘fish paparazzi’ flock to Bali to encounter the mola-mola, and advises Monty on the best way to interact with the fish he’s looking for. Michael has tagged one to record data on where they go and how deep they dive – crucial infomation which will help him in his quest to protect the mola-molas.

Monty follows up his meeting with Michael with a a night dive, and encounters an astonishing variety of creatures including boxer crabs, lionfish and porcupine fish. These highlight the importance of protecting the reefs that are ultimately responsible for all of this diversity – even the mola-mola relies on the reefs, as they contain the ‘cleaning stations’ at which the wrasse do their work. To encourage reef regeneration, a project in the northwest of the country has been set up, and Monty visits this extraordinary ‘bio-reef’ to find out more. Local entrepreneur Chris Brown runs the project, and also heads a project to protect turtles on the island.

After visiting the turtle project and releasing one of the tiny creatures into the sea, Monty is now itching to get into the water with the animal he has ultimately come to see. Like turtles, the mola-mola start off tiny but end up many times their original size: this fish puts on 60 million times its body weight by the time it reaches adulthood – like a human baby that grows to the weight of six Titanics! Monty can’t wait to meet the fish that has fascinated him for years, and heads for an island whose waters have hosted sightings of them.

The strong currents here create ideal conditions for the mola-mola, which uses them to speed its bulk towards cleaning stations. Finding an ideal spot, Monty waits with bated breath – and it’s not long before he is confronted by one of the ocean giants, which is being cleaned by a number of small banner fish. As if this wasn’t enough, Monty is then thrilled to see a group of them sculling gently around him and hanging in the current. “There are more molas here than I ever dreamed of seeing,” he says. “What a majestic animal! What an experience… Pure magic.”

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