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Monty Halls’ Generation Sea Change: Inspiring Marine Conservation


Sea change

Monty Halls is leading a crusade to inspire, educate and equip communities and individuals to engage in their own marine conservation projects in the UK and beyond, and as part of this ambitious endeavour, his 11-year-old daughter Isla took her first tentative steps into the underwater world

Photographs by Monty Halls

Monty – There was no hesitation, no backward glance, just a resolute, calm, engaged walk into the water. Slowly I watched Isla vanish beneath the waves, a moment that signalled the end of one era, and – one certainly hopes – the beginning of another.

As I watched her there was the tiniest slither of paternal misgivings. Of course, I knew she was perfectly safe. Of course, I knew she was in the best of hands, but she still looked so tiny in a vast sea, dwarfed by her kit and the immensity of a new world before her.

As part of the Generation Sea Change project, and the culmination of several years of relentless harassment from a height of four feet, I’d decided that it might be a good idea if Isla finally became a fully qualified diver.

I say ‘finally’, but of course at age 11 she had only just become eligible for her Junior Open Water course anyway. I had been pointing out this fact with considerable vigour for some time, saying diving was off limits until she was old enough.

I had succumbed to an intro dive several years previously in a friend’s pool just to shut her up, where she had shouldered my kit, propelled it around the tiled depths, occasionally swam out of it completely, and in the process found several beetles, a plaster, and (best of all) a dead frog.

To be fair to the wee lass, she never stood a chance in terms of her diving destiny. With a crashing aqua bore of a dad, and a childhood characterised almost entirely by the whiff of brine, she was only ever going one way.

My experience in the Galapagos Islands heavily impacted my love for the sea-I was submerged head first into a completely different, magical blue world. The first time I went to the Galapagos, the only thing I wanted to do was see the beautiful ocean inhabitants.

I remember my first time snorkelling, and the first animal I saw was an ancient, graceful green turtle. It had a small bite mark missing out of one of its back fins, and this is probably what sparked my curiosity around sharks and whales. I wanted to know everything about them, and most importantly I wanted to see one close up.

I did manage to see blacktip reef sharks, resting far below us, and despite repeatedly trying to duck dive down to have a better look, I couldn’t do it as I was only five. Watching my parents diving, completely submerged in this rich, blue jungle, filled my mind with one thought -“I want to learn to dive.”

Isla heads into the shallows
Isla heads into the shallows

Monty – My own recollections of learning to dive were as a trembling 15 year old at my local BSAC Club in Somerset. I’m keenly aware that things have moved on a tad since then, but my intro ran very much along the lines of the classic Special Forces selection model.

Intimidate, disorientate, physically thrash, then repeat. I dimly recall swimming several lengths of a pool with a blacked-out mask, and a large chap in distressingly small trunks shouting at me.

I climbed out of the pool thinking that all divers were complete prats, and of course, the subsequent four decades have very much reinforced that initial impression.

I’m joking. Or am I? No, I definitely am joking. Or am I?

Anyway, fast forward to 2023 and a moment’s research showed that Isla could indeed do her Junior Open Water course, and a swift call booked her a place at the Cornish Diving Centre.

We dropped her off at the centre and, ever wary of ‘helicopter parenting’, then made ourselves scarce after shepherding her through the door. I don’t care who you are, or what your life experience might be, this stepping into the unknown is always a tad intimidating. She was on her own, and needed to take those last few paces solo.

This was enhanced by the fact that I needed to take Molls -the vociferously outraged younger sibling -for the prearranged ice cream bribe.

Isla – My first day diving was a grey, overcast day in Falmouth. Me, mum, dad and Molly all pulled up to the Cornish Diving Centre and I stared at the small, unassuming building, tucked between a large road leading up to a high street and row of houses, listening to Molly complain about the unfairness of it all.

I hauled my large black bag out of the boot of the car (it was full to the brim of dive equipment, including my Mum’s BCD and an empty pony tank). I wheeled my bag across the road, and heaved it to a stop at the door.

I peered in at the empty room-I could see a corridor leading to an unpainted room, with dive equipment stacked up in neat piles lining the walls.

I was very much ready to get diving, and I was definitely excited to start learning everything an 11 year old needs to know. I opened the door and sat down on the sofa in front of the desk and waited. A few people walked out of the corridor, and stood talking about diving and (oddly) velcro.

I was exceedingly keen to know who was my dive instructor -and just get diving. A smiling, dark-haired woman walked up to me, and introduced herself as Shannon. She asked my name, and we talked a little before she said the words I had been waiting for -“You ready to get started?”

Monty joins a beach clean
Monty joins a beach clean

Monty – The Junior Open Water course involves an online learning module, taken separately, and a great deal of practical exercises in confined and open water. This is of course precisely how every kid likes it -getting hands on, down and dirty, blowing bubbles and fighting sharks.

Day one was -as such -taken up with pool sessions, with the fundamental skills combined with the odd somersault and (crucially) lessons on how to create a perfect bubble ring.

Dolphins accompany Monty to his next destinations
Dolphins accompany Monty to his next destinations

This process was repeated the next day, and once acrobatics and bubble rings had been truly mastered (along with less-significant peripheral skills such as mask clearing, buoyancy, buddy breathing, and reg recovery), Isla was deemed ready for her open water session.

The Silver Steps, Falmouth Harbour, and 70% of planet Earth beckoned.

Isla – The morning of my first proper dive was a clear sky and even clearer visibility. I was wearing a semi-dry and Shannon was wearing a drysuit with neon orange washingup gloves. We walked down to the Silver Steps, me carrying my fins, mask, snorkel, booties and gloves while poor Shannon carried my BCD and two cylinders.

Proud dad with Isla after a snorkel adventure
Proud dad with Isla after a snorkel adventure

I was full of anticipation for my first dive, and as we kitted up in the water I let the refreshing, chilling feeling infiltrate the suit. I waded deeper and deeper, getting heavier and heavier, slower and slower, until I couldn’t stand anymore. Shannon and I swam out and then she lifted her hose and I mirrored her.

What I was about to see would blow my mind. As we descended into the clear, blue water I gazed around me in awe, breathing in lungfuls of air. An experience I had never had before.

The first animal I saw was a corkwing wrasse, which swam care-free through a forest of seaweed. We moved along, getting deeper until I had to swim metres to even break the surface.

Shannon let me explore this different world, knowing this experience was one of the most unique and beautiful things I would ever see and do. I saw things I had only ever seen in books, like lobster, swimming crabs, scallops swimming, scorpionfish (which I very nearly sat on) and crystal jellyfish.

Fishing to tag blue fin tuna
Fishing to tag blue fin tuna

My favourite animal was a cuttlefish. It flashed sandy, then brown, the muted blue -grey. It raised its tentacles and backed into seaweed, instantly blending in with the small forest that was its home.

Monty – It’s a big deal, trusting the safety and welfare of your kid to a stranger. So it’s time for me to talk about Shannon. Empathetic, calm, measured, and yet greeting Isla’s every underwater squeak and gesticulation (of which there were a great many) with a broad grin and a mini round of applause. She was a mentor par excellence, the perfect companion on that oh-so-important initial journey.

Isla is all smiles after a dive
Isla is all smiles after a dive

It’s only since having children of my own that I’ve realised that they are mirrors combined with hard drives -reflecting and storing everything they see, every interaction with the wider world, every gesture, and every attitude.

That is what is really learned on a course such as this, as by running it we adults say so much more than ‘here’s a new world, and these are the skills for you to access it’. What we are actually saying is ‘this is a world we love, and this is how you interact with it’. The two messages may seem nuanced, but they are poles apart

The entire rationale of the Generation Sea Change project is to show those who follow in our footsteps that there is indeed a way to interact responsibly with the ocean, and good people doing great things in terms of marine conservation.

The efforts of Shannon and her ilk have shown Isla not just how to dive, but how to do so properly. It’s a message that is carried by the entire industry nowadays, which can only be a good thing for the future.

Isla looking very comfortable under water
Isla looking very comfortable under water

Isla – In the future, I’d love to use my diving career to explore farther than the Silver Steps, like the Galapagos and Australia, which I have been told are some ridiculously beautiful diving spots. I want to see more than just big, impressive animals-I want to learn about them too, and knowing about them and understanding them makes diving a lot more fun.

I’d definitely like to see sharks up close, but I also am interested in the small animals -mandarinfish especially, shrimps, crabs, lobster and cuttlefish or octopus. Wreck diving sounds very interesting as well, although apparently you need to be older to do that.

I also love diving for the fun of it. It’s not all fish watching and wreck diving, but also the weightless and floating feeling you get when you dive that I, like all divers, love. It is truly another world -one where you are the aliens.

But also, as a junior diver, I want to encourage more kids to learn to dive and get involved in ocean awareness. The more people we teach to love the world, the more chance we have to save it.

Monty – One ice cream was never going to be enough for a fiery red-head, so Molls (9) did a quick Bubblemaker on our last afternoon…

Molly – I did a Bubblemaker course in Falmouth. I met my Bubblemaker instructor and he was called Cruise. I got into my wetsuit and started to walk to the pool.

Before we got in we went over some symbols that you use underwater because you can’t speak. After that, we got our fins and masks on, then we hopped in without any hesitation. And dived.

Removing old fishing nets
Removing old fishing nets

We put our scuba gear on in the water. He taught me how to breathe into it and told me he will always be there. When we did our first lap of the pool, I thought ‘this is amazing’.

I never knew that I have been missing out on this this whole time. After a while, I realised that this might be the start of a whole new career for me.

About an hour later, we got out and after I got changed, I asked can I do it again. But it was only one day away from going

We got in the car and drove to the boat. I told my dad all about it and how much fun it was and how I learned a lot.

He kept on saying how proud he was of me. And I dreamt of it that night thinking next, we can do it in the ocean where there are animals… home. I thought the experience I had just been through had changed my life.

Generation Sea Change aims to inspire, educate, and equip communities and individuals to engage in their own marine conservation projects in the UK and beyond. Established by Monty Halls, who became increasingly appalled at the negative messaging being passed onto young people about the marine environment, it began with a flagship voyage around the South West in the summer of this year.

The trip was an opportunity to explore and celebrate local conservation initiatives in the region. The end result is a series of eight films covering subjects as diverse as seagrass protection, rat eradication to allow nesting birds to prosper, tagging of bluefin tuna using volunteer skippers, community groups combating sewage pollution, and several brilliant initiatives to deal with plastic pollution.

Backed by the Royal Caribbean Group, the ultimate aim is to roll out these schemes internationally, using the UK projects as a template. This will be achieved by the creation of Leaderbox Blue, essentially a marine conservation project in a box, providing all the materials required for schools, clubs, and individuals to run their own campaigns and projects locally.

“What we’ve discovered is something of a revolution, an uprising, among coastal communities,” notes Halls. “The initiatives use centuries of initiate knowledge about the marine environment on their doorstep, and have proved highly effective. It’s been inspiring to say the least, and shows that many global issues do indeed have local solutions.”

Monty will be talking about Generation Sea Change at the GO Diving Show in March 2024.

You can visit: Go Diving Show

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #79

Subscribe digitally and read more great stories like this from anywhere in the world in a mobile-friendly format. Linked from Generation | Sea Change

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