Monty Halls interview for My Family and the Galapagos
Your new series is My Family and the Galapagos – what’s it about?
I’m President of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, and I was heading out to Galapagos to oversee some of the work that’s going on there and do an assessment of the sites the trust’s involved in. And I’ve got two little girls now, and I just hate being away for sustained periods. So I had this hair-brained, ill-thought-out, poorly-planned scheme of taking everyone with me. Gradually that gathered momentum, and then the idea for a series evolved around that. The main concept of the series is me going out as a marine biologist and a conservationist, to go and look at projects. But also there’s the real, genuine magic of seeing the islands through the eyes of my children, which of course I hadn’t really done before. I‘d been to the islands several times before, but always working, and to suddenly see them through a five-year-old and a three-year-old’s eyes, and of course my wife’s eyes as well – that’s the concept of the series. It’s interesting that, the further we get into the series, the more it becomes about the kids’ experiences and Tam’s experiences, and I fade into the background. In presenting terms, I get presented off the screen by my children!
Most people baulk at the idea of doing a two hour train journey with young kids. What was it like actually getting them out there?
I think the best way to describe it is that we were still married when we got out there. It was pretty fraught. They were five and three, and oddly enough, they’re pretty easy to travel with at that age. We were armed with screens – normally we’re quite fastidious and we ration them, and I said at Heathrow “Right, girls, watch as much as you like!” So it wasn’t too bad.
How much persuading did your wife take?
The tide ebbed and flowed on that one. Initially Tam was like “No way! No way are we going to go and live on lumps of volcanic rock 600 miles out in the Pacific with our two ginger toddlers, on the Equator!” But she gradually warmed to it more and more. It’s one of the great misconceptions people have that no-one lives on the Galapagos. We had friends thinking we were going to have to build a driftwood house and gather rainwater. And I was like “No, we’re going to live in a town of 18,000 people.” And I think the more Tam looked into it, the more she thought “Yeah, okay, there’s infrastructure here, it’s for a fairly limited period.” Oddly enough, it was me who started pulling back a bit, and worrying that we’d be a long way from anywhere if we had a serious incident. And the truth is (and this is the most boring thing anyone has ever said about the Galapagos islands) there is no health and safety out there. You’ve got a five-year-old and a three-year-old running around like crazy in the equatorial sun. Every jetty they go out on is a wobbly jetty with a rickety rail, with gaps in the planks, with a 30ft drop onto sharp lava rocks. Every boat we went on, I didn’t know whether the boat had a licence, a qualified skipper, that sort of thing. And it creates this white noise of stress, you’re eternally worried about polishing the kids off. But what an experience it was. Whenever things got a bit tough out there, we’d think “Our children will show this series to their grandchildren! That’s how lucky we are to be here, and we should always remember that!”
Explain what happens when you land at the airport in the Galapagos. They’re not searching for drugs, are they? No! They search you for birds’ nests illicitly put into your luggage by your three-year-old. It’s biosecurity. The reason is that the number one threat to the Galapagos at the moment is invasive species. It’s things coming in on people, on fruit, in goods, on ships, that’s the number one threat. So there’s a huge push in the islands to try and stop that happening. The guy who was a bio-security official who was looking through my bag, his eyes lit up when he found the bit of straw in the bottom of my bag that my daughter had put in there. His eyes lit up because the cameras were there, and it was a chance to send a message to the world to say “We are taking this really seriously.” I was worried they were going to make a massive example of me and send me off the island. It’s a huge issue, it’s one we explore a little bit later on, the impact of invasive species. For example, there are now 830 invasive plant species on the Galapagos, and there are only 600 native species anyway. And some of the invasive species are really aggressive, like Hill Raspberry, which is completely covering the hillsides and eradicating the native species. Fire ants – the kids couldn’t go out into the garden because there were fire ants there. Fire ants came in on fruit, and now they’re eating tortoise eggs and insects and all that sort of stuff. It’s a massive, massive problem there. One thing that is very clear from your programme is the passion the locals have for protecting their ecosystem.
Where does that passion come from?
I’ve been involved with the islands for quite a long time – I first went out there 20 years ago to make a film, and I’ve maintained relationship with the islands through that whole period. Things were not looking good for the islands 20 years ago, and the reason was, although you had conservationists and scientists and NGOs all working out there, the local people weren’t really on side with it. But there’s been a sudden realisation that this is a finite game. That if the environment degrades to such a degree that people stop coming, that’s it, the gravy train stops. It sounds quite a cynical thing to say, but that’s the best conservation argument there is – that your livelihood will disappear unless we all do something about this. But there’s also a new generation coming through, young people on the island, who are really passionate about the islands. So the combination of those things has created a real groundswell of local people, and it’s really heartening to see. There are still big issues, I hasten to add, and the next ten years are critical, but at least you’ve got local people there who are really passionate about doing something about it.
What did the kids make of the experience?
Kids are super robust and resilient. Mols was three, so she just wanted to run around hitting things with squeaky hammers. She really enjoyed it. As long as I was there, her mum was there, and her sister was there, she was happy. If there was a marine iguana out on the porch, she wasn’t that fussed, it was just a big lizard. She loved it, and still talks about it, but she was of an age where you live very much in the moment. Whereas Isla was five, and for her I think it was genuinely life-altering. She’d always loved animals and wanted to do stuff with animals, but when she got back from the Galapagos she was really determined, and I think she will. There were experiences there, like snorkelling with the green turtle, or snorkelling with loads of sharks, or climbing a huge volcano, and I was so proud of her. She was super-resilient and tough, never turned down a challenge. The volcano walk was five miles in 30°C heat, up a great big volcano. She walked every step of the way and never complained, whereas Mols kicked off! I carried her up the volcano. But for Isla it really was life-altering.
Isla went off to school as well – how did she get on?
Oddly enough, that was one of the times I think I was most proud of her. We live in Dartmouth, and it’s a small community here, and from the moment she started nursery she’s known the same kids. So for her to step out of that, and go into a class full of Spanish-speaking island children was really daunting. And I watched her in class on the first day, and she really tried hard to make friends and tell people about herself. And gradually she came out of her shell more and more. There’s a lovely moment in the last film when she says goodbye to all the kids there, it was very sweet. Kids are so adaptable though – I think towards the end Isla actually became a bit bossy at school! They were probably quite relieved to see the back of her, she was turning into a right old primadonna, because she had a film crew following her around all the time, and was getting loads of attention.
Do you see a place differently, when you’re visiting it with your children? Do you think you saw the Galapagos with different eyes?
I definitely did. It was very thought-provoking, poignant and powerful sometimes. And obviously very joyous sometimes as well. There were times when it got a little bit hard for us. A friend of mine very perceptively texted me about halfway through. He said “Oh mate, I envy you out there, on the equator, with two ginger toddlers, you and your missus, 600 miles from anywhere with no internet and no telly. How I envy you.” It got quite hard sometimes. You have a support network when you have kids, you’ve got friends locally and they’ve got all their mates, and you know the routines and stuff like that. And sometimes it would be quite tough for the kids, if they were too hot, or missing their friends. But I’d say to them “For the rest of your life, you’ll be able to tell people you lived on the Galapagos and they’ll be amazed.” It was really powerful for me and Tam to see the islands through the eyes of the kids. Difficult to quantify, but really poignant and touching. One of the things is the proximity of the animals. There’s a rule that you’re not supposed to go within two metres of them, but no-one told the animals that. So you sit on a park bench and a sea lion comes and sits on the bench with you.
You’ve always been a keen ecologist, but do you think having children brings that out even more? Do you feel a responsibility to protect our ecology for their generation?
Absolutely unequivocally. Galapagos was set up 40 years ago as a World Heritage Site. The idea of a World Heritage Site is that each generation looks after it for the next generation. The timescales the scientists were talking about during our visit there means our kids won’t be able to see a lot of the things that are on the Galapagos now if they come back as grown-ups. That’s really powerful. It adds quite an emotional element to it, which wouldn’t be there if we were just looking at it through the eyes of our own generation. There’s a scientist called J Veron who wrote a book called Reef in Time who said that our generation is the most fortunate generation that has ever lived, but is also the most fortunate generation that ever will live. We just timed it perfectly in terms of the world around us. We’ve seen a lot of these environments at their best, but over the course of our lives, they’ve degraded so radically that our children ain’t gonna see anything like that.
The girls seemed particularly keen on spotting unicorns and mermaids – were you able to see any when you were out there?
Not there, but we see lots of them here, fortunately. Oddly enough, we’ve just filmed a promotion for the Irish Tourist Board, and there was a sea cave we paddled into, and as we did so, I said to Isla and Molly “This is where mermaids hang out, this is where they fish, they wash and so on,” and they both saw one in the water. I said it was weird that I hadn’t seen it, but they said only little girls could see them, grown ups can’t see them. But round here there are masses of them. They’re like vermin. Great herds of unicorns and shoals of mermaids.
July 19, 2018 8:00am by Channel 4