When you think of a travel channel programme, exotic destinations generally come to mind. Now previously uncharted “travel” territory has become familiar terrain for hosts Scott Wilson and Ellis Emmett as well as cinematographer and director, Andrew Dupuis. Debashine Thangevelo found out more about the amazing sights these seasoned travellers took in in Descending
THIS Canadian is best recognised for the internationally-acclaimed series, Departures.
A skilled scuba diver, photographer and avid history buff, Wilson has, on his travels, approached cultures found in hidden gems around the globe with an openness and sponge-like naturalness that saw him endear himself to viewers.
In fact, it was Departures that inspired the germination of the blueprint for Descending.
He explains: “Andre (Dupuis) and I came up with the idea while shooting our previous series. We were on the road, on and off, for three years, and travel was becoming familiar. Instead of being blown away by new places and looking at them with fresh eyes, we would say: ‘This reminds us of New Zealand or Canada’.
“The world is becoming much smaller. So in order to see things through virgin eyes and connect with viewers, we needed to find a new world to explore. Suddenly, we thought of making a series about the world underwater. After all, 73 percent of the planet is covered by water. It’s a great new vehicle to show off the world to audiences. With this series, we can help them see things in a whole new light.”
And they certainly achieve this by exploring a sunken cruise ship off New Zealand’s North Island, swimming with a whale shark in the waters of Djibouti, coming face-to-face with the ocean’s largest carnivore in Dominica, and, right here in South Africa, visiting our shark-infested waters, before heading to southern California and Indonesia for more adventures and a few history lessons thrown in for good measure.
On how it felt plunging into the depths of the ocean, Wilson says: “The sensation you have underwater is very much like dreaming. You’re weightless and it’s a very calm experience. In diving, you learn to relax. You have to ascend and descend very slowly. Everything is in slow motion. It’s also a landscape you’re not used to. When you see cuttlefish or an octopus underwater, they are as close to aliens as you are going to find on this planet.”
Amid the marvels of the ocean, Wilson says he also witnessed the damage done to it.
“Pollution, acidification and over-fishing are all huge threats,” he notes. “We are not scientists, but that much is evident to ordinary people very quickly. It’s easy for us to neglect the damage – it’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s just a whole bund of blue on the map that everyone ignores. But when you see the damage in person, it really changes your perspective.”
As for his more hair-raising moment shooting the series, Wilson laughs and points out it didn’t happen underwater.
He says: “On a remote archipelago in Indonesia, we had the chance to go up in an ultra-light aircraft to get some scenic aerial shots. The pilot, who was a little bit of a hot dog, flew low to get a shot.
“He then climbed 300 feet very steeply and banked right – at which point the plane stalled. Suddenly we were in a nosedive and I was looking down at the water thinking, ‘this is going to be close’. The next thing I knew, I was underwater.
“After thinking, ‘am I alive?’, I managed to flick open the five-point harness release and was about to climb onto one of the airplane’s pontoons and await rescue. I felt quite calm. It was only afterwards that it sank in how much worse it could have been.”
WHEN it comes to cinematography, Dupuis is a noted doyen. With this show he ups the ante underwater.
In fact, this series helped him take his craft to a whole new level.
Dupuis say: “The main thing that appealed is that ever since my first dive I’ve been blown away by how amazing the underwater world is. I’m in awe of how massive, how untouched and how unexplored it is. In this series, we are not afraid to visit places under the surface where nobody has ever been before.”
Given the unexplored aspect of the series, I asked him about their close calls.
“The closes call was in South Africa. The entire episode revolves around sharks, and the whole time in the back of our minds we were afraid of a bad encounter with them. But ironically, in the event the danger came from somewhere completely different. We were diving in a ship wreck and then out of the blue I got caught in a very strong rogue current.
“I was trapped in the wreck and was spun around near those very sharp pieces of metal for four minutes. I was surprisingly calm. I knew that if you lose your cool in such situations, bad things can happen. I saw my dive computer and only had one minute of air left, but luckily the current let me go and I was able to swim clear of the wreck.”
Commenting on people’s fear of sharks, he says: “People have a bizarre fear of sharks. I understand that comes from Jaws and the way the creatures are portrayed in the media. But that perception of them is incorrect. They are just seriously big fish. The more you swim with them, the more fascinating they become and the more your fear of them disappears.”
THIS dare-devil adventurer is in his element hosting this show. Previously seen in Don’t Forget Your Passport, he has a reputation for seeking out excitement on his travels – although his gung-ho attitude has seen him encounter a few close calls.
And he certainly got his fair share of thrills in this series.
He shares, “We were diving in aquifers off the coast of Iceland where the water was barely above freezing. We dived down these cracks where two tectonic plates were pulling apart. We were 30m below the surface. I remember swimming through the frigid water in a crack which was so narrow that I couldn’t turn around and thinking, ‘if anything goes wrong here, we’re toast. We won’t get out of here’.
“A couple of moments later, we realised Andre had disappeared. His regulator had frozen and he had to do an emergency ascent from 24m.
“On another occasion in South Africa, my regulator froze when I was diving in a volcanic cone filled with water and I had to do an emergency ascent. When that happens, it’s pretty darn scary. Situations like that are very challenging, but it makes for good television.”
Scary moments aside, he also enjoyed a rather heavenly experience.
“I had an awesome experience with a manta ray at a cleaning station in Indonesia. Those creatures can weigh up to a ton, and they can measure 7.5m across. They are more like a small plane than a fish. When we first encountered them, they were standoffish. By the third dive, they had become more used to us.
“I swam underneath one – it was hovering over me like a helicopter. Then my bubbles started tickling its belly and it clearly liked the sensation. So it quietly came down and landed on me. It could have swatted me like a fly. But it settled gently on top of me, and I started caressing its belly. I’m not a spiritual person, but that was a spiritual moment.”
The tales of these three men must be bountiful if their experiences are anything to go by. And with so much promise of aquatic wonders, Descending is definitely worth exploring on the small screen.
• Descending airs on the Travel Channel (DStv channel 179) on Wednesdays at 8pm.