Freediving couple catch rare dugong on film
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Durban - Finding out she was expecting a baby mermaid and seeing the original mermaid, an extremely rare dugong, were the two most special moments for South Africa's freediving champ Beth "The Mermaid" Neale and her partner Miles "Aquaman" Cloutier.
The couple have been filming the new Freediving Diaries set to start on Monday, May 3 on DStv People's Weather (CH180) and Openview (CH115). The series will take viewers on an epic journey of a world under the waves and let them experience marine life which needs to be protected.
Speaking to the Independent on Saturday this week, Neale, who is a four-time South African freediving champion, said the filming of the unique series started in late October in Mozambican waters, after which they travelled to the Maldives and then back to SA, with the last episode being filmed just two weeks ago in Sodwana.
"We had left for Mozambique and were about half an hour before the border, when we found out that we are having a baby. Going into remote and unknown areas, I felt a bit concerned, but Miles was very excited and said it would be fine. It all worked out very well," said Neale, who quickly did some research on how deep she could dive while pregnant.
Cloutier said learning they were expectant parents at the beginning of their journey "made the experience and the stories all the more powerful".
Born in Canada, he met Beale when she was teaching children about conservation and free-diving in Bermuda three years ago.
"I have a background in business and had gone to Bermuda as I wanted to give back, when I met Beth.
“I had grown up next to water and had always been a bit fearful, but soon got over it. Beth was training in Bermuda and when she went out into deep water, she would go down and I would wait for her in the water to come up,“ he said.
All of the filming for the series was done by the couple, with freedives of up to 20m. Some of their memorable encounters include tiny seahorses to the biggest fish in the ocean and whales, dolphins, tiger and whale sharks, turtles and manta rays, among many others, in unforgettable sea coral gardens and forests.
Beale said: "My life's dream came true when I had a brief swim with the highly endangered and elusive dugong in Bazaruto Archipelago which brought me to tears.
“A dugong has always been at the top of my bucket list and I thought it would be unattainable. It's the original mermaid, it's so rare and they are such gentle creatures, very relaxed and chilled out. Visibility was not good and the dugong emerged from the gloom and murky water, I was very lucky to see it," she said, with Cloutier adding the archipelago is believed to be the home of the last viable population of dugong. The dugong, which is Malay for 'lady of the sea', is a lesser-known cousin of the manatee and is believed to have inspired ancient tales of mermaids.
And unlike filming wildlife on the ground, marine life can often be caught close-up and personal.
"When we went to the Maldives, we had just gone out of the harbour mouth and there were tiger sharks. They are quite intimidating, but there was one massive shark who was pregnant, so I swam alongside her, it was beautiful.
"I used to be terrified of sharks and tiger sharks can be intimidating. I felt a few of those old fears surfacing the night before we went out, but once I was in the water, that all disappeared and I was mesmerised," said Beale.
The pair also experienced a night dive with whale sharks and manta rays while in the Maldives.
Neale said: "It's so surreal to see mantas emerging from the darkness and swooping through the light. The whale shark also stayed within a metre of us for hours. They feed on plankton and it was eerie getting into the water at first, but it was an out-of-this-world experience.“
The couple revealed they are expecting a girl ‒ their own “little mermaid” ‒ and also confirmed there's a very special ending in the final episode filmed in Sodwana off the Zululand coast.
People's Weather CEO Stephan le Roux said they were looking forward to an extraordinary first series.
"From the moment I met Beth and Miles and heard about what they do, I thought it was completely crazy. Beth has had some unbelievable sports accomplishments in free-diving and it's so amazing the three of them are now sharing these adventures," said Le Roux.
Freediving Diaries premieres on People's Weather CH180 and Openview CH115 on Monday, May 3 at 6pm. The series will be shown over two weeks with new episodes daily from Monday to Friday, with repeats the next day and an omnibus on the weekend.
The Independent on Saturday