Descending with Ellis Emmett

2013-08-20 18:18

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Descending, an adventure documentary series, on Dstv Travel Channel 179, takes you on a thrilling adventure into the depths of our world to see places and creatures few of us ever will.

We chat to Co-host and proud New Zealander, Ellis Emmit who says he epitomizes the stereotypical Kiwi by being a passionate adventurer and outdoorsman  - but he is certainly more interested in our marine life than our rugby springboks.

Ellis feels most at home when challenging himself against nature’s might – whether it’s climbing remote alpine peaks or swimming with sharks.  For more than twenty years, Ellis has been an avid diver and it shows in his comfort under the water and with the creatures that live there. Ellis has travelled extensively, which netted him his first television hosting gig on the OLN travel series Don’t Forget Your Passport. 

He has currently just finished filming a pilot for another adventure wildlife documentary called Over the Horizon with Descending co-host Scott Wilson -  It involves a 600 nautical mile journey on a yacht and he describes it as a cross between Descending and a travel show that takes you the untouched places across the oceans.

What drew you to this project?

Ellis Emmit: "I’m very passionate about the ocean. What’s not to love about it? It’s so diverse, it has so much history and I’m really into the critters. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the couch watching the great French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. I was so inspired by him. He was the pioneer of filming underwater. That’s when my passion for the ocean began. Now I’ve come full circle. I’m not for a moment comparing myself to Jacques Cousteau, but we hope we might be able to take on the role of inspiring the next generation.   

 What was the most challenging moment?

"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 100 feet below the surface. I remember swimming through the frigid water in a crack which was so narrow that I couldn’t turn round and thinking, “If anything goes wrong here, we’re toast. We won’t get out of here.” A couple of moments later, we realized Andre had disappeared. His regulator had frozen and he had to do an emergency ascent from 80 feet. 

"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. One person’s misery is another person’s entertainment!

Tell us about your Shark Dive experience in South Africa filmed for the episode The Big Six?

"I'm a wildlife photographer and have a keen interest in marine biology but one of the most incredible things I've ever experienced are the Great Whites of South Africa - both in the water and especially breaching. It just blew me away. Seeing a creature the size of a great white leap out of the water with its entire body is something I will never forget and it's something I will take to my grave. I said to the guys I'm coming back to South Africa, I'm getting a little boat and I'll be towing a decoy backwards and forwards, while hanging out the side of the boat in the hopes of capturing this magnificent site.

Another experience while is South Africa was the free diving we did with Black Tip reef sharks up on the South Coast. This really changed my perspective on the activity. Before this I was against feeding the sharks to attract them to a place in order to have an experience with them. As the guys were baiting the sharks with sardines, we got into the water which was boiling with sharks, there were about 20 to 30 of these black tips  and I spent an hour in the water with them. It  was one of the most incredible moments and not at all threatening. I came up from this dive thinking that if everybody could have this experience we would not have to worry about 70 million sharks killed annually or shark fining as that was as close to a spiritual experience as ever."

Most valuable lesson learned during this entire experience?

"We had a pretty bad experience while diving a shipwreck called the Produce about seven miles off the KwaZulu-Natal Coast. It taught us another big lesson about diving under diverse conditions and it really shook us up. The ship was lying on its side, and rusted so bad it literally looked like Swiss cheese. As we came round the side of the wreck we got pretty close to one of these holes . Suddenly the waves just sucked us into a vortex, the ship was literally acting like a funnel at around 75 feet beneath the surface - some of the scarious bit of ocean I've ever been in. One minute it would blast us in and the next it would blast us out. It was a pretty scary three minutes, the camera got banged around quite a bit but it's definitely something to watch out for in the South African episode.

What does it feel like to spend so much time underwater?

"At first you have to overcome your fear. We’ve evolved to understand that if you stick your head underwater, you’ll die. So you have to override your own subconscious. But once you’ve done that, you start to relax and become part of that fascinating world. The more you dive and the more diverse locations you visit, the more you feel, “Wow!” Diving in the ocean is the equivalent of going into outer space, but it’s a lot easier and faster!"

Describe your view of the ocean?

"You’re not living by your rules – you’re living by its rules. Human beings are arrogant – we’re used to being the top of the food chain. But down there, we’re very insignificant and feel very vulnerable. It’s a very humbling experience. If that’s not spiritual, then nothing is. The ocean is my church.  

Did you have any other amazing encounters with animals?

"Yes. In South Africa, we were preparing to swim with these reef sharks in the middle of a feeding frenzy. I was terrified. The moment there a splash on the surface, the sharks attacked it. I thought, “When I go in the water, that’s going to be me.” But I put my life in the hands of the locals and decided to live like there’s no tomorrow. The moment I hit the water, I expected to be bitten, but it was actually a fantastic experience. When I entered their world, I started to read them.  They could tell I wasn’t a fish and had zero interest in me. It was a very moving experience that really inspired me. Afterwards I had a 180 degree mind shift. The shark is a much misunderstood creature. Now if there was a petition or a march against shark fishing, I’d be the first in line.      

What did you learn from making this series?
You can’t go to some of these remote places and meet the locals without being blown away by them. You see the simplicity and the deep happiness of other cultures that don’t have a hundredth of what we have in the West. Travelling is a great teacher, a great schoolyard. If you can see, you can learn.

Does Descending have an eco-message?

"We’re certainly not hammering it home. But it’s clear that as a race we’re abusing the oceans in every way we can. The laws that are coming in are too little, too late. Everywhere we went, we found problems we’d never heard about before – from the acidification of the oceans to warming and ice melt to species being transferred by ships to the wrong place and whole coral reefs disappearing through erosion. We didn’t set out to drive home an environmental message, but it will come across subliminally.   

What has the response been to the show thus far?

"It’s started to air in North America, and it’s had fantastically good feedback. It’s really started to take off. One mother wrote me a very personal letter. She said, “I really want to thank you. I have a 14-year-old son and I’ve lost touch with him over the last two years. But somehow we have come together over your show. We have both been inspired by it. Every week after the show, we sit on the couch and really talk. It has really brought us together. So we have made a pact. For his next birthday, we are going to go diving together.” That’s pretty special. Reaction like that is hard to beat.     

What do you hope to achieve with Descending?

"We’re just a bunch of ordinary guys who are passionate about our planet. We’re not actors. We’re not pretending - we’re just ourselves on camera. But in making this series, we’ve become advocates and ambassadors for the oceans and everything in them. We hope that we will inspire people to go out and build their own relationship with the oceans.    

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