‘I emerged from the sea as a marine expert in the making’ – Monty Halls on the holiday that changed his life

Monty Halls
sea caves, ayia napa

For a holiday to be truly seminal you need a rare, and perfect, meeting of time and place. If you find yourself in a location that resonates, at a time of your life when you’re receptive to new sensations, the result can be alchemy.

My particular meeting of exactly the right place (Cyprus), with precisely the optimum moment (as a somewhat rudderless 10-year-old), unequivocally set me on the path that – via many a twist and turn – defined my career and indeed my life to date. 

Plainly, being rudderless at 10 can’t be described as a life crisis, but nonetheless I was torn between the obvious career paths that beckoned – an astronaut or possibly a legendary international rugby player – and a vague sensation that the sea held secrets that were worthy of investigation. 

But how could I possibly balance expeditions to the depths with the rigours of my training for extended space flight? And surely this would leave me hardly any time for touring with the England squad and leading the British Lions? It was a conundrum, one that fortunately was about to be resolved. 

We tend to rely on images and visual recollections for memories, but the sensations that really lodge are olfactory. To this day, when I smell the heady mix of thyme and lavender, crushed underfoot as we negotiated steep Cypriot paths to the sea, it transports me back to that island, that coast, and that first tantalising glimpse of blue water and white rock. The ground was flayed by the sun, and yet alive with lizards, beetles and birds, as all the while the air hummed with scents and shimmered with heat. 

kyrenia old harbour - getty

Depending where you are around its 29,000-mile coastline, the ecosystem of the Mediterranean is called macchie, maquis or garrigue, none of which remotely do justice to the assault on the senses that is a stroll along a dusty path next to the sea on a hot day in Cyprus. Perhaps as an environment it should be called “sniffarium” or “musksnort”. 

And then… to enter the sea, to slip into cool, clear water and shed the dry heat and dust of the land, to float wide-eyed above fish and undersea forest. For the 10-year-old me, it was the moment that the decision was made. Returning home to the UK, my mother – ever-perceptive to the transformation she had witnessed – bought me everything by Durrell, Cousteau and Gavin Maxwell. 

She’d seen me step off that beach as a young lad and emerge as a marine biologist in the making, and added fuel to the fire by introducing me to a whole new set of heroes. 

Oddly enough, I haven’t been back to that cove since that holiday, despite visiting Cyprus again several times. It was 43 years ago and yet, to this day, is still responsible for many a hare-brained, ill-conceived expedition or project. 

Perhaps one day I’ll return, find the cove again and reflect on the moment. But then again, perhaps not – it’ll make me sad for my lost career in space exploration.

My Family and the Galapagos by Monty Halls (Headline, £20) is out now

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