It was water that changed me. Living in the tropics as a child I learned to swim, and the freedom of warm water and a simultaneous discovery of exotic natural history became entwined in my psyche. I watched ‘Flipper’ on television and hoped fervently that my Action Man would get a ‘deep-sea diver’s’ outfit for Christmas. All of it was fuelled by reading Jacques Cousteau’s ‘Silent World’ when I was about eight. It had been published long before I was born, but it’s hard now to imagine how utterly ground-breaking were his descriptions of diving for treasure, exploring submarine caves and spear-fishing for giant grouper.
‘While we were diving off Praia, Cape Verdes, a shadow passed across the bottom. I thought it was a cloud scudding in the other world, until Dumas hooted and pointed up. Directly over us passed a manta ray with an eighteen foot wingspread. it eclipsed the sun. It did not swim – it flew. The curved extremities of its wings sliced the surface film. The belly was enamel white, as white as the back was black. This supernatural sight did not remain long. Gliding without apparent effort, the manta drew away from Dumas’s best two-knot pursuit, flickered its wings, and accelerated into the sea fog.’
J.Y. Cousteau, The Silent World, 1953
It would be many years until I learned to scuba dive, but I devoured anything I could find that written about the sea, and the almost unimaginable creatures of the deep. It could be anything from Tin Tin to Jules Verne, or an adventurous true-life saga about single-handed sailing. That obsessive fascination resulted, eventually, in my first book ‘Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World’. I like to think, that like Cousteau, I was writing about travel, even if the journey was principally underwater.
Whenever I write, the most pleasurable challenge is trying to convey a love for the natural world, and inspire some kind of reverence for other species. My latest book once again combines travel literature and natural history, and although I don’t venture beneath the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, it is set in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago in which one is never more than three miles from the sea. And it is puffins, guillemots, pilot whales and ravens which populate many of the pages. The wild species of the northern islands are very much present in the lives of the Faroese people, and it is that intimate connection with wild things that I loved about their ancient, and fascinating culture.
Tim Ecott is a former BBC World Service correspondent and writes widely for the national press. He has made numerous radio and TV documentaries, and wrote the script for the movie version of the BBC’s first Blue Planet series ‘Deep Blue’.
I never want to leave the remote island world so atmospherically, precisely educed between the covers of this book. Ecott's prose has the power of tides, his perception is as searching as the Atlantic wind, and he has the soul of a natural-born naturalist. A masterpiece.
Tim's latest book is The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year (Short Books, 2020). Click here to buy it now.