From touring the summer beaches to introduce children to diving, to distant trips to look for "the little beast", Daniel Méouchy has still not put his fins away.
Interview of "The ambassador" by Francis Leguen for scuba-people the scuba diving magazine.
The pyramids of Frioul
It was with Falco. In 91… Behind Frioul, 45m deep. We were swimming on flat rocks without much life and then I saw Bébert stop and start building a pyramid with small pebbles that he picked up. A first cairn, a second… So, in admiration, I imitate him, well aware of finally learning a real “pro trick”! And we end the dive busy erecting piles of pebbles ...
All the same, on the boat, I can't stand it anymore:
- Why these pyramids, by the way, Bébert?
- But Daniel, for the fish! The place didn't have a lot of shelters so we made some! This is important for the growth of juveniles ...
I was seated. This man who already had thousands of dives to his credit, at more than 60 years old, was concerned with building fish shelters! That was all Falco. A true awareness of the sea, of the heart and a sense of friendship. He immediately believed in our treasure hunt initiative " Objective Atlantis> and has been our sponsor from the very beginning.
In 2010, in Djibouti, its impressive power underwater surprised everyone. His freedom. Its independence too. Falco, you follow him or you lose him! The prerogative of those who have made themselves underwater on their own. It also reminded me of how I had started diving myself. Daniel laughs a little rock & roll.
Who doesn't know Daniel Méouchy? This buddha with the pleasant smile, who moves around with open arms and laughs at any reason? You have inevitably come across his shiny baldness in a salon, a festival, around a pun, underwater, or on a beach: Daniel is the man of Atlantis. The truth !
The childhood of art
It is he who created and animated countless underwater “treasure hunts” obtaining unparalleled media success in the world of diving. Objectif Atlantide (International and Mediterranean), it is him, the Rando Subaquatique Tour, always him. Fun Explorers then “the naturalistic underwater investigation” in the Philippines is still him, surrounded of course by his fine and loyal team…
I have Lebanese and Greek origins, continues Daniel, but I was born in Créteil! I am now 64 years old and it is from the age of 6 that I discovered diving (mask fins, snorkel) in Beirut, during my first trip to Lebanon. And I didn't stop exploring the coast until 10 years ago. The shards of pottery… With little strokes of the palms, the dream of submerged cities. The treasures dripping from forgotten chests… These clouds of Anthias and castagnoles, this "breathing from below", according to our emotions. This underwater writing, bubbles and rays ...
But in fact, I had my baptism when I was 16, at the Lesigny swimming pool! With the firefighters. And there, as for many I suppose: it was the revelation! Anyway, I was sure I wanted to dive. Many, often, everywhere!
Of which act. So, with a few friends, we bought bottles and equipment and we got by with the books. And a lot of practice. But we weren't doing just anything anyway. Or we were lucky… I remember a dive in Vieste, in the south of Italy. We were 20m away, on the bottom, when we saw a large blue hole at least 30m in diameter. We leaned over the edge a bit but no one dared to go down into this bottomless pit. The anguish of the depths? Narcosis? Reason in any case had this time taken over.
Otherwise, we would dive in Corsica in Porto Vecchio in front of Palombagia. And every summer, for the holidays, we were in Villefranche / mer. Dives between 60 and 65m. The fall of the Americans… For the deep ones, we installed a safety bottle at 35m. We all had the Fenzy around our necks. And his little bottle, which I noticed was useless when we tried to open it at these depths… These years have been for me a renewed discovery of sensations and my relationship to the sea. We understood, among other things, that in diving you have to do everything slowly. Go up slowly to avoid accidents. We weren't champions of theory, but this, we knew, in our bodies.
We dived like that for ten years. Until I got alpaca by René Germond who then held the center in Villefranche:
- It's very good, we see you every year, it's great, but now we should dive with levels. You will pass me the state certificate and your ranks!
And that's how I ended up in the circuit. At the time (in the 80s) I lived in Bordeaux. I was an international buyer for IBM. I traveled a lot and brewed millions of dollars. I found myself chairman of the IBM works council dive club. This made it possible to organize trips at low prices. Estartit, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea ...
I discovered Egypt when there was still only one dive center in Hurghada. That of Rudi Kneip. We lived in the Arab village and we went to sea with the fishermen's boats. Virgin dives. Absolutely breathtaking wildlife. And also the dirt and the lack of hygiene: every day we caught the "shit".
What about the Maldives with Jacques Gambard when we opened up the northern atolls? Today it may seem trivial but I have known the Maldives almost without hotels or dive centers. A dhoni, a compressor and… We were going on an adventure! I also remember the dives in Kenya with a bunch of friends. Watamu, Malindi, Monbassa. You had to pass the barrier of waves and coral to dive offshore. With an old barcasse, it was sport! But then… The spotted morays, the enormous groupers, an extraordinary fixed flora…
The place that impressed me the most? Maybe our dives in Djibouti in the 80s with Franck Humbert, between Goubhet and the 7 brothers. There were fish monsters there as I have rarely seen! But it was necessary to accept to sail on mediocre boats, with several in the same cabin, without air conditioning. Adventure, what!
Yes, I enjoyed them all these treasures ...
We had a great time, but apart from traveling and exploring, it seemed to me that there was something missing from the practice of diving, like other outdoor activities. At the time, it was the fashion for "adventure raids", Paris Dakar, Raid Gauloises, etc. We were thinking aloud with the friends of the Cercle Océanographique Bordelais and the idea germinated little by little.
Why not create an underwater treasure hunt?
Were present Virginie Borel and Bruno Aillaud. We were all enthusiastic and the craziest scenarios were starting to emerge. We wanted to rent and sink the boat from the film "Pirates" which was then moored near Cannes! So that the participants of the treasure hunt can follow the events on their scenario and dive on the wreck. Live.…
Remember the principle of the game, as it has become: The participating teams were made up of 3 people, at least 2 of whom were divers. Each team had a motorized boat with a local pilot and 4 bottles of compressed air per day. At the start of the treasure hunt, each one received a file of about fifty pages, a fiction written by Daniel Méouchy and his team of writers, and composed of archive documents, maps of the region, various testimonies, retracing the story of a missing treasure. Each team has to unravel the threads of the intrigue, to find the clues hidden under the sea or on land (terracotta figurines) which put them on the trail of the treasure. Everyone chose their dive sites according to their interpretation of the file, knowing that there were no clues more than 20 meters deep. The participants had 4 days to find this treasure. Symbolic…
As for the name of the association, he was inspired during a trip to the Maldives with “Uncle” Arzillier and Gérard Soury. Like a good photographer, Gérard thought of "Objective" and the idea of the sunken treasure suggested "Atlantis" to me. It was "Objectif Atlantide"!
It remained to find sponsors and publicize the event. But we didn't know anything about the media. I went to the World Underwater Image Festival, then in Antibes, to present the project. Very few believed in it. Except Pierre Martin Razi who was then editor-in-chief of Oceans magazine. He will follow the scouting with us and make people talk about it while dissuading me from sinking the "Pirates" ship. The rental price alone was beyond our reach anyway.
Finally, the first edition saw the light of day, in the Iles de Lerins, and it was a great success that encouraged us to continue. From the third, in 92 in Porquerolles we take a turn towards the environment, before everyone else. Sorry about the state of our funds, we have decided that the theme of the year will be “Clean the Sea”! Of course we took out a mountain of crap that we piled up on the platform. To make us yell at the Town Hall who decreed not to "be in charge of garbage from the bottom of the water". And he wanted us to throw everything back into the sea! What we refused to do. The wrecks lingered on the quays for a few days and then were removed ...
In Djibouti we participated in a species inventory on behalf of the Ministry of the Environment. Under the leadership of Patrick Louisy, marine biologist and our scientific advisor who is also a driving force behind everything we have undertaken.
This is how the concept has developed each year, with, successively: the islands of Frioul, Porquerolles, Cala Montjoi in Spain, the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia, Cuba, Thailand, Ibiza, Dominica, Vietnam , Rodrigues, Egypt, Djibouti… With each time around fifty competitors.
In the process, we launched “Objectif Atlantide Méditerranée”, from 2003 to 2013 with sometimes more than 20 participants and more than 000 FFESSM clubs registered. And, from 250, the Rando Subaquatique Tour with more than 2007 participants in each edition.
The game "Objectif Atlantide Jeunes" has existed since 2001. In 2013 forty-five nationally selected young people participated in the thirteenth edition which took place in the Var, in the municipalities of St-Mandrier, Six Fours-les-Plages, La Seyne-sur-Mer and Toulon. 1057 young college and high school students were baptized and followed the environment course and the naturalist competition. As regards the organization, Objectif Atlantide today represents more than 50 people who have worked together for more than 15 years.
Meet remarkable men
I quickly understood that in order to arouse the interest of the media and therefore of the sponsors, it was necessary to involve what is commonly called people. They still had to be found. And that they are divers in addition. Diving is a small niche compared to “Paris-Dakar” for example.
In 1989, for the first edition, the film "Le Grand Bleu" was released. I had the idea of calling Jacques Mayol, hero of the film, to ask for his participation. He agreed to be the godfather but withdrew a few days later: he wanted to be paid for it and we unfortunately did not have the budget.
Thierry Lhermitte came to see me one day at the boat show to suggest that I participate in an edition in Venezuela, with my family. But that was the year the Viaza airline filed for bankruptcy and the trip never took place.
But over the seasons, we have managed to bring together beautiful people from the fields of sport, entertainment or journalism: Marie France Cubada, David Douillet, Mylène Demongeot, Albert Falco, Philippe Jeantot, Claire Keim, Martin Lamotte, Natasha Saint -Pier, Jacques Pradel, Tania Young, Camille Lacourt, Caroline Avon ...
Touching Bixente Lizarazu who teamed up with his father, a diver from Hendaye, during the treasure hunt in Rodrigues Island. He came with Frank Bruno (from the association to help the disabled "bout de vie" which he sponsors). Still, a friendly football match is organized. Totally surrealist vision of these kids close to hysteria with a world football champion on the improvised field of an overseas island. I was proud to have allowed this "improbable meeting".
My relationship with these “untouchables” has always been excellent, based on trust. Overall they were treated like everyone else. For our part, we were committed to preserving their privacy: they had to validate the interviews and the photos broadcast and we never had any problems. Nice meetings also with journalists. Like Yolaine De La Bigne who participated in the editions since that of 94 in Malaysia. Julien Pascal… They have all become faithful.
Apart from minor injuries, on land, we have never had any diving accidents. The competitors were in teams of three with a boat and enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. For safety reasons, since 89 we had limited the depth to 20m.
We were hot once, with Elodie Varlet and Thibaut Vaneck, actors in the series "Plus Belle la Vie" who teamed up in Egypt. After a mess, Elodie found herself drossed on a coral reef. With the swell we recovered it with difficulty.
Another time we lost 3 divers at sea! You should know that we are often forced to use fishing boats in the remote places where we go. However, fishermen often do not know anything about diving, as during this drift in Dominica. They didn't follow the bubbles. And since they did not see the divers coming up, they went fishing! Before coming back to earth to say that the divers had disappeared. So we sent all the available boats and found them ...
No, in the end, it is especially during the “afters” that we had the most minor injuries but never anything serious.
Dynamite in Dominica
It was in Dominica, in 2001. At the end of an International Treasure Hunt which included 36 participants coming from France, Sweden, St Barth, Martinique, Guadeloupe. Lots of press, radio and television journalists too, from all over Europe and Japan. We also had an RFO team and a private French and Spanish production team on site.
Of course, all of our treasure hunts traditionally ended with a rock-solid fiesta. This time, we were piled up on a fisherman's bark, merrily going up a river. At the end of which there was apparently a picturesque drinking establishment. Palms and branches to avoid… Meanders. Adventure, again? I was sweating in the sudden heat of twilight: I was Brando in Apocalypse Now… Commanding a squadron of already hot clowns.
As I see hands dipping in the water, beyond the hull, I think it is good to warn:
- Watch out for crocs!
- There are no crocs in Dominica! replies sententiously Jacques, our doctor, quickly withdrawing his hand. Gray hair, shaggy: we always have the impression that this guy is never dry!
- It's the same caiman, I answer. This tells you if we were already "relaxed" ...
The rise of the river does not end. You must bend down periodically so as not to be mown by low branches. Emergency bottles are circulating ... Night has fallen with its procession of flowery scents. And now the trees light up as we pass. Fireflies? Or our overflowing imagination since we are already quite turned on ...
In fact, we have arrived. It is the bar which is there moored in a bend in the river. A lupanar on stilts, lit from the inside, floating on its reflection in the middle of the jungle upside down ...
Disembarkation in the night which begins to stridulate insects. Stools and tables in wood. No air conditioning, no mosquito net. Regarding drinks, there was a choice, it was rum or rum. We therefore ordered “arranged” rums, as is usual there. Decoctions of forest plants. That natural! The drink in question was called "dynamite" ...
She was starting to spin around in the glasses. And in the heads. Our doctor was slowly getting hilarious. One by one the participants in this wild orgy assumed a blissful air; "Open water". All the sphincters relaxed ...
By the third drink, most of us lost our minds, having given up much of our mental and motor skills. Luckily, I don't drink and can therefore see the meteoric progression of the disease among our guests and not the least ...
Everyone dances or staggers, sings or shouts. Laughter bounces under the canopy, in this oasis of light on a black river in the middle of nowhere.
So I start to worry a little. Where are we exactly? Night has fallen and three-quarters of our workforce is near a coma. Revelers complain that we a stole the “back” of their T-shirts, others dance with stools. We must return.
Stiffened by the “organic” decoction, some cannot even lower themselves on board the boat. And take full force the foliage stretched like arches. They will come in blood. We have to deal with several syncopations as the boat traces its course in ink. Slaps rain: mosquitoes and loss of consciousness.
Everyone is in an advanced trance state. With the few able-bodied, we decide to stretch out the bodies in the courtyard of the hotel. Where one of the underwater photographers is wrapped around a pole and refuses to be detached from "his bride"!
We are in a hurry with Falco, Jacques Pradel ... All these bodies lying on the sand ... On the side of the post, the diver, who we learn is also a dental surgeon, is now tenderly embraced but slides inexorably towards the ground while his legs move apart. He wants to get married!
Our Doctor goes from one to the other, lights up a pupil, feels the hearts. Without realizing that he has just trampled on a patient who is now making the sound of an old forge bellows. It is certain that his condition has worsened considerably since the visit of the doctor ... But Jacques is feverish and takes all the pulse within reach. He then approaches a man, mouth open under the stars. A journalist who happens to be one-armed. Jacques takes authority over the prosthesis. It doesn't take long for her to let go of her diagnosis:
- For that one, alas, it's too late! ...
It was there that I realized that our "medical body" was also that evening a "big sick body". We let Henri Eskenazi (because it was him) finish his wedding night at the foot of his post and we put everyone to bed. The next day there were no apparent after-effects. Finally, just reminiscences. In the midst of hysterical laughter ...
I have always dived a lot. Never during the four days of the competition but after. And especially during the spotting. To build a destination it takes 3 or 4 trips there, in different seasons. It's a thematic, different way of diving. This is how I made a hundred diving trips ...
We were greeted like princes in Lyang Lyang in Malaysia during the scouting. At the time there were no centers and we used a small military plane to go to Perenthian, a paradise that has since become very touristy. And this is all the case of conscience: we have helped to publicize the destination but do we want to break paradise? In any case, the means that had been granted to us had enabled us to invite 30 journalists and to total 27 hours of TV (NHK, Euronews, Eurosport…). Thailand, Cuba and other countries requested. And then, in 2010, in Djibouti, the crisis began to strike. We could no longer finance the 45 tickets and stays for journalists. Not to mention the 60 participants. After that, the Egyptian "crisis": a hotel chain canceled us at the last moment. Budgets have collapsed. We couldn't even afford the costs of the little terracotta amulets anymore. It was time to evolve!
All the more so since we could count on the FFESSM and Cabinet Lafont, partners since always. And Beuchat and Scubapro, which are the brands that support us the most. And the Vieux Plongeur in Marseille. Without forgetting Osman Ersen, former boss of Blue Lagoon / BlueWord until recently and who has always been a driving force.
So we started with Fun Explorers. A treasure hunt but naturalistic this time. For a given destination, it was a question of recognizing and photographing the most species present on the brochures provided. Less easy than it seems… And then, every year since 2018, in partnership with the DOT of the Philippines, it is “the naturalist survey in the Philippines” which has met with great success.
A tireless ambassador for recreational diving, Daniel has just returned from the Philippines, Oman and Lebanon… As for the next departure, it will be… in the Philippines of course!
Interview by Francis Le Guen