My Mum, Barbara, was my rock, my advisor, my secretary, my personal assistant and my friend.
In late 1999 she was diagnosed with cancer and she had an operation to remove as much as possible, followed by a course of chemotherapy.
During 2000, while we were filming the Second Series of O'Shea's Big Adventure, she seemed to improve and life got back to normal. When I left on the third shoot (New Caledonia, Guam, Australia) she seemed in fine fettle and as excited as usual about my trip away.
Ever since I began participating in expeditions and tropical fieldwork in the early 1980’s I would write her long letters, telling her how things were going. The first phone call I received when I got out of a Brazilian hospital in 1987 and moved into the RGS base house in Boa Vista, following a rattlesnake bite in Roraima, was from my Mum.
With the advent of email I taught her how to use the internet on her iMac and I sent her emails whenever I reached a hotel with that facility. She said she went on my expeditions "by proxy" and it was always my ambition to take her into the tropics – she felt deeply about endangered wildlife and habitats, and especially threatened indigenous peoples – but it was never to be.
As I left for the third shoot of Second Series of OBA I turned and waved goodbye to her (she was gardening) and then for some reason I turned to my driver and said “I do hope that’s not the last time I see my Mum”.
When I got back to the hotel in Noumea, New Caledonia (Devil in the Trees) after a week in the field, I called home but got no reply. Phoning relatives I discovered my mother had relapsed and been taken into hospital. I called and spoke to her, but she would not have me come home. “You have a job to do” she said.
I next phoned from Guam (Snake Invasion) to discover she was now in a hospice “Only temporary” she said “you carry on filming, don’t come home”.
The next film was very remote, based as we were in Far North Queensland and ultimately on board The Kimberley Quest diving and filming on Ashmore and Hibernia Reefs (Sea Serpents).
In Queensland nothing had changed and we moved onto the diving phase of the film. I had to keep my mind on the job in hand. Diving can be dangerous and whilst at the bottom of the Timor Sea I had that confirmed the hard way when I ran out of air! But I was determined there was no way I would tell Mum about that !
On the way back to Broome, a 36 hour journey, I was awoken to take an urgent call from home. It was my brother Nic, who has never called me on location before so I knew something serious had happened. He told me Mum was going down fast and although she probably would not be around when I got back, could I come home as soon as possible.
In fact I was already scheduled to travel back that day, the boat docked in Broome and I flew home alone, leaving the crew in Australia. It was a long lonely flight, Broome, Bali, Hong Kong, London. My production company YAP had laid on a driver to meet me because originally I had been due to go straight to an awards ceremony at a London hotel, but all that changed now.
We drove directly to my brother’s home in Shropshire and he and I then went to the hospice to see Barbara. She was, thankfully, still alive and very pleased to see me. I stayed with her some hours until she tired and went to sleep. I then went back to London to the black-tie awards ceremony where the british Chapter of the Explorers’ Club of New York awarded me with one of nine Millennium Awards for Services to Exploration. Mine was for Services to Zoology. When I accepted the award I tore up my prepared speech and instead I told the gathering that the award was really not just for me. I recall saying something to the effect that every expedition, every explorer, has an unseen support team and my support team was my Mum. But she was dying in a hospice bed and unable to be there with me to accept our award. I just managed to say that the next morning I would take the medal they had given me and place it on her pillow, before I choked and had to come off the stage. It was the hardest speech I have ever made but it drew a standing ovation from those present.
The next morning I drove back home and I placed the medal on my Mum’s pillow. She could not see it very well but she could feel it. Two weeks later she passed away.
The UK version of the Sea Serpents film carried a dedication to Barbara but the US and international versions did not.
I take this opportunity to dedicate this website to my Mum, Barbara O’Shea 1930-2000