Garbage pickers in scuba gear are a pretty common site in Squamish thanks to the volunteer organization, Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans.
But the group began near suburban Port Moody several years ago.
Henry Wang had recently sold his Edge Diving Centre when his friend Jonathan Martin invited him to go diving in Buntzen Lake, near Port Moody. Wang, an experienced ocean diver, had never tried diving in a lake.
What he witnessed, in 2013, set in motion a movement.
“When we got there, we just saw a ton of garbage,” Wang recalls.
Picnickers and partiers had tossed cans, bottles, and other detritus into the lake. “We didn’t have anything with us, just our hands, so we shoved tin cans and bottles in our pockets and left.”
They soon returned, though, this time with garbage bags and more friends. Eventually, they set up a society — Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans — and the impacts have been vast.
“In four years,” Wang says, “just doing this usually once a month or once every two or three months, we’ve removed 23,000 pounds of garbage — and that’s just me and some guys. And how many lakes are there that people go and party and drink at, all across Canada, all across the world?
”Common watering holes the divers hit include Squamish’s Cat, Alice, and Brohm lakes. Most people now are familiar with garbage gyres, like the Great Pacific garbage patch, which is an ocean of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. Fewer people are probably aware of the accumulated result of the occasional tossing of something overboard or the loss of dog toys or kids’ goggles during a day at the lake. The trash follows recognizable patterns, Wang says, and his team differentiates between “malicious garbage” and “incidental garbage.” Incidental garbage is found in the water below, say, a rock incline, where someone might be sitting with a cool drink when a dog, a kid or their own hand swipes the bottle and it rolls into the lake.
Malicious garbage is found, for example, at the precise distance from shore that an average human can throw a beer bottle.
Generally, though, the garbage is mostly in shallow water. But that doesn’t mean anyone can join the dive team.
The process of diving, collecting and bringing the garbage to shore is complicated. “It just happens that I have a very small pool of very, very highly skilled divers,” he says.
“These are not your average ones who went on vacation to the Caribbean and took a dive class.
All my guys, including myself, are either cave divers or deep technical divers or instructors, or a combination of those three.”
The volunteer labour they contribute would be valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. Wang is often called to dive for a specific lost item. Costs would add up quickly if his team was compensated. “My hourly rate is $75 an hour from when I get off the couch,” he says.
“I’ve got to go load the truck ... drive all the way to you, dive, come home, clean and service all the gear and then when I put everything away, that’s when my time stops. And that’s just me. For me to be in the water, I need support divers, and I need surface support, all sorts of things have to be in place.... Literally, for us to go out, a group of 10 people, to do a cleanup dive, it’s in the thousands of dollars.”
Parks departments and governments can’t afford those kinds of costs, so it’s something Wang and his team do as a public service.
What money the organization raises mostly goes to covering divers’ gas money, doughnuts, and coffee, maybe lunch.
Occasionally they’ll pay for repairs to equipment that has been damaged or for a “lift bag” — a large sack into which the smaller bags of garbage are loaded before being raised to the surface — so that another new diver can participate.
Unfortunately, the cans and bottles they retrieve are not recyclable. Even if technology did exist to remove the sludge, it would never be economically viable. There are, of course, the inevitable other items the divers discover. Wang always gets a laugh when he discovers a swimsuit, pondering the circumstances of losing that not insignificant garment.
They’ve found many wallets, most of which have been returned to their owners through a little sleuthing, the most remarkable one had been missing for 15 years.
They’ve also found six or seven Go Pro cameras— and returned all but one of them to their owners. Go Pros are especially vulnerable because they are hand-held or strapped to the body and therefore have a tendency to get lost. On the plus side, their recordings usually start with a face shot of the owner turning it on or, at the least, shots of the owners’ friends.
Wang puts screen grabs — nothing embarrassing — on social media and the return rate is almost 100 per cent. The speediest one took about four hours to get back to its person.
When people hear what Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans do, they frequently want to help. Wang says it’s even easier than people think. “You can help by just picking up the garbage that you see. Because whatever you see floating around on the street eventually ends up in a stream, ends up in the water. That’s just how it works,” he says.
“If you don’t pick it up, the next gust of wind comes by, it ends up in the water, and then I’ve got to go get it, and it just makes my day more difficult. If you can make get rid of one more piece of garbage, that’s less work for us and less garbage in the water table.” •