The winter months are the best time to go diving in False Creek. That’s when the water quality is the best, and light filters down to illuminate fish, crabs and mussels.
Fernando Lessa is a photographer and biologist who spends a lot of time immersed in the urban waterways of Metro Vancouver, chronicling marine wildlife. Lessa has contributed photos to some past Tyee stories, but you can see more of his photos on his website.
Some species, like salmon, are under threat, once vast fisheries now reduced to a trickle. Others are on the rebound, signalled by the return of orcas to Burrard Inlet and even False Creek, which separates Vancouver’s dense downtown from Olympic Village, Fairview and Kitsilano.
While glittering new condo buildings now ring False Creek, in past decades the area was a hub for sawmills, ship building, slaughterhouses, railyards, factories and warehouses. But before the area was transformed for colonial industry, which included filling in a tidal mud flat, False Creek stretched all the way to current-day Clark Drive. It was the site of the Squamish village Sen̓áḵw and was an important place to fish for salmon, hunt for elk, beaver and deer, and harvest traditional resources like cedar.
Some of the pollution left by the historical industrial uses is still there, buried under the floor of False Creek, Lessa said. But the biggest problem with the water quality in the waterway is sewage, which runs into the water from the surrounding city and from the many recreational boats that ply the waterway.
False Creek is still not clean enough to swim in, and every summer, beaches just outside of False Creek are regularly closed because E. coli counts are too high. But over the past few years, the City of Vancouver has been working to separate pipes so sewage is no longer mixed with rainwater. The city also introduced a pump-out service for boats.
“There’s a little bit less sewage, less damage being done, so slowly nature is coming back,” Lessa said.
Lessa’s photographs of False Creek were taken from January to March in 2021, when he was working on a project with the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. They show an underwater world most Vancouverites never get to see. There’s the silvery flash of a school of sticklebacks, a crab poised on its back legs, the vivid red and purple of two sea stars clinging to a barnacle-encrusted board.
A local conservation group called Squamish Streamkeepers have been working to bring herring back to False Creek since 2011, and Lessa’s photos show their efforts are paying off. Herring are an important species because they provide food for larger animals like seals; seals then become prey for orcas.
Lessa spends around 200 days a year diving to capture images of what’s going on underwater, and he plans to return to False Creek to dive in the next few weeks. There have been some reports of dogfish (a small shark) returning to False Creek, and he’s curious to see if he can spot one.
“I was very surprised with the amount of life I found there,” he said. “So far I’ve seen at least half a dozen species of fish, a lot of different crabs — there are a crazy variety of animals living in there.”