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Rights + Justice

Diving for Debris in the Depths of False Creek

On a recent cloudy day, volunteers hauled 846 pounds of garbage out of the water. There’s much more left to remove.

Michelle Gamage 28 Mar

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

Clay Helkenberg’s head breaks the calm, teal-coloured waters of False Creek. He’s wearing a seven-millimetre-thick wetsuit along with a hood, gloves and boots, to keep himself warm in the chilly waters.

He spits his snorkel out so he can yell at the crews assembled on the dock, “Hey! You're never going to believe this!”

Then he hoists a flat-screen TV over his head momentarily, before its weight pushes him back below the surface.

He passes the TV to the crew on the dock. It’s almost two metres wide, slightly curved and has very few mussels and barnacles growing on it, meaning it’s only been in the water for a short time.

While the TV is a bizarre find, it’s not too out of the ordinary when it comes to clean up dives.

A diver is in the waters of False Creek. Behind them, BC Place is visible.
Clay Helkenberg has been free diving and collecting garbage from the bottom of waterways for three years now. Diving in False Creek in the winter means the water is clearer and the dangerous levels of E. coli that bloom in the summer are absent, he says. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

On this drizzly Monday, divers Helkenberg and Henry Wang are in the water collecting garbage from the seafloor beneath the public dock beside Science World. City of Vancouver crews are also on site to lend a hand — and some strong backs — as they help haul bivalve-encrusted shopping carts out of the water using ropes that the divers attach to the submerged trash.

Wang is diving in a dry suit, meaning he breathes from a canister strapped to his back and stays completely dry even while exploring the sea floor. He’s wearing a pale blue helmet with a GoPro strapped to it.

When he surfaces beside the dock he passes up a barnacle-encrusted yellow paddle, a roll of fishing line, a broken glass bottle and a slimy miniature trampoline before sinking back below the surface.

A man in a drysuit bounces on a mini trampoline.
Henry Wang, an experienced diver who co-founded Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans, tries out the mini trampoline he pulled up from the bottom of False Creek. Perhaps surprisingly, it still has some bounce in it. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

Wang is the co-founder of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans, an organization of volunteer divers who have hauled 54,412 pounds of material out of local water over the past decade.

It's less about saving the world and more about getting out, doing what you love and seeing what you find this time, Wang says.

Wang used to own a dive shop, which he sold about a decade ago before starting to do regular clean up dives.

"Some people dive to see exotic fish, but after a lifetime of diving I find it more interesting to see what kind of trash I can find," he says.

Helkenberg pops up again, this time with a backpack. He hauls himself out of the water, pulls out a knife and cuts the bag open. It's filled with several fist-sized rocks, a rotten sweatshirt with the Canucks logo on it, a lighter and a cannabis grinder. The rocks must have been put there to ensure the backpack sank. Was it stolen, evidence in a crime or a final screw-you gesture to an ex? We’ll never know, he says.

Helkenberg got into free diving — which means he holds his breath to descend, and breathes when he surfaces — during the pandemic. Today he’s diving around six metres deep and holding his breath for a minute or two — but he can dive 20 metres deep and hold his breath for three minutes.

Dirty, water-logged cellphones and walkie talkies are on the ground between a couple orange traffic cones.
It’s pretty standard to find cellphones on the bottom of lakes and waterways, especially near docks, says Clay Helkenberg. While the phone is usually busted up it's possible to get the SIM card out, plug it into a card reader and identify the owner and return it, Helkenberg says. Some newer phone models, like the iPhone 11, are waterproof enough that he’s been able to rinse them off, charge them and return them to their owner. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

Like Wang, he enjoys volunteering his time by diving in the ocean and in lakes and looking for garbage.

Winter is the best time for this, he says, because the water is clearer so it’s easier to spot garbage. There’s less algae growing in the ocean in the winter and the rivers are low because all the snow that feeds them is still frozen, which reduces water cloudiness, he says.

You also don’t want to swim in False Creek in the summer because of E. coli, but in the winter it’s safe enough, he says.

The garbage is coming up from the seafloor in a steady stream now.

Bikes, tires, an oil heater, a big metal tube, sunglasses, rope, a Landyachtz longboard, two electric fans, a Compass Card, safety cones, a plastic chair, broken bottles, a wrench holder, a Honda generator.

“Hey, that’s a Honda! Brush off some barnacles and give her a tug,” a crew member jokes.

An oyster grows on a very rusty set of bike chainrings.
Animals that grow on solid surfaces are known as members of the fouling community, like this oyster growing on rusty bike gears. It’s still important to pull this garbage out and pry these animals off, says Clay Helkenberg, because the garbage can be polluting the animal or environment. Just because a fish is living in a submerged generator doesn’t mean the gas tank isn’t leaking toxic gas. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

One bike is submerged in the muddy sea floor and takes a mighty heave to pull loose. It comes up in more or less one piece — but it’s a stretch to imagine how it was once a solid frame because it’s so corroded now.

One shopping cart in particular must have been on the bottom for quite some time because it’s encrusted with mussels, barnacles, snails, oysters and other squishier life forms. We peel off a small, lumpy brown creature we guess to be a sea slug, wriggly worms with what seems like thousands of legs and dozens of shrimp ranging in size from your pinkie toe to your thumb.

Small pale yellow eggs are clustered on a piece of seaweed — a volunteer wonders out loud if it could be herring roe. Everything that's alive is peeled off the garbage and placed back in the water.

Clusters of eggs appearing to be herring roe are stuck to a piece of seaweed.
Pale yellow eggs clustered on a piece of seaweed attached to a shopping cart pulled up from the bottom of False Creek. One volunteer wondered if they could be herring roe — if you can identify these eggs please let us know in the comment section. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

There’s a dead rock crab in the shopping cart basket that would have been big enough to eat had it come up alive. Helkenberg says he spotted several others on the seafloor — but scrunches up his nose at the thought of eating anything pulled from False Creek.

After about an hour the water has gotten murky and the divers decide to call it a day. There’s more trash left on the seafloor — several shopping carts and a sunken rowboat — but it’s farther away from the dock and it’ll take exponentially more effort to haul it out.

When it comes to cleaning trash out of False Creek you can’t get everything, Helkenberg says.

They climb out of the water and everyone heads onto dry land to review and weigh the day’s haul. Using a hanging scale they calculate two divers pulled 846 pounds out in an hour (minus the weight of most of the mud and bivalves which were thrown back in) — imagine what we could do with 20 divers and a full day, Helkenberg says.

Several shopping carts and a bunch of other trash and detritus, including a lawn chair, that have been pulled out of False Creek.
Two divers were able to pull 846 pounds of garbage out of False Creek in an hour. Imagine what a team of 20 divers could do in a day, says Clay Helkenberg. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

The whole seafloor isn’t this covered in garbage, Wang says, adding they intentionally dive where they know there will be a lot of trash.

He steps on the trampoline he pulled out and even gives it a few bounces. Helkenberg rinses off the longboard and, still in his wetsuit, rides it around the parking lot before chucking it in the back of his van. He also puts the cellphones and dash cam he found in a plastic baggie. The phones are lost causes but maybe he’ll be able to salvage the SIM cards and return them to their owners.

851px version of ScubaManLongboard.JPG
A man wearing a black and blue wetsuit rides a longboard over grey cement.
Clay Helkenberg rinses off the Landyachtz longboard he pulled from the bottom of False Creek and gives it a test ride in his wetsuit. Besides a few barnacles growing on the wheel bearings it rides just fine, so Helkenberg tosses it in the back of his van and takes it home. Photos for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

This is all volunteer work, Wang says. It’d be cost prohibitive for municipalities to hire divers for clean up dives, but they seem happy enough to send their crews out to assist the clean up dives wherever they happen, he says.

After weighing out the trash, crews load it into a City of Vancouver truck. From here it’ll be taken to the Zero Waste Centre, where it can be sorted into its appropriate waste stream.

If you want to help keep trash out of places like False Creek, the best place to start is by picking up garbage in your own neighbourhood — no wet suit required, Wang says. This prevents trash from being washed into storm drains and eventually flowing into the ocean.  [Tyee]

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