Rhonda Lee McIsaac
With 3,200 pounds of air strapped to their backs, breathing through regulators, and wearing flippers and slick black suits, six students dove like fledgling sealions at Kay Llnagaay in early August. The dive took place after a morning in the classroom getting familiar with the heavy gear.
K’aayhlda xyaalaas Rayne Boyko, Michael Gladstone, Brendon Collinson, Daniel Harris, Sara-Jean Bennett-Richardson, and Gin xahlsingee ing ga Taylor Lantin took the PADI Open Water Divers course.
Most participants were unfamiliar to each other in the beginning, but the cohort learned the value of team-work through interacting and communicating underwater to perform their tasks. Paying attention to the details of their equipment and gauges allowed for better successive dive experiences as the group progressed through the course. Students needed to show they could use the basic scuba gear including their mask, snorkel, fins, regulator, buoyancy controls, and tank.
“This was a first for all of them,” stated Richard Smith, Haida Fisheries Operations Supervisor. Smith has worked as a Haida Fisheries Program field technician and diver for the past nine years. He organized the training for the six Haida participants with dive instructor Marc Palay of Dive NC in Burnaby. Palay has extensive dive trainer experience. Biologist Gwiisihlgaa Daniel McNeil also joined the group on the dive.
The waters in front of Kay Llnagaay are suitable for beginner divers. A gravel beach slopes to a large, flat, sandy bottom where extensive eel grass meadows are home to a variety of sea life. The gravel beach made handling heavy gear and equipment easier and the protected bay was safe from strong currents and undertow.
Summer students K’aayhlda xyaalaas of the Haida Fisheries Program and Daniel Harris of the Heritage and Natural Resources Department slipped on scuba gear for the first time. Diving was a natural fit for K’aayhlda xyaalaas and Harris who are returning to school with some special memories of life in the ocean and the land from which they come from.
“It was such a fantastic experience being underwater for the first time,” K’aayhlda xyaalaas exclaimed recalling the lesson. The fourth-year Marine Biology student attends Hawai’i University and has just returned for her last year. “It was awesome, so much fun, and overall a good experience. I have never spent time under water at all,” she confides.
“The course is a great introduction. I got to learn about the safety needed for the equipment,” said Harris, who is entering his first year in the Urban Forestry program at the University of British Columbia in T’agwan Vancouver this month. Seeing kelp forests helped Harris to appreciate a different perspective on forestry. To him, dive training was an opportunity to bring the land and sea together and to understand how they are interconnected. “I’d 100 percent recommend this to youth,” Harris said of his positive dive experiences. “I look forward to learning more and using diving in my life in Vancouver. I hope to get out on some dives.”
“If you’re someone who has a passion for the ocean I highly recommend getting your PADI open water” says Gin xahlsingee ing ga, entering her first year at UBC for Natural Resource Conservation.
On the third day each participant performed two dives. On the fourth day the team dove all day with a classroom session at the end to wrap up their training. Instructors praised the graduates and congratulated them upon completion. The group also learnt that last year, Dion Lewis was selected from the first cohort and successful in acquiring the commercial diving ticket from DiveSafe and now dives for Haida Fisheries Program.
“We need more trained and working divers,” stated Smith. “We need to build a dive team – I’m getting older,” he says laughing. Even so, he still goes diving six to eight times a year.
Over the years, Haida Fisheries divers have been all over Haida Gwaii supporting stock assessment surveys for important species such as abalone, geoduck, herring, and sea urchin. Recent contract work has expanded the dive team’s workload with projects like the Chiixuu Tll iinasdll Nurturing the seafood to grow kelp restoration project with Gwaii Haanas – Parks Canada. This winter the Haida Fisheries dive program expects to start a multi-year project of coastal restoration that will involve diving on log sorts on Haida Gwaii. Divers can find work in Haida Gwaii from April to September.
For the second year in a row, the Haida Fisheries Program has trained six new Haida divers. With their first dives under their weight belts they are able to swim their way to a new career that benefits them, their nation, and the journey to self-determination.