By extraordinary coincidence, the Maritime Discovery Centre opened its doors for the season with a new exhibit on the same day that a cruise ship dropped anchor in Alberni Harbour.
“It just coincidentally fell on opening day,” Jenn Preedy, museum co-ordinator, said of the timing on Saturday, which marked the second visit this year by the MS Maasdam.
Passengers strolled along the waterfront to discover a fascinating glimpse of history in the form of Knights of the Deep: Heritage Diving on the West Coast. The exhibit is the first of its kind on the Island, said Bryce Casavant of the Heritage Hard Hat Divers, a club with members in Vancouver, Washington State and Port Alberni.
Club members dug into their personal collections of diving artifacts to assemble the exhibit full of vintage diving helmets and other gear. Casavant credited Preedy for the “heavy lifting” required to bring the exhibit to life.
“I’m very proud of how it’s been put together,” she said. “We agreed that this would be a great exhibit for our little space. It’s more than I could have imagined.”
Heritage Hard Hat Divers not only cultivate an interest in old gear—they put it to use, donning the bulky suits and hard helmets to descend to the depths. Last year, Casavant demonstrated his Mark V suit for a diving event at Vancouver Aquarium. Each fall, club members gather at Sproat Lake to test their equipment.
As a diver intrigued by military history, he was naturally drawn to the old gear.
“It’s one thing to go diving,” Casavant explained. “It’s another thing to have connection to diving history.”
He gives a lecture on diving history on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.
“It is like walking on the moon,” he added, describing what it’s like to dive in the old suits. “You can literally hop as if you were on the moon. It’s a real unique feeling.”
And if you’re a diver, Port Alberni is a good place to hang your hat.
“Jacques Cousteau called this area the Emerald Coast,” Casavant noted, placing the B.C. coast prominently on the world diving map.
The show includes an old Gorman pump that barely survived the Blitz, the intense bombing of London during the Second World War. Mike Bentley bought the burned-out pump from a salvage company and brought it back to Port Alberni for restoration.
“Those divers had to be dedicated,” observed Gareth Flostrand, chair of the heritage commission.
“What was the interesting part is that the club is actually using the gear,” said Steve Marshall, a passenger from the Maasdam and a former scuba diver. “It’s keeping heritage alive. It’s nice that people keep history alive like that.”
Knights of the Deep continues at the centre until April 2020. Check portalbernimaritimeheritage.ca for opening hours.