The west coast of Vancouver Island is known for its stellar scuba diving. But a little known group tested the waters at Sproat Lake last October and found it to be just perfect.
The Heritage Hard Hat Divers are a small group of diving enthusiasts from Canada and the United States who dive using vintage equipment—some dating back to the 1960s. They get together every October and test out their gear in the Alberni Valley prior to taking it to Vancouver for a public dive.
Bryce Casavant of Port Alberni is one of the hard hat divers who spent half an hour suiting up in the 145-pound metal helmet, breastplate and suit to walk on the bottom of the lake. Casavant and many of the Heritage Hard Hat Divers will be at the Vancouver Aquarium Jan. 26–27 for the 20th annual Divers Weekend, where they will have the opportunity to dive in one of the aquarium’s tanks to show the public how the heritage equipment was used.
Hard hat diving has been around for well over a century, Casavant said. The majority of shipwreck salvage operations in the 1800s were done with gear “just like this. A lot of the maritime history and shipwrecks and the salvaging of treasure, all these maritime legends and lore are really connected to this old gear,” he said.
“It’s important to preserve this part of history that is very much untold in today’s history, and that’s the hard hat divers that have made diving what we know of it today.”
Commercial hard hat diving may look glamorous to the non-initiated, but Tom Bell of North Vancouver said wearing the equipment and building docks and bridges “was mostly unromantic, very cold, pouring underwater concrete.” Still, he likes to stay involved and share the history.
That’s why the club’s members gather every October at Sproat Lake to test and tune the gear, and why they attend the annual Diver’s Weekend in Vancouver. That is also why Casavant and the crew want to put their equipment on exhibit at the Maritime Heritage Society’s Ken Hutcheson Gallery in 2019.
Casavant, a commercial diver with more than 1,000 dives on the west coast, said a maritime mystery drew him to the hard hat divers. “There is a mystery of today that remains unsolved, and that’s the missing helmet of Jack Daley,” he related. Daley was an early commercial salvage diver with Capital Iron & Metals Ltd. in Victoria, and famous among divers on the west coast. A plaque commemorating his career can be found on the seawall of Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Daley’s helmet used to sit in the Westwind Pub before it was given to a couple of individuals from the United States “and subsequently disappeared,” Casavant said.