Plastic pollution has long been a problem for our oceans and thanks to divers like Sarah Gauthier more awareness and action is being taken to tackle this growing issue. She has been on a mission to raise awareness around plastic pollution in our oceans by diving in all seven continents to show the beauty of the sea.
We asked Sarah about her story and what she discovered on her epic trip
What was it about diving that initially made you love the sport so much?
I think what made me fall in love with diving at first was the excitement of discovering a whole new world. I also did enjoy the peace and calmness when underwater.
You mentioned that it was your mum that got you into diving. Why did she spark your interest in diving?
My mum would go on holidays in the Caribbean every year and would come back with fantastic diving stories. She had a little camera and I could see glimpses of the underwater world. It caught my attention and interest, I wanted to see it for myself.
What made you want to become a diving instructor? And where did you train?
Maybe it is a bit of a cliché but I wanted to become a dive instructor to share my passion with others. I also enjoy the challenge of helping people get over their fears and seeing them diving happily at the end. I did my training in Honduras, Utila, with UDC.
What has your favourite dive been and why?
There are so many fantastic dive spots it is hard to choose! I don't think I have one favourite dive but one that has a special place in my heart took place in Iceland. Strytan (north of Iceland) is the only hydrothermal chimney that is possible to scuba dive yet discovered! It is 55 meters tall and the top is 15 meters deep! One hundred litres of fresh hot water is coming out every second. It was a unique dive and I got to share it with the manager, a badass young female dive instructor called Saevor, which was even better.
What is the craziest thing you've experienced on a dive?
One cool encounter I had was during an open water class. I was teaching a 16-year-old boy and we were doing skills in the ocean when a hammerhead shark came by to say hi! I was hectic underwater screaming with happiness! My student did not understand why I was so excited until I explained to him later that it was my first hammerhead shark after more than 1000 dives. A day to remember!
What do you do to prepare for a dive? What goes through your mind?
First thing I do, I make sure that all my equipment is working correctly, then I eat something and hydrate a lot. Then I review the dive plan and verify conditions. I also do my buddy check before jumping in the water. Before a dive, am usually calm and curious to see what the ocean will offer me.
Have you ever found yourself in a particularly tricky situation on a dive? What did you do to get through them?
During a dive, I was passing in a swim through when suddenly my regulator broke. The Second stages in regulators are designed to be fail-safe, meaning that if anything fails inside the regulator, it will flow continuously rather than ceasing to work. The runnel was filling with air. I stayed calm and used the technique we learned in the open water to slowly and safely get to the surface.
When was it that you first noticed the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans?
I can still picture myself walking on the beach finding plastic and that was before I even started my first diving class. Scuba diving made me realise how severe it was because I could see the underwater animals suffer from it.
What did you hope to achieve by diving in every continent?
I wanted to dive on every continent to show people how beautiful the underwater world is. I am convinced that to want to protect something, you first need to love it. I thought that bringing people with me on my journey with the help of social media would raise awareness of marine conservation.
What do you think can be done to help solve the plastic problem in our oceans?
I believe that as individuals, we should try to consume less in general but definitely reduce our plastic consumption. Then we should clean what is already in the oceans. Being a role model is very important; if someone sees you pick up trash on the beach, it will make them think for sure. I believe that doing it with a smile and a positive approach is also an excellent way to get people involved. Using your voice wisely to elect politicians that fight pollution and climate change would also help solve the problem.
Where was your favourite dive, while you were diving the seven continents?
My favourite dive took place in Antarctica when I got face to face with a Leopard Seal carrying a dead Penguin in his mouth. It was the most intense encounter I've ever had with an animal. I could see his massive teeth less than 2 meters away from me, his giant eyes were curiously looking at me probably wondering what was this weird animal with pink accessories. He left the penguin in front of me, went to the surface to take a breath, grabbed his meal and left. I will forever remember that moment.
Which place in the world do you think the plastic problem was most evident?
I think the plastic problem is everywhere, it is hard to judge because the currents and tides move it a lot. Some countries also have better infrastructure to take care of the problem. If the beaches are cleaned every day, people won't necessarily notice the pollution in the water. With that being said I feel like I encountered more plastic in Asia, I did, however, find some on every continent.
What were you most nervous about, diving in such cold temperatures?
I was scared to be too cold and have trouble managing my dive equipment and my camera.
Apart from the temperatures, what would you say is most different about diving in Antarctica compared to other places in the world?
The underwater scene is entirely different, for example, diving next to icebergs, observing unique animals and being far from everything.
What was going through your mind, just before you dived into the water?
The rational part of me was excited to find out what I was going to see. I was confident because I knew I had the proper training and experience. The irrational part of me was thinking: 'What if something happens?'.
Can you describe to us what it feels like when you're underwater in such cold temperatures?
At first, it's a thermal shock, especially for your face. I had two little spots on my cheeks that were directly in contact with the -2ºC water, after a minute or so they would become numb and I wouldn't feel the cold anymore. Wearing a drysuit with a lot of undergarments made me feel like a Michelin Man, to compensate for the positive buoyancy I would have to wear a lot of weights which would make it harder to move freely.
What are the most essential things to remember when diving in such challenging conditions?
You have to know your limits and have the proper training. There is no place for errors, you are two days away from a hospital, it is not the place to test new gear or new stuff.
Do you think you'd like to dive in Antarctica again?
Yes, I would absolutely love it. I am already planning to go back but this time with a filming crew so I can document the experience even better.
What was the most special thing about diving in Antarctica and what do you think you'll remember forever?
I will never forget my encounter with the leopard seal carrying the dead penguin in his mouth but I enjoyed watching the patterns on icebergs underwater created by the waves when they hit it.
How did you get into photography and videography?
I wanted to share the best moments with my family and friends the way I experienced them. It was a little bit like 'bringing' people diving with me.
What are the main challenges with underwater photography and videography?
The loss of light is a big challenge underwater, it is due to the high density of water which absorbs colours in a specific order the deeper you go. Visibility issues are more common underwater, particles can reflect light. Another challenge is to be stable without touching anything. Finally, animals don't tend to stay and pose for you, you have to be calm and ready to catch the moment.
How did you your underwater photography differ in Antarctica compared to warmer climates?
I would say it was harder to change the settings on my camera with frozen fingers and big dry gloves. Once underwater I would compare the water and colours to diving in Québec but with penguins.
What has been your favourite dive to photograph and film on? And what wildlife is your favourite to photograph?
My favourite dive to film took place in the Red Sea at Abu Dabbab. I filmed a big Dugong feeding on seagrass. It was a peaceful and respectful encounter, I felt really lucky to be able to share a few moments with the herbivorous mammal.
What are your plans for the future, in terms of being an anti-plastic ambassador?
I want to continue to share the mission with everybody, go to schools and talk with young people. Be a role model and hopefully partner with projects, people and companies with the same goals.
Do you have any interesting dives planned or places that you would really like to tick off your list?
I am working on some new stuff for the future. Now that I have the knowledge and taste of cold water diving, I really want to explore more. Maybe dive in Russia, Scotland, the Arctic, I'm not scared anymore.
What advice would you give someone who was looking to get into diving and cold-water diving in particular?
Don't be scared, get the proper training, equipment and make sure you surround yourself with experienced divers.
If you would like to read more about Sarah's experiences diving in every continent in the world, check it out here.