Philip Sargent has always been interested in the sea. As a boy growing up in Lewisporte, he regularly fished for tomcod from the wharf. Now 1,000 dives into an aquatic-based career, Sargent has a unique perspective on marine life.
“When I started diving, I was seeing stuff that I’d never seen before, even spending all that time around the water as a child,” said Sargent, a diver who works for the science branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
“There was small fish, like shannies and different types of shrimps I’d never laid eyes on. You just don’t see that fishing off wharfs.”
Sargent was describing his first dive in 1996. In December, Sargent took a dip in the icy waters of Brigus for dive number 1,000.
“I knew I was coming up on dive number 1,000. It’s pretty cool. I never really thought about it until I was getting fairly close — within the last 10 — that I was reaching this huge milestone in diving. It’s a landmark for people who are into diving to get to that point.”
Within the science branch, Sargent works in the ecological sciences section, focusing on productive capacity issues. When not in the water, he helps sort catches, takes notes and measurements, and drives boats.
Of late, he has been working on a project tagging cod and on habitat surveys for small craft harbours, comparing the communities of fish and invertebrates surrounding them. Sargent has also assisted DFO on searches for Atlantic wolffish dens. It is considered a species at risk.
“To me, every dive is an adventure. For the most part, every time you get in the water, it’s something different.”
In the summer and fall months, he commonly does three dives per week. Activity slows down in the winter, although it is not unheard of to dive during the coldest season.
“It is a lot more difficult,” he said, noting snow and wind factors can be tricky to work around. “You usually choose sites where the wind is blowing offshore. Getting in and out of the water is quite difficult otherwise. It can be quite dangerous.”
Sargent’s initial interest in diving was sparked by a visit to the Bonne Bay Marine Station for his marine biology studies at Memorial University. He became particularly intrigued with the work of the station’s director, Robert Hooper.
“He was heavily into diving himself for his own research and collecting stuff for the classes. That really sparked my interest to get involved in diving and make it a part of my potential research career.”
Dives to remember
Among the most memorable of his 1,000 dives was swimming around an iceberg in Logy Bay and encountering a beluga whale near Calvert.
“We tried to get close to it, but it didn’t want to come near us,” Sargent said of the beluga.
However, eventually the whale moved towards them.
“For the length of time we were in the water, it was basically doing circles around us, checking us out.”
Common knowledge among divers dictates they should never panic when things get hairy. Sargent can recall one moment where he almost hyperventilated during a freshwater dive.
Due to the buildup of organic material in freshwater, Sargent said, darkness can creep in quickly.
“Below 10 feet, it’s pitch black,” he said. “You can’t see the hand in front of your face.”
In this case, Sargent had to hold the hand of his diving partner to make sure they did not lose one another. At one point, he was up to his armpit in mud, and the water temperature was slightly above the freezing level at the depth he was at.
“I almost started to hyperventilate,” he said. “Basically, what you have to do is remember you’re training. I’m only in 20 feet of water. It’s no problem to get back to the surface. I’ve just got to relax, slow my breathing, and just slowly get back to the surface. Once you gain control of yourself, you’re fine.”
Based on his training, Sargent can dive to depths of 140 feet. The deepest he has ever been is 127 feet.
While his dives have almost exclusively been local ones, Sargent did get a chance to visit warmer waters two years ago on a trip to Mexico.
“Diving in the tropics, you’re in a T-shirt and shorts. You don’t even have a hood on or anything. It’s very weird, because you can actually hear things a lot better without all the gear on. I was wearing four-pounds of lead down south, where here I wear 40.”
Sargent hopes to fit at least another 1,000 dives into his career. Ideally, he would love one of those to take place in the Canadian Arctic, and he said the opportunity to do so may yet present itself through his work.
“My interest is seeing things and doing things that other people haven’t seen or experienced before. The Arctic is still fairly untouched, especially in terms of exploration with diving.”
However, he said, people should not underestimate the pleasures of diving close to home.
“Most people think it’s cold water. There’s probably not much to see, a few sculpins and cod. That’s not true at all. We have some fantastic diving around here.”