Sarah Gauthier is a professional scuba diving instructor from Québec, Canada. After being inspired to take up diving by her mother, she went on to inspire others to do the same. While teaching, Sarah noticed the increasing amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and decided to go on a mission to raise awareness of the issues by diving in all seven continents to show the beauty of the sea.
Do you like being out of your comfort zone? Last March, I went on the most extraordinary trip and I was totally out of my comfort zone. I scuba dived in the most remote area of our planet to create awareness of plastic pollution. Before telling you more about the moment where I needed the most control over myself that I’ve ever needed in my life, let me explain to you how I got there.
At a very young age, I was very curious about nature and for as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. While studying Biology at Montreal University, I applied to enter veterinary school several times. Unfortunately, I was never accepted and I decided to take a break from university completely to see what else young Sarah could be put on this planet to do.
Growing up in Québec, Canada, meant that the cold winters and fresh summers were perfect to learn how to ski, ice skate, bicycle and play soccer. Water sports, on the other hand, were not a typical pastime in Québec. I first became interested in scuba diving through my mother. She would tell me about her past diving adventures in the Caribbean and it always intrigued me. My mother, Renée, was my role model. I always saw her as a courageous, strong woman and she inspired me to eventually enroll in my first scuba diving class.
The lesson was held in the local University and I will always remember my first breath underwater. I could feel my heart racing with the excitement of discovering a new world. My instructor was calm and professional. I could feel his passion, but I could see that he was always in control, gracious and stable in the water. I didn’t know at that point, that my first breath underwater was going to change my life forever.
I quickly learnt how diving could make you feel. I feel peaceful and comfortable when I am underwater, a little bit like when you are under a heavy duvet blanket. All the worries stay at the surface; it is only me, my equipment and nature. In that moment, I feel like I’m in control of my life. Because of my equipment, I know how much air I have and how long I can stay underwater and so I can judge the conditions and respond to them. I never know what I will see and what is going to make the dive unique and fun. There is nothing like it.
I started to travel and gained more experience underwater until I became a professional scuba diving instructor. The thing I enjoy the most about scuba diving instructing is sharing my passion. I like to see people go through the same process I went as a student — from taking their first nervous breath, slowly getting comfortable to then finally enjoying the feeling of floating in zero gravity. Every time I certify someone, I make sure they know that it is a privilege to enter the underwater world and that they have the responsibility to protect it. I like to tell them that they are officially ocean warriors.
While teaching students to dive in the Cayman Islands, I would dive up to four times a day. I got to know the area so well that we would give pet names to sharks with recognisable features and I would use certain sponges or corals as a reference point when guiding people under the water. Unfortunately, I could also see how the environment was degrading. The coral was losing its colour and plastic would become a regular occurrence on every dive.
Every time I certify someone, I make sure they know that it is a privilege to enter the underwater world and that they have the responsibility to protect it.
At first, the environmental damage made me feel helpless and sad, but then one day I decided that I had to take control and try to do something about the issue. I wasn’t an engineer or a scientist that could find the solution to plastic or pollution, but I had something special and powerful, something that everybody has – a voice. Nowadays, social media is a big part of our lives and it’s given us the possibility to use this voice and share information with the world, so that’s what I decided to do.
I knew I had to do something big in order to get people’s attention so I had the idea to go on a mission and dive in all seven continents by myself to raise awareness of marine conservation and share the underwater world through my photos and videos.
I wanted people to fall in love with the oceans; if I could make people do that, then they would want to help protect them. An important aspect of this mission was to show the beauty and not focus on the bad images of dead animals and pollution. There is already so much content that highlights the polluted images of the oceans and I wanted to use a positive approach that showed what we have and why it’s worth saving. By sharing my experiences and being a role model, I felt that other people would maybe want to do the same and then hopefully create a snowball effect.
I often get asked where my favourite place to dive was. Every location I visited and dived in had something special, whether it was the animals, the culture or the people. However, the place where I felt the most alive and challenged was Antarctica. This was the most dangerous continent that I would face but it was essential for me to dive all seven continents to show that our planet is an absolute jewel and prove that it is worth taking care of. Antarctica is an exceptional place, it is the most remote and harsh area on the planet and it brings a lot of challenges.
I knew that the water was going to be -2ºC. I knew that visibility underwater wasn’t going to be great. I knew that I was going to have to wear a lot of heavy equipment and that the ecosystem might be different and scary, but none of this was going to stop me. I trained hard before the trip, I got certified for ice diving and got extensive drysuit diving experience. I also had to make sure I had the best equipment on the market because you don’t want to arrive at the other end of the world and realise that something is broken or inadequate. I also asked other polar divers for advice; I needed all the questions that were haunting my thoughts to be answered. Will my face freeze? How can I keep my feet and fingers warm? And what do I do if I meet a leopard seal underwater?
Before the dive I had the chance to meet Mario Cyr, one of the most experienced polar divers in the world. He was the first to film walruses underwater and one of the first people to dive with a polar bear. He gave me some tips to survive the cold water and be comfortable in it. He told me to make sure that I drink a lot of water, eat well because you use a lot of energy to keep your body warm, and get dry as soon as possible because the moment I get out of the water I will lose a lot of heat, which is very dangerous.
There were many challenges during this adventure in Antarctica, but first, I had to get there. I boarded an expedition boat in Ushuaia, Argentina and crossed the Drake passage for two days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. I have never been seasick in the past, but the waves in the channel can rise to 16 metres. I remember feeling so tired and dizzy that I would have to take breaks when climbing the stairs on the boat.
As a scuba diving instructor, I always say to my students that you must stay within your training limits. You should never push your limits because it can cause a fatal accident. I was ready and had the proper training to accomplish my diving in Antarctica, but there was one limit that was left, the mental barrier. This was uncharted territory for me. I kept thinking, ‘what if something happens?’. This thought stayed with me as I was preparing to lower myself into the water. At that moment, I had to take control of my inner thoughts and it was probably the hardest part of the trip. I was alone, I didn’t know anybody on the boat and I was on the other side of the world. I was about to immerse myself in freezing water filled with the unknown and to make it even scarier, we were a two-day boat trip away from the nearest hospital. I began to have second thoughts about the dive and so I had to give myself a pep talk. After taking control of my emotions I decided to just go for it.
You would think that it is impossible to dive in -2°C water as it should be ice, but because the seawater contains salt, the freezing point is lower than it should be. I remember getting brain freeze every time I would do my back-roll entry into the sea. It would take 30 seconds until I could no longer feel my face.
Under my drysuit, I was wearing three layers of highly technical undergarments, two pairs of merino wool gloves and socks and yet I would still feel the cold. My longest dive was 50 minutes and at the end I had to hold my hands higher than my head to let the air fill my dry gloves and insulate my fingers.
Manoeuvring my camera with those frozen fingers was challenging. Changing the settings, pressing the buttons and holding it correctly made it harder than with bare hands, especially because dry gloves don’t give you a lot of dexterity. I like to think that growing up in the cold winters of Québec made me more resistant to the cold, but I learnt that polar diving really takes it out of you and leaves you exhausted. It completely drains your energy and I would even have to nap between dives.
I’m very happy with how the trip went and the images I captured, considering the conditions I had to take them in. There was only one occasion during the dive in the Antarctic where I felt like I was in real trouble and that was when I came face to face with a massive leopard seal carrying a dead penguin in his mouth. I remember looking in its eyes, only a metre away and I started to scream underwater; I was not only surprised by the animal but also shocked by the size of his teeth! After composing myself and breathing slowly, I finally managed to observe the majesty and fluidity of the beautiful creature.
Getting out of my comfort zone was definitely worth it. Not just to raise awareness of pollution, but for worth it for myself too. Going through all the mental and physical challenges of diving in Antarctica, pushed me to live my life to the fullest and led me to some unforgettable experiences. I must stress that you do not have to go to the other side of the world to prove to yourself that you can overcome fears and challenges. Whether it’s for a bigger cause or just for your own personal accomplishments, we should celebrate every little victory.