Sheltered in a large tidal pool along the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet, Kenneth Lucas took a deep breath before plunging five meters to the ocean floor.
Armed with a weight belt and diving fins the length of his arms, the 15-year-old held himself in place by clinging to a rock.
Behind him, Chris Adair pointed a flashlight into a dark hole under a rock. A train of white tentacles appeared before Lucas rose to the surface for air.
Above the water, Lucas smiled broadly before diving back in to take another look at the Pacific octopus nestled in its den.
Lucas was participating in a three-day snorkeling training course as part of the Tseshaht First Nation Young Warrior Program in late August. Taught by Adair, owner and operator of Bottom Dwellers Freediving, the goal was to expose young people to underwater environments and aquatic species along the coast.
“This liquid curtain – this surface barrier keeps people at bay,” Adair said. “[This training] gives young people another space to be excited and to feel connected.
The Tseshaht Youth Warrior program started last September, following the success of similar programs held in Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ, Ahousaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, Ka: ‘yu:’ k’t’h ‘/ Che: k: tles7et’ h and the Huu-ay-aht First Nations.
Designed to foster community and strengthen leadership among First Nations youth through hands-on learning, the program hosts weekly meetings and monthly camps.
Lucas was encouraged by his sister a few months after the program started.
Feeling “bored” and with “nothing to do,” Lucas said he didn’t need a lot of conviction.
“I love coming here,” he said, sitting on rocky ground next to the Pacific Ocean. “It takes me away from social networks. I know social media is supposed to be fun, but it stresses me out more. ”
Interest in snorkeling and harvesting has grown in response to COVID-19 as concerns over food sovereignty and food security have been amplified, said Ricardo Manmohan, Nuu-chah-nulth program coordinator Warrior.
Coastal indigenous communities harvested seafood sustainably for generations before colonization, said Randi-Leigh MacNutt, Young Women’s Coordinator for the Tseshaht Warrior Program.
By reintroducing these practices to young people, she said they could tap into these ancestral traditions.
“It’s a way of life,” MacNutt said. “It opens the door to helping young people learn what they can eat from the ocean and [how] move forward by teaching others.
After securing funding through the First Nations Welfare Fund, Manmohan said young people in each country will receive snorkeling training, along with four sets of snorkeling equipment.
The training included a day of theory classes at Hitacu, confined water training at Kennedy Lake, a species identification course at Ucluelet Aquarium and an open water session in the ocean.
The gradual progression allows students to hone their skills and familiarize themselves with the equipment before diving into a real environment, Adair said.
“It’s another planet over there,” he said. “I find that escaping into this liquid environment is very peaceful and helps me get away from everyday life. ”
Tseshaht is the first nation to offer a group of women warriors in tandem with a group of men.
“Men and women will work together in the future, so it’s important that they work together now,” MacNutt said.
Jaidin Knighton and Lucas’s aunt Brandi also participated in the snorkel training.
While the unknown of what lay beneath the ocean’s surface was “frightening” Brandi put her fears aside and said “it’s going to be worth it”.
Knighton joined us because she was “really curious” about what it was like to dive underwater while staying warm.
Without advancements in wetsuit technology, snorkeling and snorkelling were primarily hot-weather destination sports until more recently.
Adair said no one taught snorkeling on Vancouver Island until five years ago, when he started Bottom Dwellers Freediving.
As accessibility to equipment and instruction grew, the cold water freediving community “exploded,” he said.
As the youngsters swam through the kelp forests, Adair spotted abalone and starfish along the way. Sometimes the young would disappear underwater and return with a sea urchin in the palm of their hand for a closer inspection.
“It’s not necessarily about going further,” Adair said. “It’s about staying [down] longer to develop a connection to the environment in the water – [to] bring the harvest back to the table to share with friends and family.