Usually on New Year’s Day Niagara-on-the-Lake resident David Gilchrist gathers with a group of up to 14 other scuba divers to kick off the year with a dive at the Welland Scuba Park.
Unfortunately, the current lockdown put an end to any plans he had to venture into the old canal.
The retired elementary school teacher was introduced to scuba diving as a student while attending the former Southmount Secondary School in Hamilton. He fell in love with the underwater endeavour, and it has continued to be part of his life for 50 years.
Gilchrist came to the Niagara area to study biology at Brock University. “I had an interest in marine biology,” he explains. “There was a scuba club at Brock, and I became involved in that. Belonging to the club was important to me. We organized dives in different locations.”
The next important chapter in his life was influenced by his love of the sport. He met his future wife Claudia when she took the scuba course he was teaching for the Brock club. The two settled in the region, purchasing a home in Niagara-on-the-Lake in the late 1970s.
“Diving became a family affair for a few years,” says Gilchrist. “Both of our sons (Chris and Andrew) learned to dive when they were growing up. Tobermory was a big draw for us back in the day for shipwreck diving, and we’d go down to Florida on occasion, too.”
These days Gilchrist is the lone member of his family continuing to don the equipment in diving spots around the world. The Mediterranean Sea, the South and Central Pacifics, Hawaii, the Arctic, and the Red Sea – he’s been everywhere. While most might marvel at the above-ground sights in these locations, Gilchrist has explored the underwater flora and fauna and snapped photos that prove it.
His Facebook profile is chock full of examples of his beautiful underwater photography. “I’ve always got a camera in my hands when I’m underwater,” he says. “You can get a housing for pretty much any camera. You just pop it into the housing, and all the controls are available.”
Besides the obvious aesthetic value of his below-surface photographs, his involvement in the hobby over the years has aided in documenting some pretty important finds.
“My buddy (Queenston native Jim Lockard) and I were invited to go along with a Brock University professor who was investigating a lake in the high Arctic,” Gilchrist explains. “We were flown into Resolute Bay (about 3,600 km north of Niagara) and met with people who were running a Canadian Fisheries camp. The underwater life there was much more varied than I expected.”
Upon returning to Niagara, Gilchrist successfully applied for a grant through the Arctic Awareness Program from Energies, Mines and Resources Canada. In August, 1989, Gilchrist, Lockard and two others returned to Resolute Bay for some “serious underwater photography.” The collection of photographs resulted in an exhibit called Beneath Arctic Waters, that was shown in Ottawa and at the Underwater Canada Show in Toronto. Gilchrist then hit the library circuit to introduce underwater Arctic life to many, and had his work published in a few magazine articles as well.
Closer to home, Gilchrist’s hobby has led him to get involved in the Ontario Marine Heritage Committee, consisting mostly of professional navigational archaeologists.
“We primarily look at shipwrecks,” he says, “but we also look at other sites. The one (Lockard) and I have worked on for a number of years is the old wharf complex that is underwater at Navy Hall.”
That wharf originally served the Royal Navy and, later, the Provincial Marine. Working with provincial marine archaeologists and a Parks Canada team, Gilchrist and Lockard have explored the old wharf, cataloguing the scattered timbers that were once associated with the structure. They also found what seems to be the remains of an old shipwreck there.
“Underneath some stone, we discovered some timbers laid out in a definite pattern of a flat-bottomed bateaux,” Gilchrist says. “We think that during the battle of Fort George that vessel may have caught fire, or been set on fire, and sank in place there.”
As well, Gilchrist was involved in a prehistoric shoreline study in the Georgian Bay near Tobermory for more than 10 years. He describes it as “a submerged forest area, with an underwater waterfall. That was done by submarine with the navy. We excavated a small cave that at one time would have been above water. They theorized that it may have been used by prehistoric people. We found evidence of corn pollen.”
His favourite spot to dive, however, is off Honduras, at Roatan Marine Park, where the colours seem brighter and fuller. He and Lockard put that destination on their itinerary almost every year.
At 67 years old, Gilchrist admits he has slowed down a little bit, and doesn’t enjoy diving in cold water much anymore. COVID-19 continues to put a damper on his activities, too. During the pandemic, though, he has turned his attention to above-ground photography pursuits, snapping beautiful photographs of birds, foxes and other animals in nature.
Come April, though, Gilchrist is hoping conditions are such that he can get back underwater to continue pursuing that interest he has had in marine biology his entire life.
To find out more about his work, visit thediveteam.ca.