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Sub journey an eye-opener for Duncan woman

Debbie Heys gets an up-close view of a unique glass sponge reef in Georgia Strait. - courtesy Debbie Heys
Debbie Heys gets an up-close view of a unique glass sponge reef in Georgia Strait.
— image credit: courtesy Debbie Heys

Claustrophobia surged the moment Debbie Heys squirmed into the three-person submarine headed to the world’s only glass-sponge beds.

Her fretting about small spaces was soon diluted by the excitement of recently seeing B.C.’s 9,000-year-old sponge reefs scientists with the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society want preserved in marine parks.

“At first, I had a little bit of realization just how close quarters it was,” said Cowichan nurse Heys, who beat about 1,000 contestants for the sub trip.

“It took a minute to adjust to that. The pilot and (musician-passenger) Dan Mangan were very supportive and positive. Once I was fully in, we were all very excited.”

The society’s goal is having the fragile reef protected from bottom-trawling fishing boats, prawn traps and other threats.

That goal was shared by Heys after her hour-long voyage in the Canadian-made Aquarius sub. It was gently lowered by a barge crane to the surface under sunny skies.

“Everyone was passionate about what they were doing. It made me realize how much work they put into pulling this off,” Heys said of the society’s three-year dive effort.

“Hopefully (provincial and federal governments) are listening, and it’s important enough to them to understand (the parks proposal).

“It’s a non-renewable resource, and could be a catastrophic loss.”

Heys urged citizens to demand protection of the sponges believed extinct until discovered in 1987 in areas off the island and Vancouver.

Her view was reinforced during the dive four kilometres from West Van’s Eagle Harbour, near the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal.

She and Mangan lay on their stomachs on two benches, peering into the drink through a viewing bubble.

“It was mostly dark. There were large spotlights on the outside and they used (guidance) co-ordinates.”

Another sub was in contact with Heys’ vessel during the mid-afternoon odyssey some 240 chilly feet down.

“Our waters are quite cold, and not all that clear. There’s lots of (natural) debris, or small organisms in the water. We didn’t actually see a lot of sea life, other than jellyfish and similar organisms.

“When we got to the bottom we saw crabs, and some rock cod.”

But once they reached the sponge bed, thrills surfaced.

“It was so exciting seeing the sponges in a new area for these guys.

“It’s spread out, and the area we were in was more sparse,” she said. “Perception of their size was bit disoriented — everything appears smaller.”

The brittle, meringue-like, white or yellow sponges sport finger-like protrusions resembling tubes, designed to filter water and capture food.

“They don’t move,” Heys reported of the unbroken sponges made of silica.

“They’re rough and almost like a Styrofoam cup, and would break.

“Small fish and other sea life depend on them for protection, and hide in them,” she said, glad at the absence of pollution or garbage.

“It really opened my eyes and brought it home. You don’t really appreciate something until you actually see it.”

Would she take another sub ride to the sponge beds?

“Oh yeah. It’s an experience I’ll be digesting for some time to come. I’ll be thinking about what it meant to me and how it affected my life experiences.”

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