Showcase: Swimming Great Bear
Three dedicated swimmers take on B.C.’S Great Bear Sea, seeking adventure and generating awareness
Three accomplished swimmers traverse the Great Bear Sea in British Columbia, raising awareness and charitable funds in the process.
To say we’ve been called just a little crazy a couple of times would be an understatement. Indeed, it probably isn’t your average summer vacation to go swim the Great Bear Sea, but that’s exactly what three close friends did this July. On July 11, we departed from Port Hardy, B.C., by ferry to travel to B.C.’S central coast to attempt a twoday, staged swim from Ocean Falls to Bella Bella. Starting from the foot of the falls on day one, we swam the length of Cousins Inlet into Fisher Channel, veering off into Gunboat Passage, where we exited the water for the day. The next morning, we picked up where we left off in hopes of catching the tidal current through the narrows of Gunboat, past the town of Shearwater, across Lama Passage, landing on the shores of Bella Bella, completing two back-to-back 25 kilometre swims. This was the first time these waters have been swum, and probably for good reason. The water registered surface temperatures in the range of 12°C to 17°C. Careful planning was implemented before the swim to accommodate surface and tidal currents.
So why would anyone want to do such a thing, you might ask? Well, that’s a really good question. We were asked this question many times over the past year as we’ve put the wheels in motion to make this little adventure happen. Of course, if you ask each of us that question, we’d likely each give you a different answer. Simply put though, we’re just a bunch of swimmers who love to swim in unique and wonderful places. We love the challenges and freedoms we confront when we’re in the open water, especially when surrounded by such natural beauty. So I guess the easy answer is why not do it?
Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. For Dale Robinson, swimming has always played a huge role in his life, both as an athlete and a coach. As he gets older he finds himself seeking out new and more exciting ways to challenge himself within the sport, and the Great Bear Swim seemed liked a pretty good way to do just that. The swim was also his way of helping in the fight to bring attention to the wonder that is the Great Bear ecosystem and the local-to-global need for its conservation. There is incredible diversity of life in the Great Bear, much of which is hidden below the waterline. He believes that as a human race we’d better start collectively understanding just how critical maintaining that biological diversity is to our own continued existence on this planet.
For Susan Simmons, swimming has healing power. About 20 years ago, Susan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was advised to avoid strenuous exercise, only to watch helplessly as her body began to fail. She decided a different approach was warranted and now uses swimming as an effective management tool for her symptoms. And by all measures it appears her approach has worked, as she can lay claim to being one of the world’s most accomplished open-water, ultra-marathon swimmers. Her longest nonstop swim to date took more than 30 hours while swimming a total of 70 kilometres. She’s hoping to set another benchmark in the near future by attempting to swim more than 100 kilometres without stopping, other than to feed and hydrate. So, the Great Bear swim was just an easy warm up for her.
In my case, especially in light of my past experiences as a Canadian record-holding freediver, this
was a rare opportunity to swim and dive in the pristine and abundant waters along the B.C. coast. I’ve been freediving in California among the sea lions, with manta rays in the Cayman Islands, along a salmon run in Campbell River, B.c.—and I was absolutely thrilled to see humpback whales in the Great Bear Sea. For me, this swim was also very much about having an opportunity to meet, engage and share stories with the people in the communities along the route. The waterways we were swimming in are part of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s traditional territory, with the town of Bella Bella being a focal point of their people and culture. Ocean Falls holds a special place in the Canadian swimming community for being called hometown to a disproportionately large number of our Olympians in the 1960s. Now with barely 20 or so remaining residents, Ocean Falls has fallen largely idle as an abandoned ghost town.
Our adventure took about a year to plan and train for, and we ended up with an amazing 12-member crew who supplied our navigation, safety and emergency support. We also chose to support three charitable and non-profit causes: the MS Society of Canada; Pacific Wild, which is dedicated to developing conservation solutions for the Great Bear; and QQS Projects Society, which runs Koeye Camp, an innovative educational camp for Heiltsuk youth that helps promote and foster scientific and traditional cultural knowledge.
All in all, it’s been a labour of love and has, more importantly, been an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, with each one of us realizing that we all have our own unique demons to confront in taking on a challenge of this nature. Of course, the flip side is that we have also learned about our individual strengths, and how that helps in comforting and supporting one another. It’s been such an amazing ride over the past year, and our hope is that this will turn into a multi-year project that takes on a life of its own, as we seek out new and extraordinary places to go swimming. n
Editor’s note: Find out more about these talented swimmers and their remarkable feat, as well as the causes they support, at www.greatbearswim.com.