A Fall River man has turned a pandemic project of searching Nova Scotia’s lakes, rivers, and the ocean into an effort to teach others about conservation and the province’s history.

In spring of 2020, in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, Sean McMullen was looking for something to do when he wondered what might be in the waters of the Northwest Arm. So, he got a wetsuit, dug out his old fins, and a snorkel, and explored the waters off Horseshoe Island where he found some old Pepsi bottles.

“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember how much I loved doing this when I was a kid,’” McMullen said in an interview.

When a friend suggested he get a GoPro and film his dives, that took McMullen’s exploring to another level. Now more than three years later, McMullen has collected tons of items and trash from the water, including hundreds of bottles, toys, and even historic items. He posts the videos and photos of his dives and the items he collects to TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook under the name “Saltwater Sean.”

A photo of the items he collected in just a one-hour dive in a small cove near the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove went viral.

“It got me a ton of attention really quick,” McMullen said. “I hadn’t planned for any of this. I would do this without anyone. I love it. Now it’s morphed into storytelling, which I love.”

“I don’t do it for social media purposes, but I think it’s important to share. I thought maybe I can make a positive impact on people’s attitudes toward ocean, lake, and river conservation. I am just one person and can do a lot. Anyone can.”

A shirtless white man wearing a baseball hat stands on a dock with a collection of stuff he found in the water. Behind him are some colourful houses on the shore of the cove.
Sean McMullen with a collection of items he collected in Peggy’s Cove. Credit: Sean McMullen

The coolest, most interesting finds

McMullen goes on dives from March to December each year and spends up to 20 hours a week exploring local waters. He lugs everything he finds back to his car to take home. He properly disposes of some of the items, recycles others, gives away some interesting items or keeps them for himself.

“I hate finding modern trash because that really disturbs me. Like, come on. When it’s clearly been dumped, not versus stuff that accidentally floats away,” McMullen said.

He’ll even ask for help from local historians, museums, and archeologists on identifying and dating some of the older finds. He said the “coolest” item he’s ever found was an old torpedo bottle produced by a beverage company run by William James Roué, the naval architect who designed the Bluenose. His most treasured item is a ginger beer bottle produced by late 19th century Halifax brewer Felix J. Quinn. The bottle is just like one McMullen’s father, Jonathan, who’s a recreational scuba diver, found during one of his dives when McMullen was a child. Sometimes his father will join him on dives.

‘Tonnes of garbage’ in Sackville River

McMullen’s work office is located in Bedford, just along the Sackville River. He said one day he noticed a bottle floating in the water, so he went down to the river to check it out. He’s been exploring the river ever since. He’s found hundreds of bottles, trash, phones, shopping carts, phones, and even historic items he said date back a couple hundred years. The oldest item he’s found in the river is a one-cent coin from 1836.

“I’ve taken out tons of garbage from this river,” McMullen said. “People just chuck stuff in there. It’s been an interesting source of curiosity. And there’s wildlife in there. Salmon, trout, snapping turtles.”

A collection of bottles, plates, a creepy doll, an owl figurine, and other garbage sits on a wooden dock next to a lake on a sunny day.
Some of the items Sean McMullen found during one of his dives. Credit: Sean McMullen

McMullen started a new series on his YouTube channel in which he explores bodies of water he’s never checked out before. So far, he’s explored Ostrea Lake on the Eastern Shore and another lake in Mount Uniacke. He also gets invited to search other lakes, rivers that people know and are curious about, including Springfield Lake in Annapolis County, which, in the late 1800s, was home to the largest paper mill east of Montreal.

‘Curiosity keeps me coming back’

He has a list of waters he’d like to explore, including those around Canso and in Guysborough County. Some waters, like those around Georges Island, he can’t search because it’s a national historic site. He’s gone on dives around Tuft’s Cove and Norris Cove in Halifax Harbour with his diving mentor, Bob Chaulk.

McMullen took some underwater photography for Chaulk, who’s been exploring anchors in about six feet of water he believes are from the S.S. Curaco. Crew on that British ship were loading horses at Pier 8 when the Halifax Explosion occurred, blowing the Curaco to the waters of Tuft’s Cove.

The harbour has its own history, McMullen said, because people dumped trash in there for years.

“Water is interesting because on land, if you dig something up, you’ll find it all and it’s done. But in water, it’s constant. We know people used to dump stuff in the water before modern trash collection. I think curiosity keeps me coming back and a personal mission to really take out as much as I can,” he said. “I’m only one person, but there’s some pride there knowing that people can talk about doing these things, but I am just going to do it. And using social media to share it.”

McMullen said his work is both depressing and encouraging. 

“Sometimes I go back to places and there’s nothing,” McMullen said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, no content.’ But I’m also like that’s great. There’s nothing to take out. It’s fresh.”

He said he does have critics. Some commenters on his photos and videos will say he’s removing items that are now home to marine life. McMullen said he will leave behind items such as bottles if they are intact and in deep enough water to not pose a safety hazard.

“On the other hand, I’ve seen animals trapped in bottles and they’re dead,” McMullen said. “I try to assess things in real time when I’m doing it. I try to open up dialogue. I don’t block anyone who has a criticism of what I’m doing.”

Family, friends joining in

But many others are interested in his work. McMullen said his children, ages 9,10, and 13, are interested in learning how to dive, too. Some of his friends join him on dives. And he has other people contacting him on how they can help. He’s even connected with other divers in the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia who are doing the same work where they live.

“People have opened up their homes and I’ve made a lot of friends,” he said. “It’s taken on its own thing. I would do this with no one watching anyway, so all of this is just really fun to do and it’s led to cool people around the world I’ve met.”

In the end, McMullen said he hopes people will learn more about local rivers, lakes, and the ocean, the stories they hold, but also how to keep our waters clean.

“I’m hoping by sharing the pictures they get it. I will keep doing it until I can’t. When I get my head down into the water, I literally feel at peace. It’s just me. No one is telling me how to do it, how to run it. I’m using my own instincts and my gut, and it’s been successful.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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