Diver Sean McMullen is on a mission to resurface debris and curiosities from lakes, coves

In the sometimes-murky depths of Nova Scotia’s waterways, Sean McMullen is on an environmental mission that has turned up both treasure and trash.

For nearly four years, McMullen, 37, has been diving into lakes, rivers and ocean coves, clearing away debris and uncovering stories hidden beneath the surface. What started as a pandemic pastime has evolved into an international movement, capturing the attention of media giants like Conan O’Brien.

But for McMullen, better known on social media as @saltwaterSean, it’s not about the spotlight — it’s about making a difference, one dive at a time.

As a kid growing up in Timberlea, McMullen was a passionate summertime swimmer and snorkeler. As he pursued a career as a journalist and started a family, his time for underwater exploration waned.

The COVID pandemic in 2020 changed that. He looked back to the sea for an excuse to escape the house during the long days of lockdown. Driving by Halifax’s North-west Arm one day, he wondered “What is in there?”

Within a few days, he had purchased a used wetsuit and retrieved his old fins and snorkel from his parents’ house. Finding a few bottles rekindled McMullen’s childhood passion for oceans and exploration and he began searching lakes, bays and coves across the province.

While pulling our bottles was his initial goal, he quickly found it impossible to swim past other discarded items. Today he brings up “everything that doesn’t belong in the sea” — including trash, old tires, and plenty of plastic bags. He recycles and throws away the refuse he brings up, and keeps the most interesting items for his personal collection.

When a friend gave him a GoPro camera to document his dives, a social media star was born. He has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, and more than 25,000 conservation-minded viewers have watched the clips he’s posted to YouTube.

His efforts have even caught the attention of big-name late-night television stars. In December 2023, he recorded an episode of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend with the Tonight Show host.

“It was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” he said. “For him [O’Brien] to be interested in what I am doing is very surreal.” McMullen’s episode aired on Jan. 4, 2024, and is titled Sean and the Snapping Turtle. You can listen anywhere you get your podcasts.

As a former journalist and storyteller, McMullen said he’d carry on doing the work “even if no one was watching. It’s the right thing to do.” McMullen now works for View -Point, helping people tell the stories of their homes.

McMullen knows each dive is an opportunity for some unique underwater find and another opportunity to inspire others to join him in doing what they can to clean up the space they inhabit — either beneath the surface or above it.

“That’s what keeps me excited to post new content and explore new sites.”

He says the coolest thing he ever pulled up was a Torpedo Bottle belonging to William James Roué, the architect of the Bluenose, who also produced bottled soda water in Halifax. The weirdest thing? “A creepy cabbage patch doll in the middle of a harbour all by itself.”

McMullen estimates he’s explored over 50 unique bodies of water or Atlantic coves in Nova Scotia. “I’m just so passionate about being underwater,” he explains.

McMullen has some advice for those who are also inspired to clean up waterways.

“Make sure you don’t underestimate the power of water and always be aware of your surroundings.” Tides and currents can be strong in the region, so individuals need to select sites within their own swimming abilities.

Next, he says you need the gear: a wetsuit, fins, and a snorkel, all suitable for the conditions of the water, especially the temperature. Goggles and fins that are too big or too small won’t be comfortable and could be dangerous. Gear should be cleaned with soap and water after every snorkelling adventure to prevent contaminants from one body of water going to another. Even though they may be located nearby, every ecosystem is different and vulnerable to new bacteria or plant life.

McMullen brings his two oldest children, 9 and 11, with him on dives appropriate to their swimming levels and he says he is teaching the youngest so she can join in the exploration. Snorkelling for trash and treasures is an activity that is great for the whole family, but he cautions there should always be someone ashore to intervene if something goes wrong. Solo diving is not encouraged.

Most importantly, McMullen says what you need is heart and the desire to help your community. “Make sure your heart is in the right place,” he says. “Do it because you want to change the world.”

Follow Sean’s efforts in social media, @saltwatersean. Sean’s podcast interview with Conan O’Brien was released in January 2024. You can search for Sean and the Snapping Turtle anywhere you get your podcasts.

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