The life aquatic

Jane Biggs. Photo: Submitted

When Jane Biggs died in 2019, she was remembered as a prolific scuba diver, tallying some 2,000 descents during her 81 years.

Like many journalists, I had the opportunity to talk with her, but when we met, I wasn’t looking for a story.

About eight years, my husband and I were at a cottage that we then owned. We had lost a key piece of our sailboat’s mooring gear into the ocean. A good friend immediately suggested we call Biggs, who quickly came to our aid, along with a few of her scuba buddies.

They successfully completed the recovery mission in minutes. I seized the opportunity to interview Biggs about her adventures.

She told me how before she dove under the sea, she crossed it, immigrating from post-war England to Canada, settling in Dartmouth. That’s where she discovered scuba diving.

In the early 1970s, she learned that lessons were going to be available in the pool at the Shearwater Armed Forces base. She and one of her grandsons signed up.

Biggs was animated when she described their first open water dive, made at the outer reaches of Halifax Harbour. “It was in March and it was a bitterly cold day, and we were dressed in old awkward wet suits,” she recalled. “It was an unforgettable moment in my life, and I don’t remember feeling the chill of the ocean water, and later, on shore as I sipped a bowl of hot soup, I realized I was hooked.”

Jane Biggs. Photo: Submitted

After that, she explored under the ocean whenever she could, going as deep as 30 metres. She explored Halifax Harbour and the Nova Scotian coastline, visiting wrecks like the Tribune, which sank off Halifax in 1796. (Learn more in this Halifax Magazine story from 2015).

Further afield, she dove under the Caribbean and off the coasts of Scotland and Malta.

She chuckled when she recalled an excursion in Cuba: the professional diver who supervised tourists was skeptical of her diving ability. She says his attitude changed after he saw her diving effortlessly to a deep point in the Caribbean.

Her most memorable marine life encounters were the frequent large tuna, and a scary instance when a school of dogfish (a species of shark) surrounded her. “They’re not known to be dangerous although there are stories of them killing people,” she said. “I also understand they have very sharp teeth, so I tried not to panic, and just eyeballed them.” Eventually the carnivores disperses, leaving her with nothing worse than an anecdote.

She continued diving for the rest of her life, but it became harder. The 20 kg of equipment became harder to handle, and she had to give up winter diving. When I met her, she was doing about 40 dives per year, preferring to dive near wharves where she had close encounters with “wonderful types of fantastic sea creatures such as the green sea urchin.”

The very last memory I have of Jane I have was that she had told me her goal was to log in the same number of dives as her birth year: 1,934. With more than 2,000 dives, she bested that goal. One of her last excursions was Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when she was 81. It was a spectacular and appropriate end to a diving career that lasted almost five decades.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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