Weldon Wade spends most of his time underwater. When he’s not working as a commercial diver off the coast of Bermuda, he’s strapping on his mask and fins and diving to astounding depths as a free diver, holding his breath for three-plus minutes at a time, relying on the air in his lungs for survival.
Spending that much quality time below the surface has made him a big proponent of protecting our oceans, and over the past decade he’s become an active member of Bermuda’s conservation community, founding multiple organizations that defend and nurture sea life, including Guardians of the Reef, a diving organization that promotes conservation, education and research, and his newest venture, 16 Fathoms, a project that will study 16 sites along the island’s South Shore and conduct stereoscopic video surveys of each using live video streaming. He hosts invasive lionfish tournaments and beach and bay clean-up events. And the best part: He captures all of his underwater adventures on Instagram for the rest of the world to see. Smithsonian.com caught up with Wade to discuss his conservation efforts, underwater photography and the best diving spots in Bermuda.
How did you get into free diving, and what sets it apart from scuba diving?
My diving journey began about 13 or 14 years ago with scuba diving. It was a bucket list item of mine, so I got certified because I wanted to get more Bermudians into scuba diving. I segued into free diving a couple years after that when I made some friends who were keen to spearfish and hunt lobsters, and you can’t do that scuba diving in Bermuda. I’ve been snorkeling my entire life, and I became a certified free diver in 2014.
Just like the name says, there’s a freedom to free diving. Once you recognize that you can dive down silently and engage with sea life without being noisy, that starts to evolve into a bit of a self-competition in the sense of wanting to stay underwater longer or in some cases go deeper. And that leads most people into training to become a better diver, to have better breath hold, to get to know your body better and to have better in-water experiences with sea life. With scuba diving you can take your time, but in free diving you don’t have that luxury, so there are different metaphysical things that happen with your body. With scuba, you’re breathing oxygen from a cylinder, but in free diving you’re using one breath, so you don’t have to worry about nitrogen buildup in your body.
What are some of your favorite underwater spots to explore around Bermuda?
Bermuda has a numerous amount of shipwrecks along its South Shore. One that I enjoy the most is called the Hermes. Most of what’s left of the archeologically significant shipwrecks that brought the first settlers to the island are ballast stones, so there’s not much left to see of them. However, the Hermes was purposely sunk [in 1985] as an attraction for divers. There’s also the Cristóbal Colón, [a 499-foot long Spanish ship that hit a coral reef on the North Shore in 1936] and the Mary Celeste, [a Civil War blockade runner that sank in 1864 while delivering supplies to North Carolina]. There are also certain spots along our South Shore that are known for what we call 'swim-thrus.' They’re not caverns, but more like tunnels you can swim through. There’s also an amazing catacomb area off of Elbow Beach, and another off of Warwick Long Bay Beach. You can get to those directly by swimming from the shore. You don’t need a boat to access them.
Your Instagram account is very water centric. How do you decide which images to include?
I’m heavily into the ocean conservation scene here in Bermuda, such as [minimizing] plastic pollution, line fishing-control efforts and showcasing the beauty of the island. I try to make sure that there’s a careful balance of that [on my feed]. I’m also sitting on 12 years of archival footage, so sometimes I’ll pull something up from there. Honestly, a lot of it is just a vibe and what I feel is relevant. I’m a commercial diver by day, so if I’m out on the water. I find a baby lobster, I’ll post it. If I find something cool like a sea hare or if I’m hanging out with my son and we find a bunch of debris, I’ll capture that. I use social media as a tool to promote the ocean. I really just want to encourage and inspire people to put their eyes on the water.
You’re very involved in different conservation efforts on the island. What are some of your projects?
Eleven years ago I started an organization called Bermuda Ocean Explorers, and it has been a passion project of mine ever since. It started out as a portal to connect other ocean-focused groups here in Bermuda, but I eventually transformed it into a more events-driven organization focused on diving events and excursions to the Bahamas and Mexico. Recently I changed the name to Guardians of the Reef, because I was doing more guarding then exploring. [My newest project is] 16 Fathoms, a project I hope to launch this spring that will engage the local diving community to explore 16 dive sites along Bermuda’s South Shore at depths starting at 16 fathoms [or 96 feet]. We’ll have live streaming from the boats, but what I really want to push the most is community engagement. 16 Fathoms [will involve] doing scientific expeditions that will conduct surveys of these sites, counting and culling any invasive lionfish that we find and conducting stereoscopic video surveys of those sites once we’ve reached depth, which we will live stream.
What are some things that people can do at the local level to help conserve our oceans for future generations?
Single-use plastics and plastic pollution are huge problems, and everyone can reduce their usage of them. Stop buying bottled water, and use metal utensils instead of plastic ones.