Clay Helkenberg, better known as Aquatic Monkey on his popular Instagram and YouTube channels, has made it his goal to retrieve 5,000 bottles, cans, and other drink containers from local waterways, along with many other treasures he finds while in the deep! Keep reading to learn more about his efforts in cleaning up beloved lakes, rivers, and marinas in the Fraser Valley and beyond. Follow his journey on the socials and throw a little gas money his way if you can!

Andrea: How did you decide how many bottles you wanted to collect this year, and how many do you usually collect with each dive?


Clay: I just thought about how many I would need to collect each month, and that’s around 400 cans or bottles a month, which I thought was pretty doable, but 5,000 is just a nice, round number to be honest. It’s all over the place with how many cans I collect each dive; our last big one was about 400 and the last tiny dive I did was just three. It depends on the time and place and how many people we can get out, so it varies a lot.

A: Why did you decide to start doing this work?


C: Years ago, I used to always watch YouTuber guys finding treasure and I’ve always grown up on lakes and had fun diving in the water myself. I wanted to start finding more cool stuff. Then the more times we dove for phones and sunglasses, the more trash we kept finding. When COVID first started, I had a lot of time off work, so I was able to come up to Cultus Lake a lot more. I lived pretty close to the lake, so I would come three or four times a week. I just kept finding more and more trash on my dives and then I started meeting up with a few other people who did the same, like Henry with the Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans. They’re really into cleaning up trash, not too much the finding-treasure kind of vibes. But as I ended up doing a lot more with them, it kind of snowballed from there.

A: Do you notice which locations have the most garbage in the water?


C: Marinas are pretty crazy. Vancouver Yacht Club is our next dive, last time we were there we picked a solid 300 cans and bottles. The Bowen Island marina was our last big dive and I think that we found over 400 cans and bottles there. Cultus Lake is another, there is garbage all over it. It’s such a popular spot, so cans and bottles cover every inch of this lake.

A: So, people who are on their boats in the middle of the lake throw their empties overboard and that’s how all the bottles end up on the lake floor?


C: So, you can see where the boats get moored over the summer. Around every one of these spots where people have boats anchored, they’re just drinking. I would say it’s not as much modern cans and bottles that we find, but most of the bottles are 10 to 20 years old. So, you can see stuff that’s been down there for several years and it just stays there. Fresh water is much softer; you’ll find fewer cans in the ocean because they degrade pretty fast with saltwater and rust. But you’ll see that cans stay in lakes for 30 or 40 years, and way longer for bottles, we find bottles that are over 100 years old all the time.

A: How do these bottles affect the habitat of aquatic creatures?


C: Plastic is never great for the water, especially cans with labels. Bottles are a bit controversial, especially in Cultus Lake. They get smashed a lot. So it’s not so much that it affects animals’ habitats, but it’s a hazard to humans. We find broken bottles in shallow water all the time. Last summer we were surprised by this pile of glass that looked like five or six Corona bottles that somebody had just smashed on the dock, and there was this big pile of glass four feet in the water. So, people jumping off the docks and landing on that would be very unfortunate.

A: What are the most common find and weirdest things you’ve ever found while diving?


C: I’d say drink bottles are the most common thing by far. The weirdest thing I would say is a washing machine. But, I’ve found toilets, bathtubs, a gun in Chilliwack Lake a couple of years ago, and dentures. Pretty much everything you could ever imagine.

A: What’s been your favourite lake or body of water in the Fraser Valley to dive in?


C: For clarity, Lindeman has always been my favourite. We do ice diving up there as well. It’s just such a beautiful lake to dive. That’s more of a pleasure dive for finding cool stuff. For the amount of trash we pull out, Cultus is up there. I guess Harrison’s kind of a happy medium; it’s fairly clear and there is a decent amount of stuff you’ll find.

A: You don’t just dive to pull trash and treasure out of the water though, you like to fish as well right?


C: Yeah, once I started getting a bit better at diving, I started meeting people that were into spearfishing. I used to do a lot of river fishing and now I find that extremely boring. Spearfishing is so much fun; we go to Uculuet or other places on Vancouver Island and dive down 30, 40, 50 feet to find fish. It’s way more selective, there’s no bycatch. You see the fish you want and you take that fish. There’s no harm to the fish, you’re not fighting it for 20 minutes on a fishing line. You shoot it and dispatch it.

A: Do you find a lot of trash related to traditional river fishing on your dives?


C: We do a lot of cleanups for fishing line along the Vedder river. It’s astounding how many fishing hooks you see just caught on the rocks and ten feet of fishing line trailing behind them. I’ve definitely seen fish still attached to them before. Two that I can remember are where a fishing line was wrapped around a stick or something in the water and the lure is kind of floundering in the water behind it and there’s a small fish that’s just trapped there. I’ve removed two fish that were still alive off fishing hooks in the river. They’re just sort of stuck there and the current is forcing the water past their gills, so they’re still alive. I don’t know how many days they would have been on there. I have a video of one of them where I found this fish, took the hook off it and it just swam away.

A: What advice would you give to people who like to fish but want to do less harm to the environment?


C: When it comes to fishing line, having an actual leader that’s not crazy big. You’re not going to get around snags. It’s just something that’s going to happen. I don’t care about how experienced you are, it’s just something that’s going to happen every once in a while. But using a small leader so you don’t have 40, 50 feet of line behind it and using the proper hooks is a good place to start. Barbed hooks are illegal in all the rivers, but when we do our cleanups the amount of barbed hooks we find is kind of ridiculous. So, just follow the regulations because when we’re grabbing the hooks we get it stuck in our gloves and it’s actually really annoying.

A: What about people who don’t dive or fish, but still enjoy our beautiful lakes and rivers here in the Fraser Valley, how can they protect these waterways?


C: The number one thing I would say is just don’t throw stuff in the water. Pretty easy. I’ve seen it all the time where people have picnics on the side of the dock or the water’s edge and the wind comes and blows their empty containers in the water. So, just be a little more thoughtful about your empty trash and where it’s going. Obviously don’t leave it around. If you’re walking around and happen to see garbage near the water’s edge, just take it with you and throw it in the nearest garbage van. At Cultus Lake, there’s really no excuse. I would bet there is a garbage can at least every 100 meters around the perimeter of the whole lake for the most part. Anywhere public that has a beach, there are garbage cans nearby, so there’s really no excuse not to either help pick up garbage or not throw garbage in the water.

A: How can people support you in your journey towards 5,000 bottles and cans?


C: I have a Patreon, which is super awesome. Other than that, just watch my videos on YouTube and Instagram. I have a lot of fun doing this, so it’s not a job for me at all. I get sponsors for certain dives to cover free drinks and ferry rides, and all my diving gear is sponsored. I just need help covering the gas money for getting all the people who are involved to all these different waterways is the biggest thing.