Hakai Magazine

Betty Pratt-Johnson in her younger days. Photo courtesy of the Pratt-Johnson family
Betty Pratt-Johnson in her younger days. Photo courtesy of the Pratt-Johnson family

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Betty Pratt-Johnson’s books brought ocean wonders to the world.

Authored by

by Tom Hawthorn

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In Departures we present memories of well-known people—famous or infamous, loved or loathed—who had strong connections to the coast.

Betty Pratt-Johnson, preparing for a tropical holiday, enrolled in a diving class at the YMCA in Vancouver in 1967. Her diving certificate issued by the British Columbia Safety Council was number 55. Her first immersion on the British Columbia coast, where winter water temperature can dip as low as 5 ˚C, left her chilled, as well as unimpressed.

“I just couldn’t see why anyone would want to dive in these waters,” she wrote in her first book. “Visibility was poor and I saw nothing that lured me back.” The closest she wished to get to the seafloor at home was to join her sons in watching the popular television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

Seven years later, she was assigned by a magazine to write an article about scuba diving in British Columbia. She then completed an open-water refresher course, discovering that when the waters were clearer they revealed a world of wonders—tiger rockfish, decorated warbonnets, and gorgonian corals. The giant Pacific octopus, arguably the world’s largest octopus, lurked in the waters there. So did the greatest diversity of sea star species in temperate ocean waters. More than 1,500 shipwrecks beckoned in British Columbian waters.

“Surprise,” Pratt-Johnson later wrote, “is at every corner as divers explore the 15,950 miles [25,725 km] of ragged coastline which makes this not only one of the richest marine areas, but also one of the most accessible.”

When she went looking, and failed to find, a guide to British Columbia dive sites, she decided to write the book she wanted to buy. The result, 141 Dives in the Protected Waters of Washington and British Columbia, was an instant hit and quickly sold out. The book was eventually expanded and re-released as 151 Dives.

Writing in Pacific Diver magazine, she campaigned for the creation of marine parks, a cause she also promoted in Japan and Greece. She traveled throughout Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean, advocating scuba diving as a tourist attraction, for which the preservation of marine life would be essential. Back home, she discouraged the common practice of arbitrary spearfishing. Protecting marine life would pay off in developing tourism, she argued in her persuasive, strong-willed style. She was right, and by the late 1970s the Canadian government began expanding its system of underwater parks.

Pratt-Johnson—originally Elizabeth Stimson—was born on July 16, 1930, at Evergreen Park, an urban village of 1,600 residents on the southwestern edge of Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Warren, was a United States Marine Corps veteran of the First World War and a civil engineer for the Wabash Railroad. Her mother, Grace, a teacher, was of “hillbilly stock,” according to a son, and had married into a well-connected Midwestern family.

Betty Stimson completed a science degree in home economics in 1952 at Purdue University in neighboring Indiana. Five years later, she married John Pratt-Johnson, an ophthalmologist who left South Africa in opposition to apartheid. (The union would end in divorce.) They moved to Jamaica, where twin boys, Brian and Doug, were born in 1960. The unsettled political situation led the young family to settle in Canada.

Pratt-Johnson wrote other guidebooks on whitewater kayaking and later planned a series on walking. She launched her own imprint for her books. It was aptly called Adventure Publishing.

She died in hospital on October 21, 2014, in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. Her one request was for her ashes to be spread not in the ocean she loved but on a mountain path. Her sons plan to scatter them on an alpine trail she often walked near her home in the lakeside village of Kaslo, a former silver boom town. In this way, they will honor a mother whose explorations had become less aquatic and more restricted to terra firma in the final years of her life.