The Saanich Peninsula has seen many pioneers, but few have left behind a more prosperous legacy than Frank White Sr.
In 1956 he founded one of the first SCUBA equipment manufacturers in the world; the first in Canada to make wet suits and first in North America to make dry suits.
“After the war he got some old surplus bottles off some old Lancaster bombers and some masks and fins and took to the water,” said his son Frank White Jr. “It was a hobby that became a business.”
Frank White’s passion infected his son, Frank Jr., who learned to dive at 12 and became an instructor at 18.
When White Jr. got older he took a more prominent role in the company and set about converting the little dive shop in Saanichton into a world-class research laboratory and manufacturing facility.
Just as the invention of the Aqualung came about for use by militaries in the Second World War, White’s first big customer was the Canadian military.
“The military has always been one of the cornerstones of the company,” explained brand manager Justin Balaski. Many Canadian military, police, coast guard and fire department divers wear their suits.
The high quality and durability of White’s suits are recognized by the most elite combat forces in the world. Divers in the American, French, British and Israeli militaries all don White’s equipment.
“We have probably the most technical knowledge in dry suits in the world,” White said. “That’s why we beat out the U.S. manufacturer for the biggest [dry suit] contract ever with the U.S. Marines.”
Equipment for sport and commercial divers form the other pillars of White’s business and have taken on increasingly important roles since the company was founded. Sport diving took off in the 1970s and 1980s leading to a surge in demand for wet and dry suits. This demand levelled off in recent years, something Balaski attributes to the proliferation of other outdoor adventure sports. In more recent decades, expanding underwater oil and gas exploration and offshore development has helped pick up the slack left by recreational divers finding new hobbies.
A new development in dry suit technology has, above all else, ensured White’s competitiveness in the years to come. Prior to this breakthrough, the standard dry suit “hadn’t changed for many, many years,” said Balaski. They were often seen as inflexible and filled a niche for technical divers, being too awkward and impractical for most diving situations.
In 2006, White’s developed a new, more lithe material which allowed dry suit operators previously unheard-of freedom and mobility – the Fusion suit.
Before this “we had a suit like everyone else,” Balaski said. But now the Fusion suit “really just changed the game.”
White diving’s success caught the eye of Aqualung, the original SCUBA equipment company, who bought White’s in 2010. Now the Saanichton start-up has its eyes set on being “the No. 1 manufacturer in the world,” Balaski said. “That’s going to happen in the next five years.”