After another shore dive at the tank farm — where we discovered some soft coral deeper down — we managed to secure a small, five-metre-long aluminum skiff from the Arctic Research Foundation and explored some new areas of the West Arm of Cambridge Bay. It turns out that the local boat operator and guide that we had booked for our trip was stranded with a group of elders at a traditional village site more than 270 kilometres away. His trip was supposed to be six days long, but due to stormy conditions and three-metre waves, he and the elders were forced to stay an extra 10 days. He arrived safely home yesterday with a harrowing story of survival to tell. Hence the small aluminum skiff as our dive platform.

Our first boat dive was at a narrow beach below a crumbling shale cliff at the foot of the Cambridge Bay airport runway. Here, only a few metres off shore, a wall drops straight down like a sheer cliff, ending in a rubble field some 15 metres below. This wall showcases some of the most interesting topography we’ve seen on the trip so far. It’s made from large rectangular blocks of shale stacked one on top of the other, with the occasional rounded granite boulder tumbled-in to provide relief from the monolithic grey stone. The wall is covered with purple encrusting coralline algae, anemones, sponges and a variety of other invertebrates. Small fish and shrimp dart in and out of the crevices, and, when turning to face the ocean with the cliff wall at our back, we see the ever-present cloud of jellies drifting by endlessly. The dive tenders (team members who stay on shore or on the boat to watch over the divers) enjoyed the non-stop alarm calls and close-over-head swoops of a nearby family of three peregrine falcons.

Diving in the Arctic

Colourful shrimp and other species abound even in the chilly Arctic Ocean.

Our next dive was even better. Thinking that we should try a dive site with different characteristics, we identified a shallow mud and sand bar in the middle of the West Arm, about equidistant from either shore. The chart seemed to indicate that we would see a flat mud or silt bottom that would slope down and away to deeper water. What we found was something quite different. We anchored the skiff on the shallow mud bank, donned our gear in the most cramped of quarters and rolled into the water.

Dive research in the Arctic

More than meets the eye diving in Arctic waters.

The first part of the dive was as expected — a shallow flat plain of silt, drop stones and various anemones and sea stars. However, as we finned along, we noticed a hard-edged blue line approaching. We reached the line — which was in fact an abrupt end to the silt plain in the form of a completely vertical cliff face extending down at least another 15 or 20 metres – and swam right over the precipice. It was like walking off the edge of a five storey building and not falling, only gently floating down in slow motion. Every surface of the wall was covered with life: sponges, anemones, encrusting coralline algae, crabs, shrimp, sea cucumbers and urchins, and jellies here too in the millions. We took our time exploring this vertical world, and then, ascending, reached the top of the cliff again and proceeded back to the anchored boat with renewed amazement at the unpredictability of the ocean.

Arctic Diving Vancouver Aquarium

A crab scuttles away on the Arctic seabed.

Then we were back on the skiff, the ocean’s surface revealing none of its secrets below, heading home to review the day’s video and photos, and prepare for another day of Arctic diving tomorrow.

This summer, scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre head north for innovative Arctic research projects both below and above the ocean’s surface in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the new federal agency responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and for strengthening Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. This is the third in a series of posts.

Blog post by Jeremy Heywood, diving safety officer for the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. 

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