By John Nightingale, President & CEO, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre
This past winter (2015-2016) the Arctic ice pack, which is the ice cover of the Arctic Ocean, saw the smallest amount of ice formed during any winter since scientists began keeping records augmented with satellite data in the mid 1960s. The ice freezes and the Arctic ice pack grows during winter. Scientists call the maximum ice coverage each winter – the winter maximum. By all reports, it was a very mild winter in the Arctic last year – mild, but still very cold by our standards, and it was the smallest winter maximum recorded. Then, most of the Arctic experienced a mild or even warm spring. The Arctic ice pack shrinks from spring through to about mid-September when it is cold enough to start re-freezing. Scientists had feared this summer would see the smallest summer minimum ever recorded. But, a cold July and an early August have slowed the summer melting and it appears 2016 will not break the record for the smallest ice pack set in 2012.
What’s that got to do with our trip? The weird weather, as someone put it, continues. We’ve seen more cold (it is about two degrees Celsius outside as I write this at 10 a.m. in the morning) and a lot more wind on our expedition this year. Winds as high as 45 knots kept us out of the Zodiacs, off the water and inside our comfortable ship for about two days cumulatively. Part of the issue is that everyone brings cameras on trips such as this one; some of them, very expensive. One Ocean Expeditions provides each guest with a dry bag for extra coats, cameras and other things we need to take with us into the Zodiacs or ashore. But, when the high winds blow, a ride in a Zodiac can be quite wet with salt spray and makes it challenging to protect the cameras. Today, we are waiting for the winds to diminish before we take a trip to shore to look for beluga whales and polar bears.
We are at Coningham Bay, a small bay and inlet on the southeast coast of Prince of Wales Island in Nunavut. We want to go see the shallow inlet where beluga mothers often group together with their calves in a nursery or kindergarten area – as the marine mammologists call it. Because there are beluga whales here in relatively shallow water, there are often also polar bears trying to capture a beluga calf along the shoreline. For safety reasons, we will not observe from shore – but will cruise along the shoreline with 10 people per Zodiac.
Spending a couple of hours in an open boat in two degrees with the wind blowing can be cold. Everyone will be bundled up with long underwear, thermal jackets, full rain pants and coats — hats and gloves are also required. By this point in the trip, our entire ship’s company is used to gearing up for the cold, putting on a personal flotation device for safety, signing out and going down the gangway to get into the Zodiacs. The unusual weather on this trip has thwarted several scheduled stops, but One Ocean Expeditions’ leaders and guides adapt, as do we, the explorers. We always find somewhere else to explore. It is an expedition, after all, not a cruise.
Last evening we crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We came through Bellot Strait which separates Somerset Island on the north from the Boothia Peninsula on the south. This is truly the heart of the Northwest Passage and marks the divide between Atlantic waters to the east and Pacific and Arctic ocean waters to the west. The Strait is narrow, and the captain of our ship set the time to pass through when the tidal currents would be still at slack water between tides. Half way through Bellot Strait we passed Zenith Point, the Northern-most point of continental North America. Everything north of that point consists of islands. The ship’s company toasted explorers past and current as we went through, and we all sang a slightly off-key but rousing rendition of Stan Roger’s Northwest Passage.
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre scientists continue to work on our three research programs aboard One Ocean Expeditions. Samples were taken at the surface, from the bottom and at various depths to continue documenting the extent of microplastic pollution in this relatively pristine environment. Those samples will be analyzed in Vancouver by Dr. Peter Ross and his team at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute to determine the global spread of microplastics in the ocean.
As mentioned in an earlier post, this trip provides the opportunity to sample across Arctic waters. This is something our programs could not afford to do without the generous help of One Ocean Expeditions, letting us use the ship as a research platform of opportunity during this trip. At the moment, the sampling team is working on obtaining oceanographic data, and taking samples of surface waters to fingerprint the rivers and streams flowing into the Arctic ocean. We hope the winds diminish, and we can all get into Zodiacs and into motion.
With global temperatures on the rise, we’re racing against time to gain insight about one of the least scientifically understood regions on the planet: the Arctic. This month, scientists from Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre head north to expand upon innovative Arctic research projects started in 2015, in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the federal agency responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and for strengthening Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. This blog series chronicles our scientists’ time and research efforts in the Arctic.