By John Nightingale, President & CEO, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre has been active in Canada’s Arctic since the early 1970s, with expeditions, research and community work conducted throughout the region every few years since. This year’s amazing schedule of Arctic research efforts and programs was not planned so much as it is a culmination of our growing capacity and commitment to an ecosystem that is important to all of us.

With a growing understanding of that importance, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre has no fewer than five separate groups of scientists, Arctic and public program staff, operational staff and support teams in Canada’s Arctic this month.

JN Arctic fox lying down close_Eric Solomon

The Arctic plays a crucial role in the world’s ecosystems.

Two separate scientific dive teams — with divers from our Coastal Ocean Research Institute and our biological team — are in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, working with Polar Knowledge Canada, the federal organization responsible for a growing pan-government focus on knowledge acquisition and sharing in the North, including development of the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) under construction in the community of Cambridge Bay. That station, which will become operational next year, is a major new scientific research facility which will be utilized by both Canadian and visiting researchers doing work on land and in marine environments. To help prepare it for operation, Vancouver Aquarium science dive teams are systematically exploring and mapping the underwater marine environment over a four-week period. They are cataloging both the environments and species with photography and map-based data sets for use by the scientists who will be based at CHARS for research in future years.

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The new Canadian High Arctic Research Station under construction in Cambridge Bay.

Parallel to that effort, our team is hosting a dive/science team from Osaka, Japan, providing an introduction to diving and research in cold northern waters. Diving in water with temperatures close to and below 0 Celsius is highly technical; connecting with the Aquarium team’s experience and expertise is a valuable way to shorten the Japan team’s learning curve.

At the same time, Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer, is assisting in a long-running project led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to better understand the natural history of Arctic marine mammals. Carried out just west of Pond Inlet in Nunavut, a key aspect of the project is the Eclipse Sound Narwhal Study, which requires the temporary capture of the legendary “unicorns of the sea,” in order to fit them with satellite tags. The tags will allow DFO scientists to better understand Narwhal biology and natural history. Because they live in an environment that is dark and frozen for about half the year, it’s hard to know where these elusive animals go and how they live, making development of conservation strategies impossible. As one of the world’s most experienced people in handling marine mammals, Clint provides invaluable expertise to the team.

Our North plays a vital role in Canada’s ecology, economy and sovereignty. Photo credit: Glenn Williams.

Clint Wright works with DFO scientists to better understand Narwhal biology and natural history.

In addition, for 15 days in mid-August, I am leading a ship-based expedition to explore and conduct three different scientific projects on Baffin Bay and through Canada’s Northwest Passage. Working with Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic Programs, and Andrea Wright, from our External Relations team, we are aboard a One Ocean research/expedition vessel travelling from Greenland, through the Northwest Passage, ending in Cambridge Bay. One Ocean is a Canadian ecotourism company based in Squamish which uses privately owned research vessels from Russia’s Shirshov Institute of Oceanology to take people to the Arctic during our summer, and the Antarctic during our winter (the southern summer). The expedition is providing 25 guests of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre with the opportunity to join about 55 others on the exploration trip of a lifetime.

Using the expedition ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov as a research “platform of opportunity” we have three scientific programs aboard for this voyage. Big research ships are costly to operate — without the support and generosity of One Ocean, we could not conduct this science and contribute to the badly needed body of knowledge documenting the rapidly changing marine environment in the Arctic.

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One Ocean Expeditions are world leaders in Arctic exploration.

First, we’re continuing research on the marine mammal populations along the ship’s track – called a transect. All of the onboard guests are helping conduct the work of sighting and recording marine mammals, in particular cetaceans (whales and dolphins), for the second year. The goal is to build a database of sightings over several years to allow for estimations of population numbers, so they can be tracked in the future as climate and environmental conditions change. We’re also continuing assessment and description of oceanographic conditions along the ship’s transect, describing temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen levels and other parameters, an effort begun in 2015.

New this year is a groundbreaking new project to detect and document the presence and amounts of microplastics in Arctic waters. Microplastics are small (think the size of a BB or smaller) and Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, under Dr. Peter Ross (part of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute) have been leaders in understanding the growing impacts micro-plastics are having on the marine ecosystem. Eric Solomon will be pumping and filtering Arctic-ocean water from several depths to quantify how many particles we find per cubic meter — allowing the data to be compared with similar data for the Pacific Ocean. The samples will also permit the Ocean Pollution Research team to learn about the plastics’ origin and source and determine how to prevent or reduce their migration from land-based plastic products. This is the first such study in the arctic.

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The Aquarium scientists hope to help us understand changes happening in the Arctic. 

Over the course of these expeditions, I will report on our ship-based scientific and exploration work, and Clint and our Science Dive Team members will report on their projects. All in all, an amazing August, one in which we are proud and delighted to participate in some incredible scientific research which will help all of us understand some of the changes happening in the North. Stay tuned.

Dr. John Nightingale is the president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. During 23 years at the helm, he has guided the expansion of the Aquarium’s leadership in conservation and research while focusing operations on sustainability and solid fiscal performance. As a result, the Vancouver Aquarium is not only one of the “greenest” cultural institutions in Canada, it is the only one that is financially self-sufficient.

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.

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