By Jeremy Heywood, Vancouver Aquarium diving safety officer
On a very early and dark Sunday morning, Mackenzie Neale, Ruby Banwait, Laura Borden and I left Vancouver, beginning our voyage to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to continue the 2016 Nearshore Ecological Survey (NES). In contrast to the 2015 NES, which was 10 days in length, the 2016 effort is one month long, so the Vancouver Aquarium has dispatched two teams, each working for two weeks in Cambridge Bay.
During a pit-stop in Yellowknife, we met up with NES Team One (Danny Kent, Donna Gibbs, Justin Lisaingo and David Caughlan) who arrived in Yellowknife from Cambridge Bay, en route back to Vancouver, the same day. This short overlap allowed Danny and his team to give us an update on the progress of the project, and a debrief of their operations over the last couple of weeks. The following morning we completed the last leg of our journey to Cambridge Bay on a Canadian North Combi (half cargo, half passenger) Boeing 737 jet.
After settling into our accommodations in Polar Knowledge Canada’s Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), we drove around town in our rented and very muddy truck to orient everyone to the lay of the land. We also explored the old town site and the wreck of the Maud. The Maud is Roald Amundsen’s ship that was scuttled in Cambridge Bay in the 1940s. Norwegian archaeologists are now in the process of raising the Maud and eventually towing her back to Norway on a barge. The evening ended with a fiery Arctic sunset and thoughts of diving the following day.
After a couple of familiarization dives close to Cambridge Bay the next day, we set out to meet a long-standing goal of the NES — a visit to the Findlayson Islands. The Findlaysons, a chain of small islands in Dease Strait, 50 km west of Cambridge Bay, jut out from Victoria Island south in to the middle of the Strait. Typically, coastal waters in British Columbia with large tidal exchanges and currents are spectacular dive sites. We had always surmised that, due to the greater water flow and tidal currents flowing through Dease Strait, the underwater flora and fauna there would be similarly diverse and interesting.
In past years, and even for Team One this year, efforts to reach the Findlaysons were in vain, due to weather or boat issues, but we finally made it out there. The two and a half hour boat ride took us west past the south shore of Victoria Island. Our guide, John, has been plying this landscape for his entire life, and his easy and cheerful manner gave us great confidence on our excursion. Before diving, he showed us a favourite spot of his called Starvation Cove. This picturesque, sheltered bay is the location of a Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) emergency cabin, and is visited frequently by Cambridge Bay folks for fishing, hunting and picnicking. Before splashing underwater, we had a picnic there too.
Diving in the Findlaysons was everything we expected — water so clear we could see the divers on the bottom, 12 metres below the keel of the boat, just by peering over the gunwale. Underwater, every surface was covered with life; anemones, urchins, purple encrusting algae, limpets, soft coral and much more. The soft coral, of the Gersemia genus, was most surprising, as we normally don’t encounter it until deeper — close to the limit of divable depths. In the Findlayson Islands we saw an abundance of soft corals starting at a depth of only six metres. Swimming in the water column were numerous species of jellies and other pelagic critters, including sea angels (Clione limacina) hunting their preferred prey, another free-swimming mollusc called Limacina helicina.
The Findlayson Islands are themselves barren outcroppings of rock, with no vegetation. We observed several bearded seals in the area, and John was quick to warn us to be alert for polar bears. They frequent the area; cruising in the waters around the islands hunting seals. For the first time in our careers, we had to devise a safety plan in case a swimming polar bear was spotted. It is the Arctic, after all.
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.