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Entering uncharted waters

It’s early morning and I sip my coffee while looking out from the bridge windows. Here at the very top of the ship I have a great view over the waters in front of us. I’m never quite sure where I will wake up in the morning, the ship moves overnight to a new location so this is a good chance to get my bearings. It’s quiet up here now and I take a few minutes to scan over the nautical chart on the computer screen in front of me. I'm looking for potential dive sites, trying to find seabed features that might be interesting. For me that is steep rock faces, preferably with sheltered crevices, overhangs and caves. Close contour lines on the chart show that these might be present. but we can’t tell for sure until we get on site and check it out using the depth sounder on the zodiac. And some of the areas we will be visiting are completely blank on the chart having never been surveyed. We can’t go into these on the expedition ship but can venture into them on the zodiacs if we feel there may be good sites.

Some of the Labrador waters are uncharted, with no information on depths or seabed types. Credit Claire Goodwin/HMSC.

As we sleep at night, Canadian Hydrographic Services seabed mappers, Ernest Hynes and Mark Ballah are conducting multibeam sonar surveys of the seabed from the ship, endeavouring to fill in some of these mapping gaps. But for now, we have to go with the information that we have.

Soon I’m joined by the rest of the science and youth engagement staff. Michael Hannaford, expedition lead for the Innu Nation, lets us know of any priority sites in the current area. Then its up to Geoff to co-ordinate the science and youth engagement activities. It’s complicated scheduling who will be in which zodiac and the timings to make everything happen. Today Michael will be doing some Remotely Operated Vehicle surveys of the seabed, Jessica Desforges from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will be putting out some baited camera traps to try and see what fish are in the area, Terri Wells from DFO will be doing water chemistry monitoring, and Ashley Bungay (also DFO) is putting in traps to check for invasive green crabs. Geoff and Jenn Williams and Valérie Courtois (SOI education program co-leads) assign the youth to help the various science teams and will be going ashore later for a beach walk.

The bridge is crowded as the science team meet to discuss the survey priorities for the day. Credit Claire Goodwin/HMSC.

I am excited as I think I have spotted a great dive site. On the corner of South Tunungayukaluk Island the contours on the chart are so close together that they combine into one thick black line. It seems like the cliff may drop from the surface to 60 m. Checking it out from the ship, the cliff has huge overhangs. Sometimes this indicates more of the same underwater, but not always. We arrive on site in the zodiac and nose into the cliff, the rock face curving overhead. Looking down into the clear water the wall falls away steeply. The upper parts are barren, covered in coralline algae and a sprinkling of green urchins.

The steep overhanging rock at this site might indicate the cliffs underwater are similar. Meg is going to find out! Credit Claire Goodwin/HMSC.

But the only way to see what is below is to dive in. I roll in and start to underwater skydive down the cliff. As I fall slowly down the urchin barren changes into rich life. First a zone where sea colander seaweed dangles down (Amanda will be happy!), then a large overhanging shelf. It reaches around two metres out from the main wall. On the protected rock below the shelf bright red anemones jostle for space with tufty bryozoans. There are some of the biggest sponges I have ever seen – volcano-like bright yellow bumpy mounds. I have no idea what species of sponge they are so grab a sample. It is way too big to squeeze into one of my small whirlpak bags.

Meg investigates a massive sponge on the cliff. Credit Claire Goodwin/HMSC.

Overhanging bedrock on the cliff was covered with anemones, bryozoans and sponges. Credit Claire Goodwin/HMSC.

Another day and we are in a different island group, the Freestones. This time we decide to deploy the sea viewer before jumping in. This is a camera that we can lower into the water and feeds us back live images from the seabed. Onboard Archaeologist Scott Neilsen, a professor from Memorial University, has reports of shipwrecks in this area and we are hoping to find them. The first site we scan isn’t promising. Barren bedrock with lots of urchins. We move further into the middle of the bay as I figure ships at anchor might have been sunk by an isolated rock that loiters here. The camera touches the seabed and immediately there are screams of excitement from Amanda who is watching the screen at the front. ‘A rhodolith bed!’. Shocking, pink coloured, round balls cover the seabed. These are actually a type of seaweed (which explains why Amanda is so excited!). The nooks and crannies between the balls are a great habitat for marine invertebrates and fish. They provide a secure nursery area where they can hide from predators. This includes the juveniles of commercially important species like scallops. We must wait for the tide to slacken before we dive the bed. When we submerge, we encounter brittlestars, many small fish, and hundreds of tiny lyre crabs.

A well camouflaged Arctic shanny hides in the rhodolith bed. Credit: Claire Goodwin/HMSC

Some water is too deep for us to dive into. As scientific divers we dive under the Canadian Association for Underwater Science standard. We use DCIEM dive tables to tell us how much bottom time we can safely have before accumulating too much nitrogen in our blood. The tables tell me I would have 8 minutes of bottom time on a 39 m dive – barely enough time to get my collecting kit out, so pretty pointless. Luckily, we have Michael onboard with his Remotely Operated Vehicles. As well as being Innu Nation scientific lead of the expedition, Michael is a professional ROV pilot who works on projects all over the world. ROVs are small underwater robots that have lights and cameras. Michael and his team lower them to the seabed and a cable conducts the camera's picture to a screen on the surface. Many of the youth onboard have a go at driving the ROV under Michael’s tutelage and some turn out to be very proficient. The control used to drive the ROV is actually one from a PlayStation, enabling the operator to move it forward and backward and up and down (maybe I should stop nagging my son about his video game time, it could come in handy!). In the deeper waters the camera has explored they have found fields of burrowing sea anemones, an important marine habitat.

The team deploy the ROV. Credit: Students on Ice.

Live feed from the ROV allows expedition participants to view the seabed. Credit: Students on Ice.

We also used baited cameras. Fisheries and Oceans Canada technician Jessica Desforges has been setting these at various locations during our trip. The setup is simple, a go pro video camera and a light attached onto an old crab pot. A bag in front of the camera contains rather stinky cat food which will attract predators. This gives a much better chance of seeing fish species as, smelling the bait, they come to investigate the camera. On this trip Jessica has found many species including rock cod, sculpin, and her favourite, a female lumpsucker. This chubby fish emerged jerkily from the kelp and lurched right past the camera.

Jessica and youth participant Annette prepare to deploy the baited camera. Credit: Students on Ice.

All the video and photos keep us working long into the night, trying to identify species encountered and document the sites. This information will provide the Innu Nation with essential information on the species and habitats found in their waters. The images also provide a great way to share the seabed with those who stayed on the ship. We often screen them at evening briefings, laughing at the antics of the lyre crabs, burrowing anemones shooting back into their holes as the ROV passes overhead, or marvelling at sea urchins, swarming to eat a seal carcass. For more about how we identify what we encounter tune in next week. I am off for another dive………….

You can read more about the expedition and see weekly expedition films by following both InnuNationLabrador and StudentsOnIce on Facebook and Studentsonice on Instagram.

#innu#labrador#SOI#expedition #huntsmanmarine #CanadianMuseumofNature

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