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Innu Nation Uinipeku Ocean Expedition – Dispatch 1 – Meet the Dive Team

Rolling in off the zodiac, I start to sink down through the shimmering ocean surface, alive with thousands of comb jellies. My face stings from the freezing (-1oC) water, but I am too excited to care, for before us is a vertical wall, completely covered with life. Scarlet sea cumbers wave their tentacles. Splotches of orange and yellow sponges cover the bedrock, clashing with the pink encrusting algae around them. Lush seaweed wafts in the slight swell and long-legged toad crabs stroll underneath it. I settle in the slight overhang at the end of the gully and start to collect my samples. I photograph each animal and then, as delicately as my thickly gloved hands will allow, place it in a small, numbered plastic bag. The numbering lets me match it to the photos later. My buddy Meg is next to me videoing the rocky seabed and its inhabitants. Too soon our thirty minutes are up, and we must surface. We can see the dive boat above us through the crystal-clear waters. Reluctantly we start to ascend, as we float at five metres doing our safety stop, I can see Amanda and Roger still collecting below us. Amanda looks as excited as I was, darting over the rock to grab as many samples of seaweed as possible.

Claire descends through hundreds of comb jellies. Photo HMSC/Meg Thompson

Sea cucumbers, urchins, and sponges covered the bedrock. Photo HMSC/Meg Thompson.

We are diving at the Gannet Islands, a remote archipelago 40 km off the Labrador Coast that few people are lucky enough to visit. Our four-person dive team consists of me, my buddy Meg Thompson (a student at University of Victoria), and Amanda Savoie and Roger Bull from the Canadian Museum of Nature. Plus, Sam Dews our zodiac driver and surface safety attendant. Our task is to record what animals and seaweeds are living at each site, and the type of seabed present. This is the first time anyone has dived these areas so even this basic information isn't yet known. As Amanda loves seaweeds and I have a soft spot for marine invertebrates, especially sponges, we make a great recording team. Meg and Roger are our photographers and videographers, documenting the sites. Amanda and I are both collecting samples - not always an easy task while wearing thick neoprene gloves! These will let us identify the species present (often we need to examine them under a microscope). We will also create reference collections for this region both of physical specimens and genetic sequences.

The dive team. Left to right: Sam Dews, Amanda Savoie, Meg Thompson, Claire Goodwin, Roger Bull. Sporting new Innu Parks touques. Photos: Students on Ice.

We are taking part in an Innu Nation project and Students on Ice Expedition, being conducted in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Based on an ice breaker research vessel we will sail up the Labrador coast from Goose Bay to Natuashish, conducting scientific sampling as we go. Along with our scuba dives, there will also be Remotely Operated Vehicle Dives, invasive species monitoring, plankton collection, bird surveys, and water chemistry monitoring and seabed mapping. Innu Nation scientific expedition lead Michael Hannaford explains that the Innu nation’s aim is to improve their knowledge of their marine ecosystems and provide a foundation for their future management and protection. A further aim is to build capacity for the Innu Nation to develop their marine work. Michael is hoping some of the youth on this expedition will consider marine careers following this trip.

Youth visiting the seabird colonies at the Gannet Islands by boat. Image Students on Ice.

Over 38000 breeding pairs of puffins inhabit the islands. Image Students on Ice.

As this is a Students on Ice trip, we also have Innu youth on board. The expedition will let them see science at sea first-hand, develop skills and gain an understanding of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. When we return to the ship after our dive, they are buzzing from their zodiac tour around the island with bird expert Dr. Bill Montevecchi. Confusingly not a single Gannet lives on the islands, they are named after a 19th century British survey ship rather than the bird. But their steep cliffs are covered with thousands of other nesting birds. These include 15,000 pairs of Razorbills (the largest Razorbill colony in North America, 36,000 breeding pairs of Common Murres and 38,000 pairs of puffins. We show the youth the specimens we have collected from our dives – one of the red cucumbers, some splotched polar sea stars, delicate red seaweed, and a hairy hermit crab that I feel rather sorry to have to pickle.

Innu youth Shaia and Jersey examine the specimens brought up by the divers. Image students on ice.

That morning we’d taken a group of youth ashore at the Wunderstrands, also known as the Porcupine Strands. These and many of the sites we are visiting during the first part of our expedition are part of the Akami-Uapishkᵁ-KakKasuak-Mealy Mountains National Park. The park is co-managed by the Innu Nation and Parks Canada. Park Superintendent Jack Penashue and visitor experience co-ordinator Kilabuk Qupee spoke to us earlier in the expedition. They explained that the park will protect its environment, while preserving traditional Innu harvesting rights, allowing people to still live off the land. Parks staff include Innu guardians, including youth guardians. The 10,700 square km park will help to protect the threatened Mealy Mountain Caribou herd, as well as wolves, black bear, martens and birds. See more about the park here

The Vikings described these beautiful 50 km long ‘wunderstrands’ in sagas telling of their exploration of the Canadian Coast. We wander along the sunny sands. A group are with Amanda and I, exploring animals and seaweeds. Jayden and Jersey find so many spider crab legs we could do a jigsaw. We tow nets through the long tide pool, catching bright red jellies and side swimmers (amphipods). Ashley Bungay from Fisheries and Oceans Canada leads another group in a plastics survey. Fortunately, they do not find much. They classify what they do collect into sizes and types and check it to see if any sneaky invasive species are hitching a ride. The data will contribute to a national debris survey. A third are walking with Gioia Montevecchi from Innu parks hearing about the Innu heritage of the area. Nomadic Innu have roamed these lands for over 7000 years, hunting caribou in winter and fishing along the coast in summer. Artifacts found here include stone tent rings, remains of Shaputuan (longhouses), and stone tools showing the long use of the area. Part of Gioia’s role as parks planner is to identify archaeological sites for more detailed survey. We are all watched over by armed bear guards. Black bears are common in this southern part of Labrador and as we head further north, we may find polar bears.

Claire explores a tide pool with Innu youth Shaia on the wunderstrands.

Claire and Innu youth explore specimens found on the wunderstrands.

Shanin and Claire examine specimens under the microscope.

Tired and happy we return to the ship ready to move onto the next site. One of the many advantages of our floating home is that we can eat a delicious lunch while we travel. I wonder what we will find when we hit the water again…….

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


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