The ship is heading into our anchorage for the night when we spot it. At first just a blob of white on the surface of the glassy sea. As we get closer, we can make out its black nose, and two rounded ears. It’s a polar bear! Along with most of the rest of the people on board I rush up onto the bow deck to get a good look. I’m impressed at how fast it is swimming. Polar bears use their powerful front legs to swim and the back as a rudder, reaching speeds of up to ten kilometers per hour. Scientists consider them marine mammals, as they spend much of their time in the ocean and depend on it for their survival. Their Latin name Ursus maritimus means ‘sea bear’. They can swim distances of more than ninety kilometers without a break. This one however decides it does want a break and hauls itself onto a rocky islet near our anchorage.
A polar bear was sighted on a rocky islet. Credit: Students on Ice.
I hadn’t expected to see polar bears here in summer, thinking they would be in the high Arctic on sea ice. But the polar bear populations of Labrador and northern Quebec are one of the few that are thought to be healthy, estimated at around 2500 strong. Scientists suspect that polar bears here are doing well because of a boom in harp seal numbers. This is due to the collapse of the industry that hunted the harp seals for their fur.
I’m very excited to see my first polar bear but it does present a bit of a problem for our diving. While polar bear attacks are rare, they do occur. Between 1870 and 2014 there were 73 confirmed attacks in which 20 people were killed and 63 injured, so it is wise to avoid contact if possible. We had been hoping to dive the islet the bear is sitting on but change our plan, moving a few kilometers away to a steep cliff. We discuss recall signals in case a bear shows up on a dive site – Sam will rev the boat’s engine and we will put up our marker buoy so he can locate us. When he has managed to scare the bear away, he will rev the engine again, signalling to us that it is safe to ascend. If the encounter risk is high, we will take a bear guard in the boat with us, armed with a gun with ‘bear banger’ cartridges. These make a loud noise which scares the bears away without harming them. All this is definitely not something I have to consider in my Bay of Fundy fieldwork!
We are into our final week of the expedition now and trying to collect as much as possible to make the most of our time here. I’m particularly keen to catch a worm that we have spotted several times now that Meg has nicknamed the ‘tongue worm’. This long white, flattened, worm has an end shaped a bit like a spatula. I am not sure what species it is and to identify it I will need to capture it and preserve it for examination under the microscope. I’ve tried grabbing it with my hands but as soon as I touch it, it retracts rapidly into its burrow. So, we arm Meg with a highly technical piece of equipment we dub the worm spoon (ok we borrowed it from the galley!). After several dives Meg does eventually manage to grab a piece of one of the worms. It might not be enough to identify it using morphology but if someone has already sequenced this species, we may be able to identify it using its genetic material (DNA). Genetic ‘barcodes’ are short pieces of DNA that are increasingly being used for species identification. We hope to barcode many of the species we have collected on this trip and add them to a database we are creating for Atlantic Canadian marine invertebrates (learn more about this project in this previous Huntsman blog - https://www.huntsmanmarine.ca/post/soi-expedition-blog-post-2-what-is-a-barcode-christy-carr ).
Meg deploys the worm spoon. Credit: Claire Goodwin/HMSC.
Amanda Savoie from the Canadian Museum of Nature is also collecting. But her target is seaweed, which fortunately for her, is less speedy! When she gets her samples back on the boat, she presses the seaweed specimens to preserve them. She floats them in trays of seawater so she can arrange them on thick herbarium paper in a way that identification features can be clearly seen. Amanda will also barcode her seaweed specimens and preserves a small piece of them in silica gel for this. She holds a workshop for youth, elders and crew and everyone has great fun making beautiful seaweed bookmarks.
Amanda collecting seaweed. Credit: Claire Goodwin/HMSC.
Amanda teaches people how to press seaweed. Credit: Students on Ice.
The team from leg 3 celebrate the achievements of the voyage. Credit: Students on Ice.
Too soon it is our last dive of the expedition. We gather on the stern for a team photo and to celebrate the achievements of the voyage. Together we’ve explored rarely visited areas of the Labrador Coast. We have collected data on habitats, species, oceanography, and archaeology to help the Innu Nation manage their marine zone. Innu youth and community members have been able to experience the research firsthand. We hope this will inspire some of the youth to follow marine careers. I’ve had a fantastic trip but am looking forward to getting home and catching up with my family – and on sleep! I’ll be spending the next few months in the laboratory identifying all the specimens we collected. But hopefully this isn’t goodbye to Labrador, and I will be back soon to explore some more uncharted waters.
A CBC recap of the expedition can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_WNSKi-lNs
You can read more about the expedition and see weekly expedition films by following on InnuNationLabrador and StudentsOnIce on Facebook and ‘Studentsonice on Instagram. We will also share them on the Huntsman social media.