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Quebec Barcoding – Extreme Sampling

“So,” Charlie explains, “you simply put on your fins and crawl backward over the rock into the water. Then to get out, you can grasp onto this spike to help pull yourself out of the water.”

Charlie is the Diving Officer for Explos-Nature and our dive guide for today. The three of us look at her, slightly horrified, rock climbing wasn’t in my risk assessment! We are all wearing twin sets (two scuba tanks) with heavy lead weight belts and are loaded down with sampling bags and cameras. We have also already hiked down the hill pushing our dive kit in wheelbarrows and then carried it over the uneven rocks to the edge of the water. Following Charlie’s advice, we slide down the sloping rock like three clumsy seals. But when we have sunk down to the seabed it is worth the struggle. Large red anemones and scarlet sea cucumbers cover the rock wall. Between them are lots of smaller animals – including bryozoans. We get to work sampling.

Andrea, Julian, Claire and Jo prepare to enter the water at Les Escoumins. Credit: Explos Nature

The steep rocky shores at Les Escoumins made for some tricky entries. Credit: Ellen Fanning

We are diving in Baie des Anémones at Les Escoumins. This is a popular base for scuba diving from the shore, operated by Parks Canada. Les Escoumins is situated on a rocky peninsula on the north shore of the St Lawrence Estuary. Here, the rocky shores drop rapidly to depths of 300 metres. The upwellings and currents supply abundant food for filter feeding animals, so the sites are very rich in marine life.

Filter feeding anemones, sea peaches (ascidians) and sea cucumbers cover every surface in the Baie des Anemones. Credit: Jo Porter

Ellen is acting as our shore safety attendant, poised ready to help if there is any incident while we are diving. This can be a fairly boring job, watching the divers’ bubbles or buoy until they surface. But on this trip whales entertain Ellen while we are underwater. Because the shore here is so close to deep water, you can whale watch right from the rocks. A humpback whale surfaces before flipping its tail up to dive. In the distance Ellen spots a blue whale! Meanwhile, the divers underwater are oblivious to this wildlife spectacle as they intently examine rocks and boulders for marine invertebrates.

While we are diving Christy and Mary are off exploring the intertidal zones of the shore or pontoons in marinas. This also isn’t without its hazards – Mary returns from one trip covered in mosquito bites. The first shore site is a rocky mussel bed at Cap de Bon-Désir. Many tourists watch from the rock bluffs as a humpback whale entertains us only about 30 feet away. This shore is dominated by blue mussels, amphipods (Gammarus) and large predatory worms (Alitta virens).

Rocky shore at Cap de Bon-Désir. Credit: Mary Spencer Jones

On day two, we head to a very different intertidal habitat with a sandy beach at Pointe à John. Here, the fauna reminds me much more of that in subarctic Churchill, MB, than in the Bay of Fundy. In particular, castings of the lugworm Arenicola marina litter the beach. We walk out for 30 minutes, but we are still only halfway to the low water edge. We decide to stop here and see what we can find. Mary examines the seaweeds for white patches of bryozoans while I dig and sieve the sand for organisms. We have a window of about 1 hour before the tide comes back in and threatens to carry away our buckets and tools.

Sandy beach at Pointe à John. Credit: Mary Spencer Jones

We are also using a grab to sample. This is a device that has jaws that close to grab a chunk of the seabed. Normally we would use a winch on the boat to haul the full grab from the seabed, but the Explos-Nature boat is small and does not have a winch. So, we must hand haul the grab. We soon develop a good system, three of us hauling at once. But it is hard work!

Hauling up the grab aboard the Explos-Nature vessel the Merveille C. Credit: Explos Nature

After our sampling trips we head back to the lab to examine and identify our finds. We’re not looking only for the big stuff that is obvious underwater but also tiny animals that are hard to see with the naked eye. We hunt over rocks for the tiniest bryozoan crusts, pick minute shrimp off weed and pull minuscule worms out of seafloor mud and sand. We have to photograph each specimen, give it a field ID and preserve it in ethanol so we can examine it further later and send tissue off to be barcoded.

The team hard at work in the lab examining the day’s catches. Credit: Ellen Fanning


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