I duck behind a boulder to try to get out of the current as I collect my sample. There is so much life on the sloping seabed that I don’t know which species to grab first. Large horse mussels form tight clusters on the bottom. Fan-like bryozoans, bright orange encrusting sponges, and delicate seaweeds cover their surface. Large winter flounder glide between the clusters. A gigantic lobster is pursuing my buddy Millie as she tries to take some video. But from the massive grin on her face and her hand signals I can see she is enjoying her first dive in Eastern Canada. After twenty minutes the current becomes too strong for us to be able to hold onto the bottom. I deploy a buoy so the boat can see that we are coming up and Millie and I start to ascend. As soon as the buoy is up the tide catches us and we shoot off down the Brier Island's Grand Passage, an experience to rival any fairground ride.
The seabed in Grand Passage, Briar Island, has a rich animal life including winter flounder. Credit: Millie Mannering.
Millie Mannering, my dive buddy, joined the Polar Prince in Digby. She’s a 23-year-old Kiwi, on a year long scholarship with the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®. Since 1974, this society has provided experiences to young people considering careers in the underwater world. Each year the society selects a scholar from North America, Europe, and Australasia. Scholars spend a year traveling the world and gaining exposure and firsthand experience. The scholars work with leaders in marine-related fields and partake in endeavors ranging from scientific expeditions to equipment testing and design. You can find out more about Millie and the scholarship here www.owuscholarship.org/content/amelia-millie-mannering. Millie has extensive scientific diving experience and its great to have her join the Huntsman team for this expedition.
Claire, Millie, Christy and Sam formed the dive team. Credit: Millie Mannering.
We are trying to dive in as many different habitats as possible on this trip to collect a broad range of species. We dive off the Polar Prince’s Zodiac, ably skippered by Sam Dews. Sam also has a lot of dive experience and has just finished a National Geographic ‘Pristine Seas’ expedition on the Polar Prince to the Arctic. We are hoping not to need his dive medical technician skills though. I’m not sure if I feel reassured or scared when he tells me the boat first aid kit has hypodermic syringes in it in case we need treatment for a pneumothorax! (a collapsed lung caused by an air bubble; the syringe can be plunged into the chest to remove the air). Christy acts as our surface safety attendant, recording our times in an out and standing by with oxygen kit in case we need it to treat dive injuries.
This tiny sea slug was collected from the Brier Island eelgrass bed.
After our first dive on the Brier Island horse mussel bed, we head into calmer waters near shore. Millie and I slip into a beautiful dense seagrass bed. The lush green frond waft gently in the waves. I start to photograph and pluck off the tiny snails, sea slugs and crustaceans that cover them. We’ve also promised to bring Christy up some of the rich mud under the seagrass. It’s bound to be full of polychaete worms. Millie has the enviable task of filling one of our plastic collection bags. I almost lose sight of her through the large cloud of silt she generates as she ploughs the bag into the mud to fill it.
Millie collects a bag of worm filled mud for Christy. Credit: Claire Goodwin.
The next day we reach Seal Island. Nova Scotia Nature Trust protect 80% of this ‘Wonderous foggy Isle’ which lies 32 km offshore at the extreme southwest of Nova Scotia. Its pristine habitats, include stunted, mossy forest, salt marsh, bog and barachois pond, rocky shore, sandy beach, and grass dunes. These play host to tens of thousands of birds annually on their migratory journey (learn more at https://nsnt.ca/our-work/campaigns-and-projects/project/seal-island/). Once home to up to two hundred people who worked fishing and lobster canning, the island now has no permanent inhabitants, although it is still used seasonally.
I haven’t dived at Seal Island before and the old dive book I have mostly focuses on wrecks around the island. The westerly winds limit us to diving on the east side. We head out in the zodiac to find a good site. I spot some large boulders on the shore and decide that might be a good place to jump in, often the shore habitat continues underwater. Millie and I are greeted by vast boulders, some over three meters high. Kelp forest undulates on their tops. But I am most excited by the dense animal life on the sides of the boulders. I frantically start photographing and scooping invertebrates into bags. Christy has tasked Millie with collecting kelp holdfasts (attachment points) for Christy. Many species live in these and Christy will spend hours teasing them out later. After the dive we happily head back, our collection bags full of our haul. We will be working late tonight in the lab to document and preserve all our specimens. Good thing the galley has a constant supply of coffee!