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Ship's Log: Arctic Whale Survey

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Lancaster Sound 2011: Arctic Whale Survey

Oceans North Canada
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Welcome to our “Ship’s Log” for  Lancaster 2011: Arctic Whale Survey, a month-long scientific expedition to study one of the greatest whale migrations in the world. From the deck of a 45-foot refitted trawler, expedition members will observe narwhal, belugas and bowhead whales – the first time on record that a boat this size has attempted this journey so early in the spring. During the month-long voyage from Greenland, two scientists and an Inuk hunter will be part of a team collecting important new data about Arctic whales and seabirds.


It takes a crew to mount an expedition

July 11, 2011

Posted by Chris Debicki, expedition leader

We will have time to post more on the just-finished expedition and assess the scientific data after we get some sleep. For now we will let the pictures speak for themselves and with your indulgence, thank a few folks.

Chris and Kristin

Christopher Debicki, expedition leader, and Kristin Westdal, marine biologist and expedition research coordinator.

No expedition of this complexity can occur without a host of people who have been unrecognized or under-recognized. Our month at sea was a massive collective effort, both aboard Arctic Endeavour and on terra firma in Greenland, Canada and the USA.

Thanks first and foremost go to our Oceans North team, especially to our home base of Jeremy, David, Ruth, Patty, John, Alaina and Genevieve. Thanks also to support from Trevor, Gary, Louie and Terry. And of course to Scott, for his leadership and for making this whole project a reality.

Thanks also to the great people from all kinds of places who provided us advice, resources and encouragement, all of which were frequently tapped. Thanks to Pierre in Winnipeg for his sage counsel and support. Big shout out to Terry and Harry for crewing on the Newfoundland-Greenland crossing. Mammoth props to Matt for this too, and more. To Mads for Qeqertarsuaq generosity, and to David and Martin of Nussuaq for protecting us from ourselves aboard ice floes in Baffin Bay.

Thanks to the Iqaluit crew, for holding the fort and for keeping it real.

Thanks to those I’ve missed, both for the help and for forgiving the omission.

And to the crew of the Arctic Endeavor, for putting up with me and a crazy impossible dream. To Bowen for injecting a new generation of cool. To Bob for elevating the whole game. Outi for Outi. Knut for safe passage. Hans Martin for humour. To Kristin for blood, sweat and tears, for dedication and for thriving in a tough environment. To Alex for quiet heroism. And to Sandy for late heroism.

Thank you bearded seal, for filling the sea with your song (when no one else was there for us).

Thank you bowhead, for showing up when we needed you.

Thank you narwhal, for finishing a migration that we could not.

Thank you polar bears, for ignoring us.

Thank you netsik, for sustaining us.

Thank you ocean, for sustaining us all.


Narwahal at last

July 7, 2011

Posted by Chris Debicki, expedition leaderNarwhal

Even before the drone of the helicopter faded away, the noise coming from the floe edge was unmistakable. Whales. Narwhal. A cacophony of heaves, sighs, clicks, snorts and trills. 

On Sandy’s direction, we placed what would be our last camp a couple hundred metres from the open water. Even without binoculars, we could see polar bears on both sides. They were full from gorging, Sandy reassured us.

Kristin, Alex and I could hardly contain ourselves. We had been following the narwhal migration for a month, and yet until now the whales had been ghosts on a horizon. Excited, we made for the floe edge even before we made camp.

Waves gently lapped against the floe edge’s icy shore. The salty ice undulated, and before us a sight I will never forget—narwhal in numbers that defied any easy estimate. No doubt, there were hundreds of narwhal swimming in pods of two to six, often abreast. There were calves glued to mothers and groups of males with tusks of all sizes, some swimming parallel with the ice edge, some floating. Other whales were plunging into and under the ice, the great depths of their dives evident in their heaving breaths.

Hours elapsed. Kristin focused on recording the narwhal vocalizations for our acoustic science studies. Sandy pointed out the field techniques for identifying whales by age and gender. Alex basked in the joy of making it home just in time to camp on his beloved floe edge.

Pond Inlet hunter

Sandy Qaunaq, Pond Inlet hunter and mechanic.

Finally, utterly spent, we retired to our tent as a midnight breeze broke the stillness. We talked of our teammates aboard Arctic Endeavour, and wished that they were sharing this day with us.

Alex, Sandy and I alternated on bear watch throughout the night. But for the odd curious cub (easily dissuaded), our last night together at sea was without interruption until 10 a.m. the next day, when the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades cut through the morning fog.

Narwhal tusks

Narwhal tusks piercing the sky.

Photos: Chris Debicki


Leaving the Arctic Endeavour behind in Greenland

July 6, 2011

Posted by Chris Debicki, expedition leader

For an hour and a half, the flight from Upernavik was a silent one. The drone of the engines didn’t interfere with conversation — no one on the team was talking.

DepartureInstead, our heads were at the windows, looking over Baffin Bay unfolding below. We soon saw the ice that had stopped the Arctic Endeavour in its tracks. The sight from above was oddly familiar: After looking at so much satellite imagery of this very same place, I realized that my eyes had completed our voyage on countless occasions in the last 30 days.

The realization quickly faded when the highlands of East Baffin and Bylot Island appeared on the horizon. To the north, Lancaster Sound emerged as an ice-free open sea. To the east, Eclipse Sound was holding onto its land-fast ice.

To our relief, Pond Inlet still had its floe edge and thus a platform for us to camp and work. Better yet, even at turbo-prop speed several hundred feet above sea level, we could see, unmistakably, that whales were converging at the ice edge. Spontaneous cheers erupted in the cabin. Another great sight: We flew over hunters camped on that edge. Alex managed to make out his dad’s camp.

Upon arrival in Pond Inlet, our tentative plan was to head for the floe edge as soon as we had an update from returning hunters. We met up with Sandy Qaunaq, an experienced mechanic and hunter and a very close friend of Alex’s. When I was planning this expedition, I very much wanted Sandy to join us. Like Alex, Sandy is one of those Nunavut renaissance guys; he takes his Blackberry with him on hunting trips (he is apparently prolific and hilarious on Facebook), but also relies on traditional skills that haven’t been bested.  

SnowmobilesWaiting for word from the floe edge, we filled Sandy in on our voyage. Finally, at 3 a.m., we received news that the last hunters were returning from the floe edge, Alex’s dad and uncles amongst them. We rushed out to help.

It had obviously been a tough slog home. In the span of a few hours, the sea ice around town had receded dramatically. We spent the next two or three hours ferrying snowmobiles (“machines,” as they are called), qamutiqs (sleds full of supplies that are pulled behind the machines) and gear from the ice to shore. Chosen both because of his slight frame and cool nerves (he really is fearless), Sandy drove the largest snowmobile to shore, crossing several hundred metres of open water in a feat that appeared to defy gravity.

By the time we’d finished ferrying gear safely ashore, Alex and Sandy had the information we needed. It was advice we didn’t want to hear, but could not ignore: Travel by ice to the floe edge was no longer an option. What we didn’t know then was that 12 hours later, we’d be flying in a small helicopter to that same floe edge.

Photos: Trevor Taylor


Evaluating a small boat Arctic science expedition

July 2, 2011

Posted by Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Arctic EndeavourAs we travel to Upernavik, our last destination aboard the Arctic Endeavour, we are starting to reflect on our project. If it’s any indication, our spirits are high. The sun-splattered bergs and glistening snow peaks are just as beautiful today as they were a month ago.

It will take us a few weeks to fully evaluate how well our small boat science expedition worked in the Arctic. But at this point, I am convinced that it has provided a useful platform for doing scientific studies in this environment. A small boat offers scientists a low-cost option for ocean research.

We owe a lot of credit to the competence and dedication of the Newfoundland team that helped us turn a fishing vessel into a viable research platform. We had little time to prepare the boat and I called in many favours. The Arctic Endeavour would not have left the dock on time without help from my brother, a professional sailor, and my stepfather, an engineer.

As this ice season proved, there are limitations to small boat operations in these ice-clogged waters. Icebreakers remain the only workable platform when it comes to penetrating heavy ice. By necessity, we’ve been operating in the margins, mostly avoiding ice of densities of 60 percent or greater.

Testing the ice

Testing the ice.

Based on ice data, we determined that we would have been able to complete the route across the North Water Polynya and into Lancaster Sound during eight out of the last 10 years — and might have made it in 2004, but not 2005. The odds of a successful crossing at this time of year in the two previous decades were reduced but still good even with significantly more ice cover.

What we knew going in — and what became clear as we stared into the vast wall of consolidated pack ice in Baffin Bay and Melville Bay — was that information about average and median ice extent and ice concentration is only moderately useful. What can be counted on in the Arctic is variability. The extremes are in many ways the real norm. And it is on those extreme conditions that good plans must rest.

Fortunately, we created a scientific plan that kept us very busy, even when ice blocked our expected route. Thanks to the extra time we’ve had off Greenland, we’ve completed hours of recordings of dozens of bowhead during a stage in their migration that has not been previously captured.

We return with a series of acoustic snapshots of whales communicating with one another as they make their great journey across Baffin Bay. Many of these whales will continue through Lancaster Sound into Nunavut waters, a region that Inuit are working to protect by establishing a national marine conservation area. With this new data, Outi and other marine biologists will piece together a more complete picture of bowhead communication and movement.

Looking for whales

Our local guide looking for signs of whales.

Unfortunately, ice conditions meant that some of our research projects could not be completed this season. Stubborn sea ice forced us ashore on several occasions.  Ironically, these unexpected stops in villages became perhaps the highlight of the voyage as we sought advice and assistance from the Greenlandic people who know these waters the best.Arctic Endeavour

Any small boat expedition operating in heavy sea ice must be prepared to drastically modify plans on short notice. Kristin worked hard to adapt our scientific programme to the whims of a half-frozen ocean that didn’t care about our human machinations.

It is critical that a team embark on a project like this with the knowledge that uncertainty will rule. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Living in very close quarters for extended periods, our crew inevitably brought different personal and professional goals. Some goals couldn’t be achieved. Some were accomplished at the expense of others. Fortunately, the expectations of this team were calibrated to accommodate this. 

Once we arrive in Upernavik, Kristin, Alex and I will be flying to Pond Inlet. That’s Alex’s home community and sits on the northern coast of Baffin Bay near Lancaster Sound. Stay tuned.

Photos: Arcadia, Oceans North Canada


A wealth of eider ducks

Eider ducksJuly 1, 2011

Posted by: Kristin Westdal, marine biologist

We noticed a steady increase in the number of eider ducks as we traveled north up the Greenland coast. As we made our way by small boat into pack ice off the coast of Nuussuaq, we passed Edderfugleøer, a tiny smattering of islands thirty kilometres offshore. These windswept granite humps live up to their name, supporting a large eider colony in the summer. The eider in the photo is the Common Eider, Somateria mollissima, known to nest in colonies along the coast in the circumpolar north.

This male still sports winter plumage: black and white with an olive green colouration on the back of the neck. Male plumage is dark brown in summer. The female has more understated brown and black colouration all year. The Common Eider is the largest duck in North America and the most numerous and widespread of the seven subspecies of eiders worldwide. Locals tell us that eiders in the region have started nesting and eggs have been seen. One of the local hunters, David, who was our guide when we camped offshore in the ice pointed out birds that were ready to lay their eggs based on their flight patterns and laboured take-off.

Duck coupleEiders lay eggs once a year between June and September and a typical nest will contain two to seven eggs. The females not only sit on their eggs to incubate them but line their nest with down plucked from their own bodies, adding new meaning to the phrase ‘giving of one’s self’! They typically nest on islands or coastline. Nesting habitat varies from open areas or in grasses and weeds to under shrubs and spruce trees.

About 75 percent of their diet is mollusks, the rest being a variety of crustaceans. Eiders dive to depths of 20 metres to feed on mollusks and crustaceans including mussels, clams, scallops and urchins.

Photo credits: Oceans North Canada


Hitting an ice wall

July 1, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Ice wallWe reached Melville Bay late Wednesday night before running into what we’ve come to refer to as “The Wall”—the consolidated pack ice that has prevented us from completing our intended route to Lancaster Sound by boat. The ice, while constantly moving, grinding and buckling, is still thick enough to easily stop Arctic Endeavour in its tracks.

In the 19th century, whalers dreaded sailing through Melville Bay with its notoriously bad ice conditions and a harbourless coastline. American explorer Elisha Kane described it 160 years ago as a “mysterious region of terrors.” But we were lucky and the sea remained calm enough to see ripples for hundreds of metres while the now-familiar sound of bowhead exhalations filled the air.

Thanks to satellite imagery from NASA, Baffin BayUniversity of Bremen in Germany, Canadian Ice Service and MDA Geospatial Services, we’ve known for a number of days that our hopes of following the whale migration across the North Water Polynya would not be possible this season. We proceeded north yesterday having already accepted this outcome, so our turnaround at The Wall wasn’t such a tough pill to swallow. Once we got there and dropped the hydrophone into the becalmed sea, we realized we were surrounded by bowhead.

Immediately, we lowered the tender over the side and Outi and Alex, dressed in flotation suits and armed with a camera, set off to get some I.D. photos of bowhead to match with the acoustics. They were successful. Our practice has been to get only as close as necessary for pictures. With a long lens, Outi was able to get some photos of individual markings that will be useful for future sightings. 

We are now traveling slowly south to Upernavik, stopping every hour to do acoustic monitoring. Home and those we love are on our minds, as are clean linens and hot showers. Or any kind of shower.


Mayday, mayday: from sealed bottles to satellite phones

Old shipJuly 1, 2011

Our expedition members have relied on top notch satellite technology to stay in touch during this month-long journey. But 19th-century British explorers obviously didn’t have that luxury. They faced huge challenges while searching for the Northwest Passage: vessels became trapped in ice for the winter, food rations ran out, illnesses took their toll.

As ship after ship vanished into the region’s mysterious labyrinth of straits and sounds, sailors had to get creative about communicating with other ships, rescue parties and folks back home. The first thing explorers did after reaching the 65th parallel north was to start dropping sealed bottles overboard that contained messages with dates, ship locations and where they were headed. When they landed on the coast of North America, they hoisted a flag with the Union Jack and put a sealed bottle at its base noting their achievement and travel plans.

During a trip to try to find the lost Franklin expedition, explorer Sir James Ross trapped Arctic foxes and attached copper collars around their necks with messages noting his ship’s position and supply cache locations. Then he’d set the foxes free, hoping they might encounter the missing crew. Sometimes rescuers would launch message-filled helium balloons with explosive time fuses that would burst and release notes for lost sailors. Local Inuit often helped as well by passing on crucial information.

Perhaps the most exotic form of emergency communication was the use of homing pigeons. Sir James Ross’ uncle took four pigeons with him when he sailed north to try to rescue Sir John Franklin. His plan was to release two pigeons with messages if his ship got trapped in ice and the other two if he found Franklin. He never did find the missing explorer. But Ross’ uncle did get stuck in ice near Melville Island in the Northwest Passage and decided to try using pigeon 911. The good news is that one pigeon made it home to Ayrshire, Scotland, a 2,400 mile journey. The bad news? The pigeon lost the message that Ross had attached.

Plate above from “A Voyage to the Arctic in the Whaler Aurora” by David Moore Lindsay. Published in Boston 1911 by Dana Estes & Company.


Relying on Greenlanders during our Arctic voyage

June 30, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

When we ran into a wall of offshore ice a week ago, we realized that our incomplete nautical charts meant we needed to supplement our satellite information with advice from Greenlanders in the tiny communities along the coast. We were lucky to stop in Tasiusaq, a village with about 300 people, depending on who you ask.

 Tasiusaq villagers 
Tasiusaq villagers, Lars and son Erni. Photo: Kristin Westdal
When we arrived onshore, there was almost no one in sight and at first it felt like people were apprehensive about meeting us. The village’s solitary shop was locked. Fortunately, after a few anxious minutes, a man named Lars with a great smile greeted us and immediately invited the lot of us for coffee. A few minutes later, we were in a warm kitchen, sipping strong coffee and having a conversation in a four-language mash-up of Greenlandic, Inuktitut, English and Danish.


We peppered Lars with questions: What do you know about ice conditions ahead? Lars, who is responsible for the village’s electricity generation, said he hadn’t been out recently. But he had heard of a supply ship that was unable to reach two communities to the north. Are there narwhal in the vicinity, we asked? Lars said that he’d heard from local hunters that narwhal had been seen a few weeks ago. But Tasiusaq is a fishing community and the focus here is on Greenlandic halibut that is processed in the little fish plant off the pier. He recommended that we head to a community called Nutarmiut where people rely more on subsistence hunting. Ironically, Nutarmiut shows up on our 2001 charts—the most recent available—as an abandoned settlement.

While Alex talked with Lars, Kristin kept our host’s son Erni entertained by going through pictures of sea birds and marine mammals found in her field guides. The little boy was very familiar with all of them. To bridge the language gap, Kristin devised a system where she pointed at pictures and Erni would tell her if that animal or bird could be found in the region. He would either raise his eyebrows in the Inuit/Greenlandic indication for “yes” or say “no” by scrunching up his face and shrugging his shoulders or shaking his head.

When Kristin mistakenly pointed to a large image of a Pacific Fulmar, Erni was quick to shake his head and show her a picture of its cousin, the Atlantic Fulmar that is indigenous to these waters — and happened to be flying around right outside their door. Less colourful and sleek than some Arctic birds (like the guillemot, with its matching red feet and throat) fulmars are still fascinating and have special defensive powers that other seabirds don’t have: spitting vomit on their foes!

Atlantic Fulmar

An Atlantic Fulmar in flight. Photo: Chris Debicki


Bowhead whales at the ice floe edge

June 30, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Whales! Lots of whales! After two days out on the ice, we have just returned to the ship. Out on iceWe left Nutarmiut on Monday with two Greenlandic guides, David and Martin, in their small hunting boats. They took us well into the ice, where we pulled the boats onto a somewhat stable floe and waited. And waited. And waited. We were visited by plenty of curious seals, including almost every seal species in these waters: ringed, hooded, bearded and harp.

Five or six hours after we made our first camp, the unmistakable sound of a mighty bowhead exhaling filled the air. Pppsssh. Pppsssh. Pppssh That’s the closest I can get: not just one “P” because it’s really quite a burst of air and water through that blowhole. We can hear bowhead from several kilometres away with the naked ear.

Over the next 24 hours, we collected as much acoustic data as we could and paired some of it up with visual identifications. Outi is pleased with these results and plans to do more acoustic work this week.

We slept sporadically on the ice — several pairs of eyes and ears alert at all times, as much for lurking polar bears as whales. SealSometime Monday night during the sunset that never sets, we were frantically shaken awake by David, our guide. The ice lead (crack) we’d used to penetrate the pack was closing, and quickly. No time for an organized takedown of our little camp. We hastily piled gear back into the boat and were off, sneaking through a narrow channel just as it closed. An hour later, we settled on a new floe. Alex said he thought it looked like a better vantage point for spotting narwhal. Unfortunately, we did not see any narwhal. But we saw and heard many more bowhead throughout the next night and day.

I slept better in the open air rather than inside the covered boat where the kerosene heater filled my nose and lungs with soot. Neither option was particularly warm. I kept my floater suit on throughout what passed for “night.”

We met up with the Arctic Endeavour late Wednesday afternoon in the open sea, an amazing feat of coordination. Boat on iceNot really. Thanks to GPS, satellite phone and VHF we knew exactly where to find the ship, but it still felt very Mission Impossible.

Despite the minor hardships, the trip out onto the ice with our guides David and Martin was for all of us one of the highlights of the expedition. It started as a business transaction: we needed local expertise to get us into this ice in a safe and productive manner. But when we said goodbye to David and Martin upon our return to the Arctic Endeavour, we all agreed that we were really lucky to have met these guys. They were not only amazingly competent guides, they generously shared what they know about the sea around us. We share a common love of this ocean and its inhabitants. After a barbeque and guitar-playing on the roof of the boat in the calmest, bluest sea I’ve ever seen, we bid farewell to two new friends.

We’ve now concluded that our window for pushing north is closing. Without enough open water ahead, we are making our last push north on Wednesday night. We will proceed until we hit the “wall” — the barrier of dense pack ice that remains in Melville Bay. When we can go no farther, we will turn around and begin our final series of acoustic monitoring along the ice edge. We plan to work until we arrive in Upernavik sometime on Saturday. From there, we will fly to Pond Inlet, the shortest route back to Canada. We will complete this last leg of following the Arctic whale migration by air. We will be following much the same route as the bowhead and narwhal populations that swim from this coast through Lancaster Sound and into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Photos: Arcadia


Listening to Greenland’s bowhead whales

June 30, 2011

Posted by: Outi Tervo, marine biologist

The bowhead acoustic work we’ve been doing is very exciting. This is the first time acoustic data has been collected in this region during the whales’ northward migration. That data will help marine biologists gain a better understanding of these remarkable creatures.Bowhead

The bowhead whales we have seen and heard off the West Greenland coast belong to the Davis Strait – Baffin Bay population numbering about 4000, the second largest population after those found in the Bering Sea and Beaufort Sea. The whales leave their winter and spring aggregation area in Disko Bay in late May and early June and head north along the coast of Greenland and finally cross over Baffin Bay towards Lancaster Sound. By the time the whales leave the Disko Bay area, they have more or less stopped singing after a very active singing period from February to mid April.

Bowhead whales have an extensive acoustic repertoire and vocalize throughout most of the year. Bowhead whale acoustic signals can be divided into simple frequency modulated (FM) calls, complex amplitude modulated (AM) calls and songs. Simple FM calls are short, narrowband tonal calls often referred to as moans. Complex AM calls are broader band signals with pulsive components incorporated into a tonal part giving these signals a harsher and coarser sound. Whale songs, like the songs of birds, are defined as a series of stereotyped tonal song notes repeated in a pattern. All these vocal signals are thought to function for communication. Songs have also thought to have significance in bowhead whales’ breeding behaviour and mate choices.

The bowhead whale sounds we have recorded so far have been simple FM and complex AM calls. Due to the low frequencies of these signals, they attenuate (lose intensity) very little in water and therefore have the potential for long range communication. ListeningThese calls could probably enable individual whales that are more than 100 kilometres apart to stay in contact with each other and maintain group cohesion during migration. Some data also indicates that bowhead whales can use the echoes of their own vocalizations for discriminating between different types of ice. It could be that the low frequency moans of bowhead whales that we have heard are helping the whales find their way in the underwater maze of ice.

The bowhead whale is a large baleen whale species with a circumpolar distribution in the Arctic. They reach an average length of 18 metres when full grown and can weigh up to 80 tons. Bowhead whales do not possess any teeth but instead use their numerous baleen plates to filter microscopic crustaceans from the water. They have the longest and most numerous baleen plates of baleen whales. Bowhead whales are highly adapted to their ice-filled environment. They can break through up to 60-centimetres of ice, have the thickest insulating blubber layer of any whales and, like belugas and narwhals, lack a dorsal fin that could be damaged when scratching against sea ice. Bowhead whales can reach an age of more than 100 years making them one of the longest-lived animals on earth.

Photos: Arcadia


Spectacular Lancaster Sound

June 30, 2011

Posted by: Trevor Taylor, policy director, Oceans North Canada

While the Arctic Endeavour continues its push north into the ice off the Greenland coast, I visited Lancaster Sound on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay on a fact-finding trip. I work as policy director for Oceans North Canada. NarwalI arrived with other members of our team in the hamlet of Pond Inlet on Eclipse Sound for a trip out to the floe edge where the still-frozen sound meets the open waters of Baffin Bay. This nutrient-rich margin of ice is where marine life abounds in the early Arctic summer. 

We flew 38 nautical miles across Eclipse Sound to the southeast of Bylot Island and camped at Button Point. Scrambling up ridges and walking along sea ice starting to break up we witnessed a small part of what makes the Lancaster Sound region so important. We saw a polar bear ambling along the ice edge before plunging in to capture a seal; small groups of narwhal swimming along the margin of the ice, surfacing with their characteristic tooth flashing in the sun; Canada and Arctic snow geese flying overhead; and seals popping their heads up from breathing holes they maintain throughout the winter.

Humans have been tightly integrated into this environment for thousands of years and still are. Snow machines pulling komatiks (wooden sleds) from Pond Inlet arrived on the floe edge for traditional Inuit harvesting including gathering sea bird eggs from the craggy cliffs and hunting seals and narwhal for food to be shared with the community.

Hunters from Pond Inlet and other communities in the region have been leaders in efforts to protect Lancaster Sound for more than 30 years. Just last year, these communities insisted that no oil and gas activities should occur in these waters in order to protect the whale migration. I stood with the Inuit leader for Baffin Island last December and listened as the Canadian environment minister proposed a Polar bearpark boundary for Lancaster Sound and pledged that no oil and gas activity would take place while the park is being created – including the spectacular area of the floe edge where we just camped.

The delay caused by the ice in northern Greenland to the Arctic Endeavour’s planned route is a potent reminder that ice is still a major factor for life in in Baffin Bay and Lancaster Sound. That’s true for industry, tourism, scientific work or traditional Inuit activities. This year the ice is doing its part to continue to protect the Arctic whale migration in this magical place. But the overall trend in the Arctic including Baffin Bay is for earlier melting and less ice. Anomalies such as this year’s pack ice that the Arctic Endeavour encountered cannot be relied upon. Humans will have to step up to protect the Arctic from inappropriate schemes made possible by receding ice. As elders and hunters from Pond Inlet and similar hamlets in the region remind us, a National Marine Conservation Area for Lancaster Sound is a good place to start.

The need for continued vigilance became obvious when we returned from our camp to Pond Inlet. As we debriefed in the hotel cafeteria, the National Energy Board held an informational meeting in the room next door. The meeting was part of an Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling review to determine how to prevent a catastrophe like the Gulf of Mexico spill if Arctic drilling proceeds. It was a sobering end to the trip and a reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Photos: Lyda Hill


Rumors of narwhal near Greenland floe edge

June 28, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

NutarmiutWe arrived in the village of Nuussuaq yesterday and plan to head out today with local guides to explore the floe edge north of here where narwhal have been sighted.

We first heard about narwhal sightings while in Nutarmiut on the weekend. No sooner had we weighed anchor there than six people came out by boat to greet us and invite us ashore for coffee and cookies. None of our expedition members speak Greenlandic fluently. But Alex, who speaks Inuktitut, has found Greenlandic easier to understand as we travel north. And it is Alex whom Greenlanders are most interested in talking to. They feel an immediate connection with Alex, who is from Pond Inlet on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay.

Our hosts gave us plenty of helpful advice during their conversation with Alex. They told us that narwhal had been seen in the area only a week or so ago and they predicted more would be at the floe edge close to Nuussuaq. An older man named Pauluq suggested a potential route to help us skirt a wall of drifting pack ice that will otherwise impede our progress. As a word of caution, he also told the story of three small hunting boats that got pinched in the ice off the Nuussuaq Peninsula only weeks ago. Sadly, several lives were lost and the rescue operation recovered only two of the boats.

Their advice about the ice conditions added to the information we’ve gleaned from satellite imagery. We’re lucky to have met these very knowledgeable local residents and will rely on their instructions as we travel north.

Photo above: Alex Ootoowak shows our hosts in Nutarmiut pictures of life in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet).


Baffin Bay Sea Ice Time Lapse

June 28, 2011

This shows the extent of sea ice in Baffin Bay on June 20 each year from 2002-2011. Conditions in 2005 are most similar to this month. Ice is currently blocking the Arctic Endeavour’s route into the North Water Polynya and Lancaster Sound.


More Arctic ice analysis: Route to North Water blocked

June 27, 2011

Posted by: Knut Espen Solberg, captain

Currently, Baffin Bay is filled with predominantly first year ice, as opposed to multiyear ice that survives at least one summer and continues to grow. I have been surprised by just how thick much of this ice has been. Arctic iceThis winter was not extremely cold in this part of the world but spring arrived late. Many inlets and fjords are still filled with fast ice — ice that is attached to the shore. 

This week we’ve capitalized on a recent, narrow open water lead that has given us access to the northern waters and communities of the Upernavik district. But our route to Melville Bay is still inaccessible. This persistent ice has caused major problems for northern Greenlanders in this region as their resupply vessel was unable to penetrate the ice, leaving several villages short on all kinds of products we take for granted.

In most years, the main pack ice has been located along the coast of Baffin Island, giving access to the North Water Polynya through an open water route through Melville Bay. However, this year a stationary low pressure system is situated over northwestern Greenland. This anomaly has caused the main pack ice to shift eastward, causing more than 90 percent ice cover in Melville Bay and much of Baffin Bay. This ice makes access to the North Water Polynya impossible right now for non-icebreaking vessels.

The extreme local and seasonal variability makes it difficult to predict what the ice will do or plan commercial activities. Although whales can migrate in very dense ice, this year’s conditions have slowed or halted marine-related activities for people in the region, including our expedition. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to reduce these uncertainties. Sometimes the Arctic presents limitations that don’t apply to the same degree elsewhere. Caution is the key to sustainable development in the High Arctic.


A tough ice year in northwest Greenland

June 26, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Thick fog rolled in on Thursday afternoon, halting our progress once we’d completed our CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) studies in the Upernavik Icefjord. That made travel unsafe and we pulled into a small, protected cove for the night.

The weather made it too risky to try to dodge the usual hazards of icebergs and sea ice. We’ve also discovered that charts in this region are missing critical information. Ice in GreenlandHuge areas have not been sounded and many of the depth readings on our nautical charts are not accurate. This is a mountainous region of sharp cliffs and the sea bottom is similarly rugged. Shallow water appears without warning.

After 24 hours of work, this break afforded Knut and I some time to seriously discuss the most recent ice reports. The reports do not look good. Melville Bay is not opening up in the way we had hoped. This year may turn out to be the “worst” ice year in a decade in this region. I put “worst” in quotations because it is obviously silly to attach a negative judgment to sea ice. This is the same ice cover that acts as one of the world’s most important cooling systems. That’s because sea ice, with its white surface, reflects much more of the sun’s radiation than does open water.

The ice also protects migrating whales. Ninety percent ice cover is no obstacle to these marine mammals. What will happen to bowhead and narwhal migration patterns if the icescape continues to change so dramatically? What kind of industries will move in if these regions become accessible? What measures to protect this ecosystem will be in place before this happens?

Even though there has been a pronounced decline in sea ice extent in this part of the Arctic over the last decade, we knew that climate modeling experts still predict great variability form year to year. This is turning out to be one of those years. 

Our experience with heavier than average sea ice –- at least for recent years — may also serve as a reminder that increased commercial activity in the Arctic must take into account these extreme shifts in ice conditions. That’s essential to lower the risk of accidents in an area without the infrastructure to respond. 

Fortunately, we planned for the possibility of insurmountable ice obstacles. We have plenty of work to do in this northwestern region of Greenland. Over the next few days, we are consulting with locals in the small communities between Upervanik and Melville Bay to learn more about ice conditions and the whale migrations that pass through.


Collecting data in the Upernavik Icefjord

June 23, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Collecting dataWe just completed our last CTD (or conductivity, temperature, depth) station at the head of the 70-kilometre-long Upernavik Icefjord where the Upernavik Glacier meets the sea. This glacier, the northern hemisphere’s greatest freshwater reserve, is retreating causing long-buried land formations to emerge. It’s happening so quickly that our paper charts, printed in 2001, no longer accurately reflect what this coastline looks like. 

The CTD is a cylindrical electronic instrument that measures conductivity, temperature and pressure in water. Water pumps through the CTD’s sensors and measurements are collected continuously as we use our winch to lower the device vertically below the surface. The CTD we have on the Arctic Endeavour is a Sea-Bird SBE19plus SEACAT Profiler and can collect information at depths up to 600 meters. CTDs have been used since the 1980s and Knut and Hans Martin have worked with them for many years along the east and west coast of Greenland. Oceanographers can use the data to study localized circulation, ocean currents and melt rate of adjacent ice caps. The information we collected over the last day will be used to study water circulation in this fjord system. 

We began collecting CTD data yesterday as we entered the fjord, completing stations at five-mile intervals in a straight line transect. Each stop required us to spend 1½ hours patiently babysitting the CTD, including operating the hydraulic winch and keeping accurate notes. Fortunately, we’re enjoying spectacular views as we work!

View of ice

Photo Credits: Oceans North Canada


Celebrating Greenland’s National Day

June 21, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leaderGreenland's National Day

The Arctic Endeavour shuddered early this morning in Upernavik as three cannon shots burst through the fog in celebration of Greenland’s National Day. After the cannon fire, we heard church bells ringing. Next came speeches in town and hymn singing.

Community groups are hosting “Kaffemik” across town. Kaffemik parties are a Greenlandic institution. They occur on birthdays and other special days such as this. Kaffemik is open to everyone. Guests understand that they should not stay too long, or eat too much cake and pastries, so that everyone gets a chance to visit and enjoy the festivities. 

Townsfolk donned the national dress today. Women are wearing exquisite beadwork, lace and wool. Embroidered stockings bridge sealskin pants and kamiks, or traditional boots. Their clothes are a lovely contrast to the modest simplicity of the male costume: a plain white anorak, without even fur trim on the hood.

Since 2008, when Greenlanders voted for more autonomy from Denmark, the country has taken great strides towards full statehood. Everywhere we go, people are happy to talk about the development of their nation. It’s a collective project made real in the hands of fishermen and plant workers, parents and truck drivers, teachers, pilots and hunters. Greenlanders are quietly building a modern economy while safeguarding language and tradition. The qajaq (kayak) still has a place in this old-new country alongside the outboard engine. For a population of less than 60,000, fostering development and tradition is a balancing act.

Greenland’s marine resources have shaped local traditions and are critical to its economic future. People here bristle when outside organizations try to tell them how to develop their natural resources. Greenlanders are best positioned to make decisions to protect the ecology of the sea around them. The best thing we as outsiders can do is take steps to support a strong, sustainable Greenlandic national dream.


Arctic terns in flight

June 21, 2011

Posted by: Kristin Westdal, marine biologist

Arctic tern

Outi Tervo, our marine biologist, took this beautiful photo of an Arctic tern, one of my favorite birds. Small but mighty, Arctic terns essentially travel from pole to pole every year. The only exception are young birds that migrate south with their parents and remain in the southern hemisphere until they are two years old. That’s a round trip of about 71,000 kilometres each year. An Arctic tern would travel more than 1.4 million kilometres during an average 20-year lifespan, the equivalent of flying to the moon and back almost twice.

Terns experience more daylight than any other species because they are travelling between summer in the northern hemisphere and the same season in the southern hemisphere. Although we’re experiencing 24-hour daylight now, we have noticed that terns and other birds are still more active during the daytime hours.

Speaking of daylight, today is the summer solstice and we are celebrating Greenland’s national holiday called Ullortuneq or “Longest Day.” It’s the official Flag Day when Greenlanders fly their striking flag with the red half-circle, introduced on June 21, 1985.

Greenland flag


Recording of a bowhead whale song

June 20, 2011

If you listen carefully with headphones on your computer (laptop speakers won’t reproduce low frequencies) you will be able to hear the bowhead call in this short audio recording.

 


First bowhead whale sighting

June 20, 2011

Posted by: Kristin Westdal, marine biologist

Bowhead whale

Photo: Outi Tervo

“There, in front!” yelled Outi Tervo, one of our marine biologists.

We were sitting in the wheelhouse of the Arctic Endeavour at midnight on June 17 when Outi spotted the first bowhead of the expedition off the coast of Greenland.

Immediately, everyone grabbed jackets, cameras, binoculars — and socks for those jumping straight out of bed from the cabin below. Within five minutes, Outi had her equipment set up on the deck to take identification photos and I was in the bow with the acoustic equipment ready to go. 

The hydrophones were recording and all eyes were glued on the ice pack ahead of the boat. After just 12 minutes, Outi grinned. There it was — a bowhead call.  It sounded like a short deep moan. That’s referred to as a complex call, according to Outi. If you listen carefully with headphones on your computer (laptop speakers won’t reproduce low frequencies) you will be able to hear the bowhead call along with bearded seals in the short audio recording that we’ll put up in our next post.

The bowhead sighting came as we traveled from the Nuussuaq Penninsula to Upernavik after three days of heavy wind. The winds pushed the ice offshore, giving us plenty of breathing room. But it also caused a disorganized swell that had the Arctic Endeavour pitching, yawing and bucking like a mechanical bull. Some of our team struggled to keep seasickness at bay and tried to cope by staring at icebergs on the horizon, the only source of stability to be found.

Bowhead sighting

Photo: Chris Debicki


Arctic ice: how much, how thick and is it headed our way?

June 17, 2011

Ice MapExpedition members are relying on ice forecasting to keep the Arctic Endeavour on track during the trip. Back at home base, Jeremy Davies, who does marine spatial analysis for Oceans North Canada, is busy putting together daily ice maps (like the one above from earlier this week) that provide crucial information.

He does that by downloading data from several sources and viewing it in relation to the ship’s current location and anticipated course. The easiest sea-ice imagery to interpret is satellite-based MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) data from NASA. MODIS records data for the Arctic daily and is available down to a 250-metre resolution. The down side is that coverage can be limited as the sensor does not penetrate cloud cover.

An alternative source of data that is not affected by clouds comes from NASA’s AMSR-E sensor (Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer - Earth Observing System.) The University of Bremen in Germany provides AMSR-E ice concentration data daily. These images are much lower resolution (only aobut eight kilometres) than that obtained from MODIS but are great for assessing ice conditions over the entire region.

This information when combined with the Canadian Ice Services’ daily ice charts allows Jeremy to construct maps that show not only the percentage of ice cover but the age and thickness of the ice.

 “These are important factors,” Jeremy said. “The boat can handle first-year ice well, except in high concentrations. But second-year ice is more hazardous and is believed to be the kind that took out the Titanic. Multi-year ice is even more dangerous.”

The Arctic Endeavour can easily navigate through areas with up to 25 percent ice concentration. Between 25 percent and 50 percent ice concentration it starts getting tricky and they have to “pick their way through,” he said. Above 50 percent and “they just want to find a way out of there.”


Black guillemots entertain Arctic crew

June 16, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

GuillemotsWe spent another morning waiting in the harbour on the Nuussuaq Peninsula yesterday as a northwest wind howled offshore. We expect that all this wind will change the icescape significantly and await updated ice charts.

Late Tuesday night, we visited several nearby islands and marveled at the bird population. We saw buntings, gulls, eiders, mergansers, murres, snow geese and Canada geese, Arctic terns, and red-throated loons. The black guillemots gave us a fine airshow of haphazard landings and doubtful-looking takeoffs in the cliffs around us. In flight, they find their grace.     

The black guillemot, also known as the Sea Pigeon or Greenland Dove, is an ice-dependent species that is being affected by climate change. Their plumage varies according to where they live: the farther north, the more white they show. A group of guillemots is called a “bazaar” or a “loomery.”


Listening to bearded seals

June 15, 2011

Posted by: Kristin Westdal, marine biologist

Audio Recording

Outi and I are gathering acoustic recordings as we travel north off the Greenland coast. We set up several acoustic monitoring stations on Monday. To do that, all boat systems must be shut off to eliminate interference when our hydrophones are in the water.

What we heard in the water sounded a bit like a spooky Halloween recording – but was actually the sound of a male bearded seal. Check out the acoustic file we’re putting up in a separate blog post if you want to listen to him.

Although bearded seals lead a mostly solitary life, males vocalize in hopes of attracting a mate and perhaps also to protect their territory.  Bearded seals are year-round residents of the Arctic and generally live in depths of less than 200 metres. They have a varied diet, feeding on cod and sculpins, as well as shrimp, clams, anemones and sea cucumber. They rarely maintain breathing holes in the ice like ringed seals, instead preferring polynyas or areas where the ice remains broken. Unlike many marine mammals, there’s little published research about bearded seals.

Over coffee in the galley, Alex told us that bearded seals defend themselves with their claws as compared to ring seals that fight off predators with their teeth. He also said that you can often see scars from polar bear attacks on the seals.

Bearded Seal

Photo: B. Christman, NOAA

Listen to a recording of bearded seals.


Dodging the Arctic ice

June 14, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Heavy Ice

We’re now in a bay on the Nuussuaq Penninsula, Greenland. After finishing our acoustic monitoring yesterday, we pulled up the equipment and headed north. We soon ran into heavy ice. We felt like ants in a moving jigsaw puzzle with the pieces closing in on us. A fast current made for some nervous hours. But Knut and Hans Martin did a mighty job of navigating the maze, pushing pans of ice the size of tennis courts out of our way when it looked like we were hitting dead ends.

With worse ice ahead, we pulled into a natural harbor at 2 a.m. this morning. Knut knew about the harbor because local hunters had shown it to him years ago. It’s a perfect spot. Shoals keep the icebergs at bay and we are surrounded by several large tern colonies.

Alex and I are on anchor watch making sure that the high winds that are defying the forecast don’t push us onto the rocky shore. If we remain stuck here, Outi is thinking about doing a bird survey on shore. So, despite the little setbacks, we’re all in high spirits.

Map: Oceans North Canada

Map: Oceans North Canada | Photo: Arcadia


Our first whale sighting! A Humpback whale feeds on capelin off the coast of Qeqertarsuaq.

June 13, 2011


Bearded seals and a humpback whale

June 13, 2011

We were delayed by high winds from leaving Qeqertarsuaq until late Saturday night. Yesterday was a busy day at sea. We completed two sets of acoustic monitoring. Kristin and Outi delighted the crew by capturing recordings of bearded seals, whose eerie vocalizations through the hydrophones sounded like creatures in a sci-fi film.

View from the Wheelhouse

Photo: Alex Ootoowa

We worked as far offshore today as we dared, not wanting to get ensnared in the ice.  Knut skillfully piloted us through a couple tight spots, careful to keep our propeller clear of surprisingly thick first year ice. We are again headed north, leaving Disko Island behind.

Despite our strong desire to get started with acoustic work, Qeqertarsuaq was a fine town to be stuck in. Its name means “Big Island,” just like its sister community of Qikiqtarjuaq across the ocean in Nunavut. This little community thrives on its small boat fishery and offers a great example of how a local economy can be sustained without factory ships. On a crab boat next to us that had emptied its catch, we watched a father teach his daughters to fish. The girls squealed with delight when a cod took the bait, a great reminder of what the catch means to this community. Jobs on the trawlers, jobs in the fish plant and plenty of secondary employment in the town’s service industry keep it going.

Capelin drying in Qeqertarsuaq

Photo: Alex Ootoowa

On the beach at the other end of Qeqertarsuaq, villagers are busy scooping up “ammassaat” or capelin in fine meshed nets. These little fish, that will feed both people and sled dogs, are spawning in the gentle surf. Reproduction occurs in the shallow water, perhaps to avoid predation. That process takes a toll on both the male and female ammassaat. Exhausted, many wash ashore and become food for waiting seabirds. Offshore, capelin sustain the resident humpback population and are probably a big reason harp seals migrate to these waters.

Speaking of humpbacks, Kristin and Outi spotted one on Friday about six kilometres outside of town. They were on shore getting ready to scale a cliff to pull in one of Outi’s semi-permanent hydrophones when a humpback whale appeared adjacent to a large berg. The whale appeared to be feeding on the capelin that are in the area and stayed in sight for quite a long time. Exciting!


Work day on the Arctic Endeavour

June 10, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Yesterday was a busy work day aboard the Arctic Endeavour. Our boat is tied to a crab boat in Qeqertarsuaq Harbour, Greenland as we get ready for the next leg of our journey.

Alex had me caulking a thru-hull, or hole that is deliberately drilled in the side of a boat – this one for our sinks. I did it from a qajaq, or kayak as we call it. Kayaks are not just pleasure boats in Greenland. They are still built by locals and used extensively in North Greenland communities such as Qaanaaq.Arctiv Endeavour

Knut has been consulting with local fishers and hunters on ice conditions north of here.  Locals are consistently corroborating the satellite data we’ve been receiving. They’re saying that the ice is late to break this year.  A villager told me today that a local news report said that ships are now several weeks late resupplying communities north of here due to impassable ice. This obviously makes us very anxious. But we are optimistic that strong easterlies blowing off the Greenland ice cap will open up reliable leads and clear a good route to Upernavik.

Before we head to Upernavik, we’re planning to do some acoustic monitoring of whales in the waters west of Uummannaq. Bowhead whales are now leaving the Disko Bay region on their annual northwesterly migration.

Our two marine biologists, Outi and Kristin, are busy testing our hydrophones, the underwater microphones they will use to listen for whale vocalizations.  Outi says that her equipment can pick up bowheads communicating with each other from as far away as 80 kilometres!


Arctic Endeavour arrives in Qeqertarsuaq

June 8, 2011

Posted by: Kristin Westdal, marine biologist

FishingWe arrived in Qeqertarsuaq from Ilulissat at 7:30 am this morning. We had beautiful weather for travelling last night, making the 12-hour crossing a pleasure for those sleeping — and those working the night shift. I had forgotten how comforting the gentle rocking of a boat can be!

Qeqertarsuaq is a quaint fishing village on Disko Island. It’s much smaller than Ilulissat but just as welcoming. Outi Tervo, a Finnish marine biologist and the final member of our expedition team, was at the dock to greet us when we arrived. The Arctic Endeavour had to pull in three boats away from the pier so we have to carefully pick our way up, over and through the crab fishing boats of various sizes to reach the dock.

We met as a full team for the first time this morning and are now ready to plan the scientific work for the coming week. Outi and I will spend this afternoon running through our combined acoustic equipment before the whole crew heads to Outi’s home in town for a much anticipated home cooked meal of Arctic Char and stuffed peppers.


Bon Voyage: Arctic Endeavour leaves Ilulissat

June 7, 2011Iceberg

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Arctic Endeavour is finally leaving the dock in Ilulissat! The sun is out and the icebergs in the bay are sparkling as our expedition begins.  In the span of a few days, we’ve gone from heavy snow to glorious sun. We are jumping on a good forecast and making for Qeqertarsuaq, a 12-hour trip across Disko Bay that we expect will be more placid than party because of calm seas.

Navigating a swath of fresh icebergs, newly calved from the Ilulissat ice fjord, will be our first obstacle although it’s hard to resent losing a few hours picking our way through such a beautiful crystal labyrinth.

Once through the densest part of the bergy water, our next challenge will be to cook up an enormous Atlantic cod, generously given to us by a local fisherman. This type of fish is actually becoming more common around here because of warmer water snaking its way from the Atlantic in recent years. Hopefully, the biggest debate tonight will be whether to boil, bake or BBQ.


Lively Ilulissat charms expedition members

June 6, 2011

Posted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Sled DogsKristin, Alex and I greeted the Arctic Endeavour when it pulled into Ilulissat, Greenland at midnight.  The boat was running low on water as illustrated by the grimy grins and bedraggled appearance of our crewmates.  I can’t say who was more relieved to see the ship arrive — the landlubbers or the lads aboard.  By the time we’d finished exchanging news, it was easily four a.m. and the June sun had not yet set.

We’ve spent the last few days on errands – re-fuelling, filling water tanks, cleaning and taking stock of our equipment and stores. And we have fallen in love with Ilulissat. An active small boat fishery keeps the harbour teeming with life and colour at all hours. On shore, the sled dogs fill the air with their enthusiastic din. Depending on who you ask, there are more sled dogs than people in this town of about 4,500. The dogs rest in summer before getting backSled Dog to work when snow returns in the fall. Sled dogs are still used in the commerical turbot fishery to haul gear and fish from fjords that are otherwise inaccessible.

Children in galoshes dam culverts and race makeshift boats down streams. People play very energetic soccer on the gravel pitch throughout the weekend. On Saturday night, live music trails from doorways. The grocery stores are full of fresh goods from Denmark and even fresher country food. Muskox, muqtuq, seal, salmon, shrimp and turbot are all available and reasonably priced. Greenlanders clearly are not beholden to processed food from afar. Alex has been fascinated with the differences and similarities between this Inuit culture and that of his home community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. He and I both agreed that it really will be something special if Nunavut communities can transform themselves into towns like Ilulissat.


Arctic Endeavour docks in Greenland

June 6, 2011

Arctic EndeavourThe Arctic Endeavour arrived in Ilulissat last night with the crew in good spirits after their voyage across the North Atlantic. Here’s what captain Knut Espen Solberg said in a dispatch from the boat over the weekend:

Working our way farther north into the Labrador Sea, the nights grew shorter and the fog lifted. Crossing the predominant low pressure path going from Newfoundland to the southern tip of Greenland caused us some bumpy weather with headwinds and a heavy swell, but nothing more than can be expected during this part of the year. One morning we sighted the first couple of whales and later that same day the snow-covered mountains of Greenland emerged on the horizon.

We were relieved to be able to see the shore because operating in the remote waters of the Labrador Sea is risky and far from search-and-rescue capabilities. As we made our way north along the rugged Greenlandic coast, large pods of seals (what the Greenlanders call “amisutt”) filled the ocean along with the baleen whales.

Luckily, the voyage has proceeded without any major incidents. During periods of good weather, we have continued to prepare the vessel for the challenges ahead. With the weather on our side we hope to reach the community of Ilulissat on Disko Bay in a couple of days. We look forward to taking showers and meeting the rest of the crew.


Ilulissat at last

June 3, 2011

IlulissatPosted by: Chris Debicki, expedition leader

Kristin Westdal (our marine biologist) and I have arrived in Ilulissat, Greenland!  Alex Ootoowak will be here in a couple hours from Pond Inlet. At latitude 69, it sure feels like we are now north of Spring!  There is still snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. Three hundred miles to the south of us, the crew aboard the Arctic Endeavour report good sea conditions and should arrive here in 60 hours.

lulissat is a lovely community perched on the edge of an ice fjord of the same name.  This glacial outflow has been intensively studied as a gauge of climate change and its impact on Greenland’s ice cap. It is also one of the most productive iceberg factories in the northern hemisphere. There is a good chance that the iceberg that sunk the Titanic was pushed out to sea just a mile south of town.

The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier moves 40 metres every day and calves 46 cubic kilometres of ice into the Ilulissat fjord every year — the equivalent when melted of more than enough drinking water for the entire United States. This enormous volume of freshwater and the turbulence of so many icebergs provide the nutrient base for plankton, crustaceans and many fish species, including Greenlandic halibut (turbot), Atlantic and Arctic cod, capelin, and Greenlandic sharks.  This in turn explains why so many whales and fishing vessels are found in this part of Disko Bay.


Science Expedition to Observe Whale Migration in the Arctic

June 3, 2011

On Wednesday, June 1, Radio Canada International broadcast an interview with Chris Debicki, Nunavut projects director for Oceans North Canada, about the month-long Lancaster 2011 expedition and research that will be done about narwhal, belugas and bowhead whales.


Searching for an Arctic ice window

June 3, 2011

Our team is finally assembling in Greenland and our ship, the Arctic Endeavour, will soon arrive from Newfoundland. We are now looking north at what is the most formidable obstacle in our path: the sea ice that lies between us and the North Water Polynya in northern Baffin Bay.

There’s a reason only icebreakers have attempted to get into the North Water Polynya so early in the season: this enormous swath of year-round open water is surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of ice.  In the weeks to come, we will need to find a safe route from Upernavik, Greenland into Melville Bay. From there, we will make our push into the North Water Polynya. The travel window is narrow: an ice arch across Nares Strait on the northern end of the polynya prevents an inflow of polar pack ice. Once that arch breaks in early summer, polar ice streams southward through Nares Strait. This flood of ice may restrict passage across the North Water.

To find the ice window, we will rely heavily on the best ice data and ice forecasting available. Our partners at the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center will be relaying daily updates to the boat via satellite so that we can make decisions. In addition, the Canadian Ice Service provides excellent regional ice analyses. Below is a recent sea ice map created by Jeremy Davies, our marine spatial analysis manager, based on that info:

Arctic Sea Ice Map

It is no accident that we have Knut Espen Solberg as our captain and resident ice expert.  After four years of navigating ice in the Northwest Passage and nearly a decade wriggling through other sea ice, Knut easily ranks among the most experienced high-latitude sailors. He continues a proud Norwegian tradition started by that country’s explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen more than 100 years ago. Here is Knut’s most recent ice analysis, sent to us via satellite phone from the Arctic Endeavour:

"At this time of the year, we usually experience a high melt rate in Baffin Bay. The open water lead along the Greenlandic coast opens northward, providing access to communities like Upernavik. So far this season, the ice melt has been slow and large ice concentrations prevail throughout much of Baffin Bay. The ice edge in the southeastern portion of the Bay is closer to the Greenland coast than has been the case in recent years, resulting in a fairly narrow lead up into Disko Bay. In the northern part of Disko Bay, there are areas of up to 5/10 ice coverage, reducing access to more northern communities. This loose ice can consolidate if we get strong easterly winds and that may produce an open water route all the way to Upernavik.

"There are still several hundred nautical miles of impenetrable 9+/10 ice from the open water lead close to Upernavik to the North Water Polynya. East of this ice is the inhospitable coast of Melville Bay where landfast ice still stretches far out from shore. Our success at reaching the North Water Polynya hinges on the steady deterioration of the 9+/10 ice in Melville Bay before the fracture of the fast ice in Nares Strait."


Across the North Atlantic

June 2, 2011

Knut Espen Solberg (captain)Posted by: Knut Espen Solberg (captain)

As we finished loading the Arctic Endeavour a week ago, many of the locals came to the dock in Whiteway, Newfoundland to wish us a safe trip. Several brought farewell gifts such as moose meat, moose sausages, sweets and more. Newfoundland hospitality is fantastic and made our stay a memorable one.

We loaded seven tons of diesel before we set to sea. We’re not sure of how much we’ll consume and hope it will last us the 1200 nautical miles to Disko Bay, Greenland where we meet the expedition members. We’ve also equipped the boat with sails in case of engine failure.

As we left the dock in Whiteway, fog closed in and engulfed us for at least three days. If it had not been for the boat’s GPS, we would not have known what direction we were headed.

At sea, the days flow into a long series of routines. There are four other crew members helping me take the boat to Greenland — plus an autopilot — giving us plenty of time to read, sleep, eat, monitor the engine and keep watch. Hopefully the fog will lift as we get farther north, making it easier to keep a lookout for icebergs.


Outfitting the Arctic Endeavour

June 1, 2011

Arctic EndeavourIn a few short weeks in May, an 18-year-old fishing trawler called “Bill’s Pride” had a radical makeover. Renamed the Arctic Endeavour, the expedition’s 45-foot boat was converted into an Arctic research vessel at the dock in Whiteway, Newfoundland, a village northwest of St. John’s.

Expedition leader Chris Debicki and marine biologist Kristin Westdal arrived there from Winnipeg on May 20 to oversee final outfitting of the vessel docked in Trinity Bay. Just offshore from the pier, they saw the rocky islands called Shag Rock that look like the back of a stegosaurus, or three arrowheads, and point northeast – the direction that the boat went when it left for Greenland four days later. Debicki’s brother Matt and expedition captain Knut Espen Solberg are taking the boat across the North Atlantic to Greenland where they will meet Chris and Kristin and other expedition members later this week.

The ship’s crab traps were replaced with extra bunks and workspace for the expedition’s two marine biologists. Winches for fishing gear were modified to hoist a variety of scientific instruments.

Chris, Kristin and Knut checked and rechecked essential gear: satellite communication equipment, radar, autopilot, pumps, generators, transducers, navigation equipment. Back-ups for all critical systems on the boat, from navigation instruments to power supply, are essential.

Just as importantly, they finished compiling their food list. With limited refrigeration (other than cold weather) fresh fruit and vegetable rations must remain simple and include: one kilogram of garlic, 25 kilograms of onions, 23 kilograms potatoes, 24 kilograms of apples and 12 kilograms of oranges.

Along with 378 hot dogs and 24 veggie burgers, they also stockpiled five kilograms of walnuts and two kilograms of cranberries to keep the crew from complaining when they are served up oatmeal every morning – a total of 50 kilograms of the stuff.


First Date: Meeting the Arctic expedition boat

May 31, 2011

First Date: Meeting the Arctic expedition boatOn the weekend of May 7, expedition leader Chris Debicki flew to Newfoundland for his first glimpse of the 45-foot trawler that would take them on their Arctic voyage. He met Norwegian Knut Espen Solberg, the captain of the expedition ship, at the airport in St. John’s after a delay with Canada Customs.

“The customs officer couldn’t understand what a Norwegian national was doing carrying a huge, egg-shaped satellite dish into Canada,” Chris said. The dish was part of the satellite phone system. Knut’s carry-on luggage also included a giant roll of nautical charts of the Arctic Ocean.

They drove an overstuffed rental car to Whiteway, a small fishing village in Trinity Bay, just before Heart’s Delight and Heart’s Content (yes, those are real places!) The next morning they went to the pier to meet the boat named Bill’s Pride, an “unfortunate” name that Chris vowed would be changed as soon as possible.

Chris and Knut did a preliminary inspection of the boat. First impression? It was going to be a tight squeeze for eight people for a month. So they met with Derek Jackson, of Jackson’s Shipyard, to plan what needed to be done. That included building a second cabin on the aft deck where the crew can eat meals and the two scientists can work. The boat’s cabin originally housed five or six crab fishermen who had little need for comfort or space. Derek organized a crew of shipbuilders who immediately began work on renovations.


Bewitched by Belugas

May 31, 2011

Kristin Westdal, Oceans North CanadaKristin Westdal was just 15 when she first encountered beluga whales during a family vacation to Churchill, Manitoba. Captivated by the intelligent, playful creatures, she eventually went back there after college to set up her own kayaking business and introduce visitors to the whales.

“Belugas are quite curious and would come right up alongside the boat and bump into it,” Westdal said. “They seemed to be as interested in me as I was in them.”

Today, Westdal is a marine biologist who specializes in studying belugas, narwhal and other Arctic whales. As the lead scientist on the Lancaster 2011 expedition, Westdal is thrilled at the rare chance to observe the whales’ spring migration from the North Water Polynya into Lancaster Sound.

Although she’s participated in almost 20 research trips to the Arctic, this is her first expedition by boat. “We can actually follow the migration and be in the same place as the whales are,” said Westdal, a 30-year-old University of Manitoba graduate.

It’s a risky trip. The boat could become trapped in ice or be pummeled by bad weather. But the physical dangers don’t worry Westdal. What’s most daunting to her is the prospect of spending a month in extremely close quarters on a 14-metre trawler with seven other people.

“It’s definitely going to be the hardest thing,” she said. “I just want everyone to work really well together. You can’t let anything fester.”

They’ll be squeezing into small cabins with four bunk beds at night and have to share every waking moment. She won’t even get to meet five of the seven other expedition members until the trip begins.

What can she do to prepare? She said she’ll be taking lots of good books and games such as cards and cribbage to enjoy. Plans are also under way to install a stationary bicycle on the back of the boat to give expedition members a chance to pedal away from it all.


Allure of the High Arctic

May 27, 2011

Chris Debicki, Oceans North CanadaWhen Chris Debicki first moved to Iqaluit in 2004, he saw the Arctic through a southerner’s eyes – as a beautiful but harsh region. Then he got to know local residents who taught him to hunt caribou, fish for Arctic char and survive the elements.

 “Gradually, I learned to see the Arctic as a welcoming place with abundant resources if you know how to find them,” said Debicki, Nunavut projects director for Oceans North Canada andleader of the Lancaster 2011 expedition.

The high Arctic’s sheer majesty captured the imagination of Debicki, who grew up in landlocked Winnipeg dreaming of the ocean. In 2009, he left his job as director of a Nunavut legal aid clinic and joined Oceans North Canada.

What excites him the most about spending a month on a trawler tracking narwhal, bowhead and belugas through ice-filled seas is answering one key question.“Can it be done? Can we successfully follow a whale migration into Lancaster Sound in June?” said Debicki, 33.

Even 19th century whaling boats do not appear to have ventured into this region this early in the spring because of dangerous ice conditions, according to research Debicki has done. “Ice is definitely the biggest risk,” Debicki said. “We could definitely get stuck in ice.”

Today’s technologies, from satellite phones to ice forecasting equipment offer a huge advantage over whaling days. But it’s no guarantee of trouble-free travel, as Debicki learned during a 2004 Arctic expedition.

That summer he spent an entire month stuck in ice on a steel-hulled sailboat in Franklin Strait near where the explorer Sir John Franklin’s ship was trapped in 1846. Debicki and his crewmates moved their boat into a sheltered cove to wait out the ice. There they kept a 24-hour watch for polar bears, including one close call when warning shots barely kept a hungry beast from climbing aboard.

To prepare for the Lancaster expedition, Debicki has been swimming regularly to make sure he’s in shape to tackle tasks such as pushing ice away from the boat with poles. He’s also put together meticulous plans to cover every possible emergency, from equipment failure to illnesses. Getting ready is probably more stressful than the trip itself for Debicki.

Despite the risks, he’s eager to test his sea legs on another Arctic voyage. “I’m very comfortable at sea,” he said. “I find it a very calming proposition.”


Countdown begins for Arctic whale expedition

May 26, 2011

Whale migrationWelcome to our “Ship’s Log” for our upcoming Lancaster 2011: Arctic Whale Survey, a month-long scientific expedition to study one of the greatest whale migrations in the world.

Expedition members are busy getting ready for their journey on a 14-metre trawler that is scheduled to leave Disko Bay, Greenland on June 3. From there, the eight-member crew will travel to the North Water Polynya where they will begin collecting data on narwhal, beluga, bowhead and seabirds before venturing south to Lancaster Sound.

The expedition, sponsored by Oceans North Canada, is the first time on record that a boat this small has tried to track the spring whale migration into the ice-filled waters of Lancaster Sound. Expedition leader Chris Debicki and marine biologist Kristin Westdal are both caught up in a last-minute push to complete long to-do lists before they leave Winnipeg. More about what it takes to pull together a trip like this in future posts.

On Thursday, May 26th, they took time out to hold a Winnipeg expedition launch party to celebrate a voyage that is sure to provide important scientific insights into the whale migration. Stay tuned to our Ship’s Log as we track the crew’s preparations and departure from Greenland in a week.

 

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