Sunday, September 29, 2013

Scott Inlet - trawling and long lines

One of the glaciers
This is the forth installment on my field work in Scott Inlet, Baffin Island. Previous installments can be found here, here and here.

17 Sept 2013 – the ship spent the night just outside Scott Inlet starting out out at anchor, but wind and swell caused it to endlessly rub against the anchor chain. The mate, who was on watch, decided to start up the engines, pull the anchor and motor around for the night. All the while, small chunks of ice butted against the hull right beside my bunk which left me with visions of the sinking Titanic. No sleep was to be had, leaving us all looking rough around the breakfast table in the morning.

Over the course of the day we completed 5 trawls – the first time the Nuliajuk had done a bottom trawl. With each trawl, the turn-around time with the equipment sped up as everyone figured out what they were doing. Each trawl was slightly deeper than the last as no one knew exactly how much cable the trawl net had (it turns out around 900m worth). The catch included: Greenland Halibut, Flounder, Arctic Cod, Polar Cod, Alligator Fish, Snail Fish, Northern Shrimp, Striped Shrimp, other assorted shrimp, 2 species of skate, Hookear Skulpin, Eel Pout, and assorted jellies, sponges and stars. I saw none of the animals as I stayed on the bridge taking notes on times, locations and depths while trying not to get sea-sick (I could have popped down to the lab – but didn't think my stomach could take it).

For the night, we retreated to anchor in Refuse Bay. It was nice not to have to dance around to get my socks off at the end of the day.

18 Sept 2013 – We took the day to circumnavigate Sillum Island, one of two islands that Scott Inlet branches around. The aim was for me to do CTD casts while the long-lines were being set up for sharks. The occasional depth sounding of the chart didn't even hint at how complex the bottom topography is, multiple deep pools of 700 m and more are separated by shallower sills. Bumps and dips break the flat of the deeper pockets. Mostly, the depth sound returned a hard signal meaning the bottom was probably rock, but occasionally, the signal would return spread out suggesting isolated muddy patches (or something else).

Against the electric blue of the glaciers, the fresh snow looked dirty. In gullies where glaciers reached the water, calved off chunks floated away. These bergy-bits often sported whimsical shapes reminiscent of ancient monsters or partly submerged houses.

I finished the day with 47 CTD casts over a wide area, downloaded and backed up to three places (I'm mildly paranoid about losing data).

Greenland Shark complete with copepod (shark is on its back)
19-20 Sept 2013 – Over the next two days we fished for Greenland Shark deep within Scott Inlet (it was delightfully calm in the sheltered Inlet, I could set a cup of coffee cup down and not have it instantly spill everywhere). We used a long-line bated with squid for the sharks. A long-line is exactly as it sounds, a several hundred metre long line with shorter lines attached every few metres ending in hooks. Anchors weight down both ends keeping it on the bottom, which in our case was around 600 m. Off of the anchors at both ends were buoyant ropes attached to floats so we could recover everything (both ends in case we encountered a snarl and had to cut the line – then we could start again at the other end). Both days, the whole mess of lines, anchors and hooks was left in the water for 24 hours.

While I was there (shark fishing continued after I left), we caught 14 live shark and several more that had been snacked on. Sizes ranged from 1.6 m (baby size) to over 3 m with a good mix of males and females. We didn't catch anything else, so why were the shark even there? And what were they eating? The sharks were measured, tagged and tissue and blood samples were taken. The question as to why we needed the centrifuge was answered since the blood was spun to separate out the plasma.

Most sharks had a copepod parasite (Ommatokoita elongata) attached to their corneas. Each parasite dangled a finger-length yellowish egg case from the shark's eye, no doubt impairing the shark's vision (but, they live so deep, vision is probably not critical for their survival).

We brought on board a couple of shark heads (the assumption was that other sharks had eaten the rest of them). I took the opportunity to get a close up look. The Greenland Shark doesn't have flashy teeth like a Great White Shark does. Instead, it has tiny teeth reminiscent of a saw blade or razor wire. These shark bite and twist, effectively removing chunks of its prey. Up close, the teeth looked deadly.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Scott Inlet - Getting to work

The bear looking annoyed with us
This is my third installment about this years field work. First is here, second is here.

A polar bear sleeping on a rock greeted us the first morning in Scott Inlet. The bear wasn't happy to see us as we rudely brought the ship in close to get a good look at him (a young male). The bear got up and moved further up the slope, casting disdainful glances our way. So far, I've seen a polar bear every time I've gone to the Arctic.

Steep faces on each side of the inlet bracket the narrow band of water of the inlet. The orange and black stained cliffs are high enough that base jumpers use the area – how they get up the cliffs in the first place baffles me, gaps to climb up were rare and filled with glaciers dripping in slow motion towards the sea. The inlet walls would fit the landscape in 'Game of Thrones' north of the wall, or exist in Middle Earth. Off one of the cliffs flows the most peculiar waterfall I've ever seen. It cascades off the top, then vanishes mid way down. Does the water freeze into snow? Where does the water come from? Below the water was just as shear - our depth sounder listed depths around 200 m and greater only a short distance form the cliffs.

Cliff face at Scott Island
The inlet appeared strangely devoid of life. A few Arctic Fulmars glided by, but never conglomerated around our ship even when we were offering up a free lunch (excess bait squid). Olive green jellyfish about the size of baseballs bobbed in the water. We knew narwhal were in the area, but never saw them – perhaps our depth sounder scared them off.

In 2012, three lines of receivers to listen for tagged fish, plus my two oceanographic moorings and some marine mammal listening devices were left in the water (to a total of 36). We came prepared to re-install these moorings plus add four additional receiver lines. As a result, the back deck of the ship was consumed with 200lb anchors weighing the aft end down. The first order of business was to deploy a batch of new receiver moorings before recovering any.

Instead of depth contours, the chart only listed a few depth soundings leaving most of the bottom topography to the imagination until mapping could be completed (the Nuliajuk is heavily involved in mapping when not doing our work). Depths for the mooring locations were needed to ensure we used the right type of float (non-compressible floats for the deeper moorings). As we checked depths, I did a line of CTD casts. Then we turned around and deployed a line of moorings. A process we repeated several times over several days.

Once the deck was cleared a bit we began recovering the previous year's moorings. Each mooring was fixed to its anchor with an acoustic release, essentially a hook with enough electronic brains to respond to a code sent from the surface and open the hook. Attached to the release is a length of rope holding the instruments ending in a float. From the ship, we call the release and have it uncouple – then the instruments are pulled to the surface by the float.

Several of us kept look out for the floats as they popped up. When a float was spotted, the zodiac zipped over and pulled in the mooring then transferred it over to the ship. Once the mooring was on board, we cleaned them up – an easy task as nothing much grew on the mooring lines and instruments. If we had put these instruments in temperate waters we'd be scrubbing matts of seaweeds and mussels off. Instead, there was a light growth of algae that wiped off with a towel.

One of my moorings - nothing fancy
One of my thermistors flooded. When I opened it up the batteries we so corroded I couldn't read any of the writing on them (batteries were removed carefully avoiding the battery acid). The rest of the instruments were fine. I downloaded each instrument, changed the batteries and re-programmed for a another year. I only briefly looked at the data to check if each instrument worked properly (I'll spend the next while looking at the data in more detail).

Kevin (another scientist) and I tackled the marine mammal recorders, instruments I had never worked with before that use large numbers of D cell batteries. By actually reading the instructions, we readied most of them for re-deployment. Unfortunately, one instrument needed a specialized wrench, which we didn't have. The wrench was to arrive with our replacements, so I assume it has been dealt with by now.

The mooring work was a success – all the moorings from 2012 were recovered and more moorings were put out.

Next up, some fishing...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Heading up the Baffin Island Coast

A view of Clyde River from the sea
The first step before heading to Scott Inlet was getting approval from the local HTA (hunting and trapping association) to tag fish, install moorings and collect data. Before leaving solid ground, the four of us (as there is only room for four scientists on the ship) waded through the fresh snow to the HTA office located in a red shack beside the community freezer.

The office was utilitarian, lit by florescent lights and a lone incandescent bulb. An uncomfortably low ceiling made me feel it was risky to stand up tall. Once white vinyl tiles covered the floor. In an economy of surfacing, the same tiles covered the chipped white painted conference table – edges held down with masking tape. Most of the table surface was consumed with a big map of the area. The walls were decorated with maps, a variety of posters including a graphic one on caribou diseases, and a wanted add for narwal tusks from someone in Vancouver who “will pay a good price.” Lined up along the walls were boxes of ammunition, rubber boots, ropes, and bolts of dull coloured fabric.

A few moments later, a group of men and one woman arrived. Introductions were made and we all sat around the conference table. We worked through a translator, an HTA member with good English, to explain our work. The group kept stern faces as we explained how the acoustic receivers work and our interest in the Greenland Halibut and Greenland Shark. The HTA members were very interested in if our instruments affect the marine mammals – an important food source for them. The agreed that knowing more about the local Greenland Halibut would help them in setting up a commercial fishery, a potential income source for the community.

However, they were baffled as to why we were interested in Greenland Shark. To them the shark were at best a nuisance. You can't eat Greenland Shark without serious preparation as the flesh is toxic and contains high amounts of urea. If you have time, these sharks can be fermented and rendered safe to eat, but this is not something the Inuit traditionally do. Nigel, our shark expert, made a compelling explanation as to why we should care about these shark. I've been working with Nigel for a few years, his shark work takes him from Africa to the Arctic and his passion for these animals rubs off on me, so even with cold feet I'm excited to see them. The Greenland Shark are the top predator on the bottom of the polar seas and are needed to keep the ecosystem in balance. The HTA members appeared to remain skeptical, but willing to humor us. Ironically, the HTA chair's last name translated to English means 'shark'.

The HTA granted their permission asked for a community wide meeting to show everyone what we had accomplished when we finished. While in Scott Inlet, a local community member was to accompany us to see what we were doing, which has happened in previous years. We were also asked to bring back some Greenland Halibut back for the community and to take supplies to a group of hunters stranded in Scott Inlet. After the meeting, we begged a ride (there is a taxi in town, but its availability is never certain) to get our gear down to the water's edge and then transferred to the Nuliajuk (the ship).

We couldn't leave until the next afternoon as gale force winds and 4 metre waves were pounding the Baffin Island coast. Once conditions improved, we pulled anchor and headed north. I looked around the ship, which consists of a bridge, small lab the size of an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen/eating area, two tiny cabins and a v-berth designed to sleep six with less floor space than my bathroom. This was the total inside space to be shared with 10 others. In the v-berth, I had the bottom bunk of three on the starboard side, it took a special sort of un-graceful yoga move to get in.

On the 12th of September, Jacob, the local observer, joined the ship, we loaded groceries and headed north. On our way out of Clyde Inlet, Jacob pointed out a passing cliff with three red streaks running down the face. He said that there was an old story about a man, a dog and a bear. All three fell off the edge of the cliff leaving the red streaks, but only the man and bear survived. Occasionally, sled tracks are found behind bear footprints, as though the bear now pulls the man's sled. I took pictures of the cliff, but the snow obscured the three red streaks.

As expected, it was rough out in Baffin Bay, the large swells tossing the ship about (and spilling vanilla in the galley, giving the ship a pleasant odor of fresh baking). The Nuliajuk is very bouncy and I tend to get sea-sick. To keep a horizon in view, I stayed up on the bridge – which also gave me a nice view of passing icebergs (I'll write a whole post about the icebergs later).

By midnight we arrived in Scott Inlet to start work in the morning. More to follow...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Getting closer; report from Clyde River

Iqaluit airport - it looks like a dissected pelican
case to me.

It was snowing when we landed in Iqaluit - just lightly, but it was snowing. Our layover was short and were expecting some critical equipment to be dropped off. Stress levels increased as our departure time approached without our equipment arriving. We were waiting for a centrifuge (not sure what we need that for) and the transmitter for the acoustic releases (absolutely critical for our work). At the last minute the equipment arrived, we handed it off to the airline and hopped on the plane.

As I walked through the gate a sticker was put on my boarding pass that said: "First Air regulations provide that no hotels, meals or transportation will be supplied if you are over or under carried from your destination" and we were told that weather in Clyde River looked bad and we were likely headed to Pond Inlet instead. A few hours into the flight we joked that it would be nice to see Pond Inlet, then the pilot came on and told us were would be landing in Clyde River in a few minutes.

It was snowing harder when we arrived, a snow that has arrived about a month earlier than expected. I hope it doesn't last. The clouds were low, so I couldn't see much of the surrounding area. The ground is strewn with massive boulders, no doubt dropped off long ago by a retreating glacier. The airport is a small building with a single common room. We stepped inside and watched our luggage be dumped on the ground in the muddy slush in the parking lot. Fortunately, I pack for that sort of thing. As we went outside to collect our gear, a stranger offered us a lift into town and we accepted.

The one hotel in town is closed for renovations, so we are staying at the Inuit Cultural Centre. When I was called to make a reservation I got the impression I was signing on to stay in a barrack style group accommodation with rows of bunk beds - I was totally wrong. I have a spiffy room to myself with a bathroom (I didn't expect the luxury of my own bathroom). The centre is only a few years old and absolutely lovely. We arrived a 4pm on a Sunday, and I didn't know there is no food available at the centre and the Northmart, the only store in town, is closed for the day. Fortunately, another guest took pity on us and gave us chicken noodle soup.

The windows in the common room over look the water (a bay I think). A fuel tanker is at anchor replenishing the town's fuel supply for the winter. Our research vessel isn't here yet - we hope it will arrive soon. We don't have permission yet for our work in Scott Inlet. Monday we meet with the local HTA (hunting and trapping association), the group that can authorize our work, hopefully, they grant us their approval and we can set sail for Scott Inlet.

As a tangent: Since I've been just waiting around looking out to the bay (the town is out of sight) I've spotted a Raven, a Lapland Longspur and an Iceland Gull.