ArcticNet Amundsen Expedition 2014

During the last two months, I’ve been in the most remote waters of Canada and Alaska, exploring and studying the marine animals which thrive in the cold Arctic Ocean…

I had been looking forward to this expedition for a long time.

During the last year, my project has developed a lot and I reached the stage where I was ready to collect new samples and address some new questions. I am happy to say our Amundsen expedition yielded much success! Our sampling program focussed on zooplankton and fish, and we used 6 or 7 different gears to catch these animals. If we weren’t deploying the beam trawl to catch large numbers of adult fish (mainly polar cod) near the seabed, we were using the Hydrobios to catch zooplankton from hundreds of metres of water. We were always busy. Samples were brought back to our lab, where we would first pick out and identify the fish, measure and freeze them. Zooplankton would also be treated and stored. Students will now investigate what all these animals have been eating.

The great Canadian Coast Guard ice-breaker Amundsen. Photo credit: Gilles Rapaport

For this cruise, we invested in a second camera system we call the MOKI, the sister product of the LOKI. Don’t worry about the names; the fundamental difference is that LOKI takes pictures of zooplankton in the water column, whereas MOKI sits on the seabed and takes pictures of “hyperbenthic” zooplankton. We were excited in sampling the hyperbenthic creatures because they can be much bigger than the ones in the water column, and some studies show they can form large aggregations. Despite deploying this new gear several times during my stint at sea, it didn’t return much. I think this is mainly because of the MOKI’s design. In contrast to the LOKI which concentrates zooplankton in a net, MOKI stays still and can only photo animals that actually swim or drift under the camera. The camera takes a pic every 1 to 10 seconds, flashing a light. Maybe the hyperbenthic animals were scared by the light and tried to avoid it. I’m not distraught about this though; Thomas Edison hit it on the head when he said “I have not failed.  I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work”…

Breaking through the sea ice with ease. Photo credit: Gilles Rapaport

Probably my best result from the cruise was catching living arrow worms, and watching them eat under the microscope. But they weren’t just eating anything…

Most papers on chaetognaths describe them as strict carnivores, but a couple of authors suggested they eat other things than prey, filtering water and removing the organic matter in it. In the Chukchi Sea, I observed some individuals trying to eat green detritus. This stuff looked like what we call “marine snow”, aggregations of things like algae that fall from the shallows downwards, some of this stuff ending up at the seafloor. I’m not sure yet what the detritus was made of – I want to analyse that next, but this is definitely a cool step forward in my research. If chaetognaths are not only predators, their role in marine ecosystems may need to be reconsidered (not just in the Arctic). Why were they feeding on this green stuff? Why are they resorting to omnivory when they have all the anatomy of predators? How much of it are they eating, when are they eating it, and how does this affect the carbon cycle of the ocean? Now these are cool questions!

An arrow worm, Eukrohnia hamata, eating detritus under the microscope. 30mm animal captured in Chukchi Sea, Alaska.

Maybe the best part of the cruise was the last three weeks, when the ship headed back east through the Northwest Passage. By this time, I’d made good friends with several people from the ship, and enjoyed sampling and kicking back with them. The experiences you share together on an adventure like this cement great, long lasting relationships. These also exist with the coastguard staff, who it must be said, do a fantastic job and make all this sampling possible. From the chefs to the guys operating the winch and putting our stuff in the water, the whole Coast Guard system works like clockwork.

The Canadian Garde Cotiere holding down operations. Photo credit: Gilles Rapaport

But the best part of Leg 3 was having Schools on Board on the ship with us. This is an ArcticNet initiative in which 14-18 year old students hand-picked from Canadian High Schools come on the Amundsen to learn about Arctic science and work alongside scientists. The students, from schools all over the country, were really motivated and enthusiastic to work with Cyril and I. A couple of them left with a desire to become marine biologists in the future, which for me, is the coolest response they could have.

Teaching Schools on Board students about zooplankton

Another highlight of the trip was celebrating the night of the Scottish Independence referendum in the high Arctic. Obviously I was hyped about this, as I believed that Scotland is capable of being its own country. In the end it wasn’t meant to be, but I’ll never forget the party we had and the sight of people from all over the world wearing home-made kilts to support the dream 🙂

Polar bear family observed during leg 2. Mother and cubs encountered a seal. Mum ate first before letting her cubs take over. This meal could keep the family going for weeks. Photo credit: David Thornhill

Now I’m back in Quebec, and ready to carry on with my project work (I’ll also be out celebrating my 26th birthday this weekend!) The last two months have been awesome and I’m incredibly grateful for my opportunities. For more information about the Amundsen Arctic expedition of 2014, check out this newspaper article written by Globe and Mail journalist Ivan Semeniuk, who joined us on the ship for 3 weeks.

Peace Jx

Distant lands where few people venture… Photo credit: J-P Aube
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