In partnership with One Ocean Expeditions, a team of Ocean Wise scientific divers travelled to Canada’s Eastern High Arctic in August 2018. Started as a pilot project, the goal is to collect biodiversity data on nearshore subtidal marine life in areas where few, if any, scuba divers have ever explored.
Reliable baseline data and ongoing monitoring are essential for developing a full understanding of the changes wrought by climate change in Canada’s Arctic, where temperatures are changing twice as fast as the rest of Canada. The nearshore is a key part of the larger marine ecosystem; it is where most direct human activity takes place. However, there have been very few surveys of nearshore marine flora and fauna in the Canadian Arctic.
Such surveys require significant resources and advance planning to carry out effectively. In early 2018, the Ocean Wise and One Ocean Expedition teams coordinated multiple shipments of 1500-kilogram dive gear and specimen life support equipment to both Sydney, Nova Scotia — for provisioning of the Akademik Ioffe when it was in port there in early summer — and Resolute Bay, Nunavut. But best-laid plans can go awry when Arctic weather and sea ice intervene, as they did last year, so a frantic series of last-minute arrangements were required when ship access to Resolute Bay was made impossible due to sea ice. In the end, the dive team boarded in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, with the rest of the passengers. Fortunately, the team’s dive gear, which had been waiting for them in Resolute Bay (the planned embarkation point), was transferred on very short notice to Pond Inlet, thanks to the diligent efforts of the One Ocean Expeditions logistics team.
In 2018, Ocean Wise divers completed biodiversity surveys at six locations: Grise Fjord, Baillarge Bay, Croker Bay, Dundas Harbour, Arctic Bay and Port Leopold, during which 114 species were recorded. Compared to biodiversity surveys conducted in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, where Ocean Wise scientific divers have been conducting similar research since 2015, the distribution of species in the Eastern High Arctic in 2018 was greater or equal to Cambridge Bay for all but two groups: fishes and cnidarians (such as anemones, soft corals and jellies).
A number of species were also recorded that have not been seen in Cambridge Bay by Ocean Wise divers, including snailfish, feather stars, basket stars, and the yellow aeolid nudibranch Zelentia pustulata.
Divers also observed several other notable Arctic species. The Saduria isopod, a giant marine version of the common pill bug, was seen at Grise Fjord, and soft corals of the genus Gersemia were found in high abundance at shallow depths on a number of the dives. Divers were amazed at the biodiversity and tantalized by the prospect of repeat dives this season, when more extensive underwater exploration can be undertaken.
The team collected 50 samples for DNA barcoding to be processed at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph. DNA barcoding enables the positive identification and cataloguing of marine diversity in unprecedented detail. Supplementing traditional taxonomy with the precision of DNA barcoding will make future monitoring efforts (to track invasive species, for example) far more cost-effective, accurate and efficient.
Divers also carried a temperature data logger to accurately track water temperatures during dives. As a testament to the difficulty of trying to stay warm in Arctic waters, the chart below shows the temperature profile (depth – red line, temperature – blue line) of the team’s dive at Port Leopold on August 21, 2018, where the coldest temperature reached was -1.29°C!
Throughout the One Ocean Expeditions voyage, many interesting discussions regarding Arctic biodiversity and the effects of climate change took place between Ocean Wise team members, One Ocean Expedition passengers and staff, and the ship’s crew. Having a specimen life support system with display tanks set up in a location where scientific activities and live animal holding could be easily observed proved to be extremely popular. All team members came away with the certainty that the people to whom they spoke, many who have the means to become ocean champions and advocates, disembarked with a greater appreciation and understanding of marine biodiversity in Canada’s Arctic than they did before they boarded the ship.
Overall, the 2018 pilot project to put scientific divers onboard an expedition ship was a success. Significant and extensive preplanning and top-notch logistics support from One Ocean Expeditions enabled the Ocean Wise team to dive safely and efficiently; the team is looking forward to more of the same in 2020.
Written by Jeremy Heywood – Diving and Boating Safety Officer for Ocean Wise.