André Martel’s Experience onboard Leg 2

Dr. André Martel, a research scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, joined the journey on Leg 2 from Montreal to Baie-Comeau, Quebec. He knew the region well, as he had grown up and studied there. His days were filled with many science activities, all against the backdrop of some of the country’s most beautiful scenery.

June 12 – Montreal Harbour…science near the city
Our mother ship was anchored at the Port de Montréal for a few days, to load cargo and allow participants to explore the city. I joined the science team led by Dr. Lyne Morissette, to collect water samples for studies on environmental DNA (eDNA). The goal is to detect the DNA released by living organisms in the water; even traces of that DNA can determine the various species in a given area. Our skilled zodiac skipper, Julien, took us near Île Ste-Helene, site of Expo 67. The samples will be processed in the ship’s portable lab, a space created specifically for the scientific needs on this 150-day expedition.

On the shore, we also collected sediment samples to check for microplastics. We spotted plastic containers and fragments of all sorts, including many empty water bottles and Styrofoam. Sadly, this is a common sight on many places of the Earth these days.

Early that evening, as the ship left Montréal Harbor, I joined C3 science colleague Daniel Hatin to survey birds near the islands of Boucherville. In 5 minutes alone, we saw many birds, from bank swallows to cormorants, geese and ducks. We cruised towards Trois-Rivières in the darkness of the warm night.

June 16. Grosse Île and l’Islet – science along the St. Lawrence River.
We left Quebec City late in the night and set anchor early in the morning near Grosse Île, a national historic site managed by Parks Canada, where thousands of immigrants were quarantined before they could land. After the visit, Sandra and I collected plastics at a nearby sandy beach. Even though there are no towns, restaurants or fast food outlets on the island, we had little difficulty collecting macroplastic refuse and fragments. These items had drifted up the St. Lawrence to Grosse Île, a sober reminder that garbage does not just disappear, it ends up somewhere.

After lunch, the Polar Prince sailed downstream, settling about two km off the town of l’Islet. As participants prepared for a reception at the Musée maritime du Québec, Lyne and I collected more eDNA samples. Extracting and preserving the water’s DNA content proved difficult because of the fine silt and plankton in the waters from that part of the St. Lawrence River, where freshwater mixes for the first time with saltwater.

I later joined the C3 participants at the Musée Maritime where the community surprised everyone with a warm farewell and small gifts. It was a most appreciated “bon voyage” to our expedition from a lovely coastal community.

Later that night, we started our journey to the Saguenay Fjord. Excitement was obvious among everyone on board, as we were now sailing towards one of the southernmost fjords in the world, and one of the top whale-watching areas of Eastern Canada, the Parc marin du Saguenay–Saint-Laurent.

June 17. Saguenay Fjord – science among a unique landscape
In the morning, as the ship entered the Saguenay Fjord we could see small groups of beluga whales, including juveniles accompanying their mothers. For many on board, it was the first time seeing these marine mammals; some participants had tears of joy on their cheeks. The ship continued, sometimes sailing very close to the high granite cliffs of the fjord’s southern shore. Most on board spent time at the ship’s bow, mesmerized by this spectacular geological décor. We later collected water for eDNA and shore microplastics near Tadoussac as C3 left the fjord towards the town of Escoumins.

June 18. Escoumins – a warm reception and more whale sightings
After anchoring in front of the little town, participants visited the community centre of the Essipit First Nation. There were traditional songs, dances, speeches, exchanges of gifts, as well as tastings of Labrador tea and caribou. Later, Lyne Morissette and I carried on our routine scientific tasks, collecting and preserving eDNA water samples from offshore, as well as microplastic and macroplastic samples from a nearby beach. During the day many belugas as well as minke whales could be seen from the ship’s upper decks.

June 20. Baie-Comeau – a trip to the “Jardin des Glaciers”
On the last day of Leg 2, participants visited the First Nations communities north of Baie Comeau and then the Jardin des Glaciers, a nature centre that focusses on ice ages, glaciation and climate change. (I have done fieldwork near this area at a unique site where one can study changes during the past 10,000 years to molluscs of the Gulf of St. Lawrence). Later came the farewell dinner with the Leg 2 participants. For me, as a researcher and aquatic biologist, my journey on the C3 expedition has been a fantastic, enriching experience that I will never forget.