Ice Watch on Leg 7

By Grant Gilchrist

As we moved north out of Frobisher Bay, people often gathered on the bow of the ship leaning over to watch the ice and birds passing below. We looked like sprint runners caught in the photo finish instant all trying to break the ribbon first. “We see that all the time from up here,” said Roger sitting above on the bridge, “because it’s all new to you.”

I ventured down to join the others and began answering questions about the birds they were surprised to see “way out here”. I explained that the murres on the sea were feeding and that they’d fly all the way back to their nesting colony on Baffin Island from here, and encouraged the group to keep a look out for the first dovekies as we moved further and further offshore. The sea was calm and within a few minutes, and as if on cue, a group of five dovekies surfaced in perfect unison. Then another seven and then twelve more further ahead.

“That is amazing! How did you know that?” asked Lorna.

I let her in on a secret. I had checked our seabirds-at-sea database before coming onto C3. “If you know the location and timing of where you’ll be, decades of compiled seabird surveys can give you a pretty good impression of what species you might expect and how many too.” I went on to explain that these dovekies were actually non-breeding birds and the majority of the population was nesting much farther north along the coast of west Greenland. “One colony is crudely estimated to be over 20 million birds… how do you count to 20 million?! All of them will pass right through here in the fall on their way to the North Atlantic.”

Environment Canada researches birds in diverse habitats across the country including the mountains, grassland prairies, boreal forest and at sea. But we don’t study birds just because they’re interesting. We study them because they’re telling.

By comparing current conditions to past records – whether contaminant levels, amounts of ingested plastic, or changes in their numbers and distribution – birds can help identify if environmental change is occurring. This is particularly important in a country as enormous and as ecologically diverse as Canada where scientists are understandably spread thin from coast to coast to coast.

In Nunavut, Environment Canada is also working more closely than ever with northerners and this was something I was pleased to discuss with the participants while on board Leg 7 of C3. Many of the issues that I’ve addressed during my career were first reported to me by Inuit. Topics as far ranging as population declines of the endangered Ivory Gull, the emergence of an avian disease new to the North, and changing predator-prey relationships between polar bears and seabirds were first detected by those exploring, travelling and living in their own lands. Within the field of biology and wildlife co-management, the benefits of reconciliation are already being felt.

As the day progressed we travelled west out into Davis Strait to avoid an area of impenetrable pack ice sitting along the Baffin Island coast. Within hours we were bracing ourselves as the ship pitched and rolled through a large ocean swell. The crew advised everyone to go below deck for safety. Then things got worse.

“Hold on…” cautioned Roger, “this is going to be a good one.” A life spent at a sea gave Roger the ability to spot the big waves minutes before they arrived. I gripped a rail as the ship slowly scaled the wave and then plunged down it’s back and directly into the next. The ship shuttered. Roger smiled. The wave crashed over the bow and seemed to reach us high up on the bridge as water slapped the windows.

Eventually, the hours spent travelling through the breaking waves of Davis Strait enabled us to skirt the worst of the dense pack ice and the ship’s captain turned us back westward. We had ventured far out to sea to the very margins of the country itself, much further than originally planned and well beyond the protection of the coast. As we moved back towards Baffin Island, the dovekies were replaced by murres and eventually murres replaced by black guillemots. Fulmars were ever present.

Many of us had retreated to our bunks during the worst of the waves but as we eventually re-entered the pack ice its dampening effect on the ocean swell was immediately appreciated. People began to reemerge from below deck, their spirits and colour returning. “I love sea ice!”

By evening, we had reached the Baffin Island coast and the calm sea reflected the granite cliffs towering above us. We sipped ginger tea with honey mainly to keep our hands warm. For the Leg 7 participants, the effects of ice had been felt in both body and mind as we experienced firsthand how ocean currents, ice, rough seas and the seabirds inhabiting them interacted. All processes that transcend international boundaries and, one would hope, politics as well.