a cool shot

the ferris wheel at the midway

My work sent me to a fall fair last weekend (that’s where I took the photo), we had a booth so I spent two days chatting to the people passing by. I certainly see the value of engaging the public about the science we do and I don’t mind answering people’s questions.

Since I’m an introvert, by the time I got home Sunday night, I was exhausted. Even though I wanted to do more writing, my evenings have been spent flopping on the couch watching bad action movies. More coming soon.

Recipe for Maaqtak

An iceberg the size of an aircraft carrier

This is the final installment of this years field work in Scott Inlet (here are links to the first, second, third and forth).

A small boat from the community of Clyde River was supposed to come to Scott Inlet with our replacements (three of us were scheduled to leave), then ferry us to town. The small boat could do the trip in about 3 hours verses 12 hours for the Nuliajuk. Another bonus in my mind was that small boats don’t make me sea sick. It was a good plan in theory, then we got the weather forecast. Four metre waves were predicted.

At 7 pm we got in touch with the small boat driver (who also happened to be the mayor of Clyde River) to confirm it was too rough to make the trip in his boat. My flight was scheduled to leave at 9 am the following morning. The decision was to take the ship south – a night time sprint down the coast through bumpy seas while dodging ice bergs.

Before we hit the forecasted 4 metre seas, I climbed into my bunk – a sea sickness avoidance plan that worked wonderfully. Although, the sea wasn’t as bumpy as predicted, I still was forced to spend the night wedging myself into my bunk to prevent being tossed out of it. Sleeping was impossible. When I got up at 6 am Clyde River was just coming into view.

Groggy from lack of sleep, my field gear randomly shoved into my duffle bag, my steel-toed rubber boots handed off to an incoming scientist who’s luggage went astray, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.

While sitting in a moulded yellow plastic chair, one of perhaps a dozen in the airport, a rather large man in a green plaid shirt sat beside me. I couldn’t help but stare at his absurd moustache, he had shaved it in the middle exposing his philtrum. I didn’t work up the nerve to ask why he made the effort to shave like that. I would assume we were about the same age and I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring (I don’t even take it to the field). My colleague was in the washroom, so who knows what this mountain man’s intentions were but, he wanted to talk so much I didn’t get a word in. I’ll call him airport-guy.

Airport-guy shared his knowledge of the finer parts of the local cuisine. He told me all about maaqtak.

Earlier in the trip, when we had dropped off supplies to the hunters, they had shared some of their catch. Two cuts of caribou, a meaty scapula and a chunk of leg, plus a patch of narwal skin with blubber. I tried raw caribou and found it much milder than I expected (I had expected it to be gamy like venison), I’d happily have it again. One of the inuit crew members explained to me that the caribou was more like a snack, as it didn’t have enough fat content to keep you warm. The real food was the maaqtak, that is narwal or beluga skin with blubber. She gave me a small piece to try. Her advice was to chew it slowly, so I did. An hour later I was still chewing and the skin had developed the flavour of old gum.

According to Airport-guy, maaqtak is sorted into different grades depending on if you intend to eat it raw (like I did) or cook it. He was very precise on how to go about cooking it. First cut it into small pieces and boil for 12 minutes before fishing it out. The result tastes like escargot and is equally good with garlic butter. He went on to suggest a side dish – a brown seaweed available in the north. Boiled for a few minutes in a broth and it turns bright green and tastes like wilted lettuce.

Scott Inlet – trawling and long lines

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.

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…

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…

Getting closer; report from Clyde River

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.

Where I’m heading…

Might see some of these

I’m heading up north again in a few weeks – I won’t believe I’m actually going until I get on the plane as delays are typical, even expected. Excess ice has already pushed our schedule back and it’s impossible to predict what else might come up before I leave.

This year I’m conducting oceanographic sampling in Scott Inlet, a remote fjord on northern Baffin Island. Two moorings were installed on my behalf last summer (I couldn’t go because I was 8 months pregnant at the time). If luck is with me, I’ll get those moorings back, download the data, then put them back into the water for another year. Additionally, my plan is to take as many CTD casts as I can and help out with the other work that will be going on (fish tagging, acoustic moorings and maybe shark wrestling).

I fly into Clyde River, a small town I’ve never been to. All I know so far about the town is the only guest house is closed for renovations. After a night there, I’ll be getting on a small research vessel. I’ve been on this ship before and learned that it gets quite bouncy in rough weather and I tend to get sea-sick (will pack gravel).

To get to Scott Inlet, we’ll have to skirt the edge of Baffin Bay a place I’ve read a lot about. Baffin Bay is a large body of water bound by Greenland to the east, Baffin Island to the west, Ellesmere Island to the north and Davis Strait to the sound. Obviously, locals have known about this place for as long as they have lived there (since about 500 BC). Wikipedia says that John Davis was the first European there in 1585, but I wonder how far the Vikings got exploring the area as I recently saw a documentary about a potential norse trading post on southern Baffin Island (no idea if the show was presenting a fringe idea or not).

Even though Baffin Bay is choked with ice in winter, European whalers frequented the area early in the age where European powers sent sail boats exploring the Arctic. There’s a large polyna (the North Water Polyna), much further north than I will go, that’s highly productive and home to many marine mammals. Baffin Bay is one possible starting point for the North West Passage and many explorers passed through including Sir John Franklin. Interestingly, a B-52 crashed on the ice in 1968 with its nuclear payload.

A couple hundred km north of Clyde River is Scott Inlet, a narrow fjord filled with large islands which I know little about. This time of year the daily mean temperature is 0 degree Celsius, so it could be quite cold. I’ll have to pull out my fuzzy gloves and wool long johns. I wonder if I’ll see northern lights?

Sea Turtles in British Columbia

an old drawing of a Loggerhead Sea Turtle

In the waning tropical daylight, a uniformed park official sauntered over to me. “There are crocodiles in the water,” he told me. I was alone, studying the shallow, clear water of a slow-moving river near Tamarindo, Costa Rica which flowed between me and a nature reserve. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I changed my search from tropical fish to crocodiles. After examining every hiding spot in the water without seeing even a little crocodile, I concluded I was safe. The crocodile warning was likely to scare me out of wading across the river to avoid the reserve’s entrance fee.

The nature reserve protected a stretch of Pacific-facing sandy beach for leatherback turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. I happened to be in the exact area when sea turtles were coming ashore. That night, I joined a chaperoned sea turtle viewing expedition. After a short sunset boat ride (it wasn’t set up to be a difficult expedition), I relaxed on the sand watching the interplay between the moonlight and surf while Reserve staff patrolled the beach for turtles. Three hours after our arrival, a leatherback was spotted hauling herself out of the surf. We left her alone to choose her nest site.

That was the my first sea turtle encounter. On a tropical beach, turtles weren’t a surprise we expect turtles to be nesting there. The second time I encountered sea turtles was to pick up a dead Olive Ridley sea turtle that had paid the price for staying north too long.

In November 2011, an Olive Ridley sea turtle washed ashore on Wickaninnish Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park (ref and ref). Unfortunately, when a beachcomber spotted the turtle, she was in critical condition with a cracked shell. The Parks Canada folks whisked her off to the Vancouver Aquarium for care, but sadly she didn’t survive. A necropsy was performed to determine cause of death, tissues were taken and gut contents analyzed. After data were collected, the turtle was passed from the aquarium to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Her final destination was to be the Royal British Columbia Museum — this turtle is the first record of her species in British Columbia. In death, this turtle is destined to have an afterlife as the northernmost Olive Ridley specimen in the northeast Pacific.

Generally, our local waters are too cold for sea turtles and few wander this far north. McAlpine et al. (2004) describe sea turtles on our coast as “rare vagrants and uncommon seasonal residents.” However, they may be influenced by our warm summer temperatures (Stinson, 1984). Once here, they are free of predators. We have no record of anything eating a stray sea turtle.

Three species of sea turtles have been spotted in our waters: Green, Olive Ridley and Leatherbacks. As of 2004 (McAlpine et al.), there were 11 published reports of green turtles dating back to 1955, 14 published sightings for leatherback turtles dating back to 1932 and none for the Olive Ridley sea turtle. In a recent tracking study of ten Olive Ridley sea turtles, it was discovered they spent 90% of their time in waters with a sea surface temperature of 27 degrees Celsius (Polovina et al., 2004) — good luck finding that on the BC coast. However, a suspicion lingered that Olive Ridley turtles must pass by our coast as they have been spotted off the Washington coast and as far north as Alaska. Loggerhead turtles may eventually be spotted here, as they also have been seen in Alaska (Hodge and Wing, 2000).

In the fall as weather gets cooler, turtles that remain in northern waters risk getting sluggish, their digestion system shuts down and any food in their gut ferments. The added stress of cold waters make turtles susceptible to disease, infections from injuries, and in some cases, the turtles drown.

Green turtle carcasses found here in late fall tend to be large juveniles and small adults (McAlpine et al., 2002). Were they too inexperienced to know it was time to head south? Once these green turtle carcasses divulged their secrets, they get sent to local institutions to further scientific research and education.

Despite being critically endangered, leatherbacks are the most commonly spotted spotted sea turtle in BC waters (Matsuda et al., 2006). Sightings occur all along the coast, suggesting these turtles take advantage of warm sea surface temperatures between late summer and early fall (Spaven et al., 2009). As of 2009, there were 126 unique leatherback sightings recorded for BC (Spaven et al., 2009). Generally, “little is known of the occurrence and distribution of leatherback sea turtles in the waters of BC” (Spaven et al., 2009).

If you want to see a leatherback turtle’s shell, the Royal British Columbia Museum has one on display in the marine room in the Natural History Gallery. Naming these turtles ‘leatherbacks’ is appropriate as their distinct shell is covered in skin, reminiscent of a dried leather coat.

In February, 2012, I accompanied Gavin Hanke, the vertebrates curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum, on a trip to Nanimo’s Pacific Biological Station to pick up the Olive Ridley turtle that had been found on Wickanninsh Beach and transport it to the museum. At the Pacific Biological Station, the turtle was stored in a large walk-in freezer along with marine animals collected for scientific research. Even in the sub-zero air, the freezer stunk of stale fish. The aroma stuck to my clothes and stayed with me the rest of the day.

A large green garbage can barely contained the Olive Ridley turtle; its nose reached right up to the lid. The animal’s plastron and internal organs had been removed during the necropsy, so only the turtle’s head, limbs and carapace remained. Hollowed out, the turtle still seemed huge.

Eventually the turtle will be preserved and added to the museum’s collection. Behind the closed doors (to contain the smell) of the museum’s wet lab, the turtle will be soaked in formaldehyde; a process called ‘fixing’ that is akin to pickling. The formaldehyde links proteins within the turtle’s cells, to lock the animal in a ‘life-like’ look. The best way to determine if the fixing process is complete is to poke the specimen with your finger. If it feels rubbery it is done. For a turtle this size, the fixing process takes a few weeks.

Once the carcass is fixed, it is soaked in water to remove excess formaldehyde. Finally, the turtle will be stored in a vat (because it is too big for a bottle) of ethanol. Alcohol is easier to work with than formaldehyde. Over the long term, ethanol keeps bacteria and fungi at bay. Future researches will not be able to perform any DNA analysis since the formaldehyde was used to fix the turtle.

Thinking back to Costa Rica, once she had excavated a pit in the sand, we approached with only the dimmest lights to watch the leatherback turtle lay her eggs. The guides assured us that we weren’t bothering her, which I didn’t believe as they needed our entrance fee to fund the nature reserve. Even in the dim light, the turtle’s eggs were brilliant white and there were lots of them. Each one was a perfect sphere. I was curious what they felt like — a curiosity that remained unsatisfied.

When she was finished, the leatherback used her back legs to slowly sweep sand over her eggs. She never looked at what she was doing, but still buried the eggs perfectly. Once done, she hauled herself with her massive flippers/front legs back to the ocean leaving a trench in the sand behind her. We quietly backed away as her form became a dark mass surrounded by sparkly surf.

Further on, a newly hatched leatherback was making its way toward the water across our path. I picked it up. It was floppy and wiggly like newborns often are, and its front legs dwarfed the rest of its body. The size difference between this tiny turtle that fit into my hand and its gargantuan mother was stunning. Since a lot of us were on the beach that night, I took the turtle to the water rather than let it run the risk of being stepped on by another tourist. It fought the gentle surf, then it slipped under the surface and vanished from sight. Would it some day tour past the BC coast? Would it beat the odds and return to the beach to lay its own batch of eggs?

In the darkness, I also headed to sea. A boat took me back to the outskirts of Tamarindo, and my hotel. This time, I didn’t stop to check the water for crocodiles.


Polovina, J.J., G.H. Balazs, E.A. Howell, D.M. Parker, M.P. Seki and P.H. Dutton. 2004. Forage and migration habitat of loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles in the central North Pacific Ocean. Fisheries Oceanography, 13:1, 36-51.

McAlpine, D.F., S.A. Orchard, and K.A. Sendall. 2002. Recent Occurrences of the Green Turtle from British Columbia Waters. Northwest Science, 76, No 2, 185-188.

McAlpine, D.F., S.A. Orchard, K.A. Sendall and R. Palm. 2004. Status of Marine Turtles in British Columbia Waters: A Reassessment. The Canadian Field-Naturalist. 118. 72-76.

Matsuda., B.M., D.M. Green and P.T. Gregory. 2006. Amphibians and Reptiles of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum, Victoria, Canada, 266pp.

Spaven, L.D., Ford, J.K.B, and Sbrocchi, C. 2009. Occurrence of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) off the Pacific coast of Canada, 1931-2009. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 2858: vi + 32 p.

Stinson, M. L. 1984. Biology of sea turtles in San Diego Bay, California and in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. MSc. thesis, San Diego State University, California.

Hodge, R. P., and B. L. Wing. 2000. Occurrences of marine turtles in Alaska waters 1960-1998. Herpetological Review. 31: 148-151.

Image is from here.

Packing for the Arctic

I leave soon (Saturday) for a six week expedition to the Arctic – Cumberland Sound to be exact. I’ll be living and working on a small research vessel. My work has taken me to the Arctic before, so I’m trying to figure out what to pack based on what I wished I brought in the past. The summer-time weather in Cumberland Sounds is like winter where I live. Generally, I have all I need for winter with a few exceptions.

With ample time to pack, I might be obsessing about what to bring. In my army days, I often got such short notice that I was going somewhere, I’d end up packing my dirty laundry – fortunately, those days are well past. Now, there is time to ponder exactly how many pairs of socks I’ll need.

No landmasses block Cumberland Sound from the North Atlantic, which could result in windy conditions. Long johns are a must. I’m going to look for a wool pair as I was recently told they are toasty warm and don’t smell like the polypropylene variety.

Water-proof gloves are critical. My work involves dunking fancy electronics into salt water. The water will be close to freezing (some of it may actually be frozen). When the instrument comes back on deck, I’ll have to handle it, hence the need for good gloves.

Vitamins are already in my duffel bag – food has to suck on a ship in the Arctic right? Actually, food on ships tends to be fantastic but, it’s possible I could be facing six weeks of TV dinners. So, the vitamins will be my insurance policy (I don’t want to risk scurvy). I’ll pack a small first aid kit as I’m that kind of paranoid but, generally I’m not accident prone and I’m sure the ship will have first aid supplies. For entertainment, a friend is loaning me an e-reader to try out – if I get enough spare time to use it.

If there is access to an internet connection (and I’ve been told there will be) I’ll post updates on what we are doing here.

I took the polar bear picture a few years ago in the Hudson’s Bay. He was annoyed with me as he looks.

Technology Trap

The title isn’t my idea, it came from a documentary I watched recently – ‘Trigger Effect,’ one of the ‘Connections’ series by James Burke that first aired in 1978 (all his shows can be watched here). I originally saw the series in mid 80’s. At the time, I eagerly anticipated each show – rushing home to ensure I caught each one. Years later, I enjoyed the sequels just as much. Shows like these ones form part of the reason why I’m interested in understanding the world around me and why I chose science as my career. I like to try to know why things are the way they are (I’m not convinced it is possible to completely understand the world around us because it is so complex – which means there will always be new things to discover).

The ‘Connections’ shows focus on how the things that surround us in the modern world came to be, their influence on the way we are today, and their impact on how we think. Even though this show came out several decades ago, the ideas are completely relevant today – perhaps even more so.

Technology benefits us in in many ways – but I agree with the show, that technology can be a trap. The complex interconnections between everything means that a failure at one point can have cascading effects on everything. In the show, an elevator is used as an example – we hop into these boxes all the time, usually without considering what would happen if the power went out. What would we do? Since the show, even more technology has entered our everyday use. Using a GPS for navigating is now standard – so what happens when the batteries die?

Another consequence of our modern inter-connectedness is that the places left where one can be the first to explore becomes extremely limited (there still are some places). Right now I’m considering taking on a project about a remote bay in the Arctic. When I look at a map it seems so far away – yet it has a long history of exploration. I won’t be the first to explore it by a long shot. It will probably take me days to travel to the location, yet I can download maps, charts and photos of the area from my home office.

I came across this quote, which sums up my thoughts about exploration (from a guest post by Gerald Zhang-Schmidt on the blog ‘Time to Eat the Dogs’):

It may not be possible to go out and find something new that will make one known as the first person to have seen it. However, the exploration of blank spots of our own personal knowledge, hidden by the superficial familiarity gained from TV and internet, has become all the more important, and worthwhile – and it is a whole treasure trove of possible experiences: about other peoples, about this planet’s ecology, and often beginning with our own cities and neighborhoods. How well do you know the people and paths in your community or the species that dwell in your own backyard?

I’ll consider my Arctic project as a way to fill a blank spot in my personal knowledge (there will also be some good science there), and I’ll continue exploring my world closer to home – I’ve already started identifying the birds that live in my backyard.

As a tangent: I know how to navigate without a GPS.