I woke up with a start to my 6:15 alarm. I had been dreaming about going back out on the water in our 10-foot inflatable boat. The boats have three main chambers that are filled with air and a fourth chamber that helps form a small keel on the bottom of the boat. In the dream, one of the main chambers had been catastrophically damaged while we were out on the water. The boat started to sink and take on water – cold, bone-chilling water. As we had discovered the day before, the water near the surface hovers around 14 degrees Celsius (that’s about 57 degrees Fahrenheit for everyone reading this in the states). The temperature begins to plummet quickly as you get deeper. The most incredible thing to me was discovering that the water near the floor of the estuary is actually BELOW freezing – nearly 2 degrees below Celsius in fact. For those who remember chemistry from high school, that’s actually around 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of the specifics, all I remember in the dream was that the water was really, really cold. I thought about this dream as I showered and headed out for breakfast with the team. I made sure to grab an extra bit of warm coffee, you know, just in case that dream became a reality…
After a quick breakfast we regrouped down in the garage to prepare our gear for the day. Dry bags were stuffed with lunches, an extra jacket, hat, and other gear in case the weather turned bad. The previous day we had spent nearly seven hours out on the water, and up in the Arctic weather can change dramatically in that amount of time. We loaded the truck and began taking the gear to the loading dock. I volunteered to stay and watch the gear while everyone else returned to grab the remaining equipment. The sun was shining, the sky was a deep cerulean blue, and the air temperature was pleasant. Best of all, there were not many mosquitos – not exactly bad conditions for relaxing outside while everyone else runs back to the Inn to finish packing the truck!
We loaded the boats more efficiently today than the previous day. The most difficult part is always transporting and attaching the motor to the back of the boat. The motors Matt chose for the project could not be large because we have to carry them between the plane and the mouth of the river whenever we land at each sampling site. Therefore they are relatively light – a mere 50lbs or so. More importantly, they are awkward to hold. Waves that rock the boats make process of attaching the motor to the back of the boat all the more difficult. Once the motors were attached and all gear was checked we cast off from the dock toward our remaining two sample locations in the estuary of the Coppermine River.
The water was as smooth as glass. Small waves rose and fell gently past the boat. The blue sky reflected off the water. The air was still enough that a few mosquitos that were brave enough to follow us out from the dock were able to keep up. Despite our few vampire-esque stowaways allowed for by the lack of wind, the weather added to a beautiful morning to be on the boat – “So much for my nightmare about a rough day on the water,” I thought.
On our way out to the first sampling location I noticed a small black object floating barely above the surface. I quickly told Greg, and we both watched it for a few seconds before it disappeared silently below the rolling waves. My heart skipped a beat.
Sure, on paper my job while I was here in the north was to help collect water samples at each river we travelled to. However, perhaps my greatest reason for uprooting myself from my mildly relaxing summer in St. Louis was to have the opportunity to see wildlife. More specifically, I want to see the most iconic group in the Arctic Ocean – marine mammals. Although we didn’t get a close enough look to identify the black bobbing object before it dipped below the surface of the water, my heart was racing because I knew that there was a good chance I could have just seen my first whale, seal, or some other marine mammal. It was going to be a good day.
Forty-five minutes later we arrived at our destination. We dropped the anchor into the water and the rope in the well of the boat came alive. It slithered over the large inflated tubes and plunged out of sight. This spot was deep – just what we were looking for. We prepared to measure the depth and salinity (salt content). Greg dropped the salinity device into the water and it reached the end of the line without striking bottom meaning it was at least 28 meters (approximately 90 feet) deep! After a few more measurements, we began collecting water samples from the estuary. My favorite part of the process was being able to feel the difference in how cold the water got as we pulled water from greater depths. As any good scientist would do, I even paused our work briefly to take a brief taste test of the briny water that was below freezing. Needless to say it was extremely cold.
As soon as we began sampling, I noticed another black object bobbing at the surface 50 meters away. It appeared to rotate back and forth for a moment and was gone before I could say anything. Five minutes later it was there again, but this time I saw it in time to tell Greg and we both got a good look at it. It was a seal! Now what type of seal you may ask, well, at first we weren’t really sure. We later found out from describing what we saw to some locals that it was a ringed seal (Phoca hispida)!
Sampling went by very quickly at that station because every chance I could I was looking all around the boat for any signs of more seals. Finally we had to pull away from that spot and began the long trip back to the dock. We met up with Matt and Robie along the way and took a few more salinity measurements. I was excited to get to see the seal as we were stopped at our last station, but I could hardly stay in the boat on the way back when we saw another twenty seals!!
Although the pictures didn’t turn out great, I didn’t mind. I was just glad to get to be so close to an animal that so few people get a chance to see. The trip home didn’t drag on after all – in fact I wish it had taken more time. Long story short, that experience “sealed” the deal, and the day, for me.
p.s. For those curious creatures out there reading this blog, yes, the title is an obscure and very random song reference for your reading (listening?) pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHigkvUpVqY