Aboard the Amundsen: There's no Saturday on the sea

Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca's regional journalist for Ottawa, is spending seven days on the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker in the Amundsen Gulf.

Saturday, March 8
by Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

On board a research ship, no one takes a break on Saturday or Sunday – especially not during what is for many the last possible week here.

Many of graduate students on board are leaving Thursday, and must finish gathering crucial data for the thesis they need to graduate. Some work in the labs until the early hours of the morning.

Meanwhile, seven days a week, a group of technicians start work by 7 a.m., sending a probe into the ocean via the moon pool, a square-shaped hole in the hull, about the size of an elevator shaft. The ship floats enough that the water doesn't come up through the ship. In fact, as the ship uses up its fuel and other supplies, it rises and the water sinks relative to the top of the pool.

The moon pool is very busy in the winter, when the ice makes it difficult to sample water from outside the ship.

Technicians pull water from the moon pool using the "rosette" – a wheel-like device that carries 24 metre-high bottles shaped like torpedoes and arranged in a circle around a hub. They can be closed individually at different depths as low as 900 metres (although the water below the Amundsen is only 300 metres deep where we are). The rosette also carries instruments that measure salinity, pH, temperature, depth, transmission of light and the amount of chlorophyll (and therefore the amount of algae) in the water.

Clément Clerc cleans the rosette after its deployment in the moon pool. (Emily Chung/CBC)

The samples can be used to test for nutrients, contaminants and other dissolved substances such as carbon dioxide. The moon pool is also used to cast nets for zoology research.

I ask Gérald Darnis, a student at Laval University, if anyone ever drops a line down it and used it as a fishing hole.
He smiles and says no, as there are very few fish down there, and most aren't bigger than a person's finger.

Each day, Darnis sends down a series of nine fine mesh nets that can be opened separately at different depths to collect zooplankton.

Doing so at different times of the year will tell how the zooplankton move with the seasons between the surface and the depths. When they are deep below the surface, the carbon dioxide they produce is less likely to go right back into the atmosphere.

On Saturday, a couple of students with Schools on Board look on as Darnis works.

He rinses his catch into buckets to use for respiration and taxonomy studies later on.

There are no fish, but he does collect hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny copepods, including some that give off pinpoints of bright blue light when he stirs the water around them, drawing gasps from the students.

A close-up of some copepods caught in the net. (Emily Chung/CBC)

In the bucket are also flattened worms called arrowworms about the length of a toothpick and jellyfish the size of marbles, both so transparent you can barely see them.

During the ship's previous winter mission, dozens of seals used the pool as a breathing hole, but this year, only one seal has ever found its way up there.

Consequently, the jellyfish are the largest wildlife I've seen from the ship so far.