Nfld. & Labrador

Ahoy! Take a look at the aquatic wonders of the Labrador Sea

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen pulls double duty as an icebreaker and research vessel. Scientists aboard for its most recent expedition give a peek at their work and the creatures they study.

The coast guard ship Amundsen makes an annual trek capturing images and data for scientists across Canada

A collage shows an image of a shark, an image of the Amundsen ship, and an image of sea anemones.
Vast beds of sea anemones, right, and 400-year-old sharks, left, are among the sights the Amundsen encounters on its annual trip through the Labrador Sea. (Left and right courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada; center, Paul Pickett/CBC)

Sharks, krill and sea sponges are just some of the aquatic animals that the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen encounters on its yearly journey through the Labrador Sea. In addition to fulfilling the coast guard's regular search and rescue duties, the Amundsen also works as an icebreaker and a research vessel for scientists.

It's also the coast guard ship depicted on the Canadian $50 bill since 2012.

"Around the world, people keep an eye on what's going on in the Labrador Sea because it's so important for monitoring climate," said Dave Cote, chief scientist on the Amundsen's most recent expedition. "The currents that develop from the Labrador Sea travel all over the Atlantic."

As a result, the Amundsen is decked out with hundreds of thousands of dollars of scientific gear and cutting edge technology for researchers to unlock the secrets of the North Atlantic's depths.

"It's like one big floating lab," said Cote. "It's got so many different scientific instruments so that researchers of all disciplines can come together and work together in this place."

An underwater camera captures an image of a large, yet thin, shark swimming peacefully.
The Greenland shark, pictured here, is one of the animals the Amundsen monitors and studies. (Courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

For shark researcher Rachel Forbes of the Marine Institute, her trip on the Amundsen was a dream come true. She studies the deepwater, slow-moving Greenland shark.

"I think they're the coolest animal in the world, mostly because they're actually the longest living vertebrate species alive," said Forbes. "They can live at least to 232 years old and then they range perhaps up to 450. It's insane."

Despite the long lifespan, much remains unknown about the Greenland shark. With help from the underwater camera team on board, Forbes uses a metal frame outfitted with multiple lasers and spotlights, along with some smelly squid bait to lure the sharks in for a close up view.

As captured by an underwater camera, the Greenland Shark is approaching the Amundsen's underwater rig, lured in by the delicious squid bait on the end of the pole.
The Greenland shark is seen here approaching the Amundsen's underwater rig, lured in by the delicious squid bait on the end of the pole. (Courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
The shark is much closer to the squid bait than in the previous image, and two lasers can be seen beaming onto its body.
As the Greenland shark prepares to eat the bait, a pair of lasers projected onto its skin give researchers a sense of how large its body is, information which can be used to determine the shark's approximate age. (Courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
The shark from the previous images is now eating the squid bait.
Munch! The Greenland shark gets a taste of the squid at last. (Courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Another researcher from the Marine Institute, Eugenie Jacobsen, has her sights set on a big catch with a net called a beam trawl, which will drag underneath the ship for 10-minute periods. 

"We use it to better understand the deep sea fish. We call those demersal fish," said Jacobsen. "We always pull up some weird stuff in the net."

Various species of fish, along with sea lice and other aquatic creatures are pictured in a bin.
Some of the many aquatic creatures captured by Eugenie Jacobsen's trawl. (Paul PIckett/CBC)

Barbara Neves, a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada who studies cold water corals and sponges, uses cameras and a mechanical arm on a remotely operated underwater vehicle — known as an ROV — to help her view and sample ocean floor habitats.

A rectangular machine, known as an ROV, is suspended over the edge of the ship above the ocean.
The remotely operated vehicle — or ROV — is delicately lowered into the ocean over the side of the Amudsen. (Paul PIckett/CBC)
A seemingly limitless number of of weird translucent, yet glowing, red krill surround the camera.
As the ROV makes it way to the ocean bottom, its attached camera captures a school of krill who look like they're dancing. (Courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

While diving the machine into an area known as Joey's Gully, Neves finds a rare sea sponge she was looking for. The ROV retrieves the sponge and brings it to the surface. 

AN underwater camera shows a robotic arm holding a sea sponge in its clutch. Fish nearby look directly into the camera or disperse in a panic as the sponge is dropped into a container.
The robotic arm of the ROV plucks a rare sea sponge from its habitat, as a number of other aquatic animals investigate the strange object in their midst. (Courtesy of Amundsen Science and Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

"No one's really looked at this sponge much yet," said Neves. The discovery of a new sponge could lead to finding new chemicals that have pharmaceutical potential.

A milky substance leaks from the sea sponge onto aluminum foil underneath. A woman leaning over the sponge pokes at its porous holes with a pen.
Having been successfully brought on board the ship by the ROV, Barbara Neves begins studying her sought-after sea sponge. (Paul Pickett/CBC)

A variety of other pieces of equipment are lowered into the ocean during the trip with a mooring line, which will be left in the ocean for a full year. In addition to taking many samples of ocean water, one of the devices is equipped with a waterproof microphone to capture whale songs. 

The imposing Amundsen ship fills the frame. The drone hovers above from a distance, rendering the crew members like ants, as they slowly lower a cylindrical tube into the ocean.
This image from a drone shows the crew of the Amundsen lowering a device that will take water samples every two weeks for the next year into the Labrador Sea. The device is connected to a mooring cable that is also attached to a number of other scientific devices. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Shawn Meredyk, who works on mooring instrumentation with the Amundsen, will be on the ship again later this year to retrieve these devices and send the data to scientists across the country. 

"I don't think the average Canadian understands the amount of work that's needed, the amount of money that's needed, the amount of organization, logistics, just to understand how warm the water is or to understand the current," said Meredyk.

"It came from years and years and years of research and data and logistics and people all working together, sometimes in rough conditions."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


William Ping


William Ping is a newsreader and journalist with CBC at its bureau in St. John's.

With files from Land and Sea

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