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Nuliajuk embarks on 5th year of mapping uncharted Arctic waters

The Government of Nunavut's research ship, the MV Nuliajuk, has spent the last four years mapping uncharted waters in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Bay and other areas of Eastern Nunavut, dangerous work that has created many close calls for the small vessel.

‘It's incredible, the stuff we've found,’ says Cecil Bannister, the ship’s captain

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      The Government of Nunavut's research ship, the MV Nuliajuk, has spent the last four years mapping uncharted waters in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Bay and other areas of Eastern Nunavut, dangerous work that has created many close calls for the small vessel.

      "We mapped several places in the last few years that nobody would venture into in any size of a ship. You know it's incredible, the stuff we've found," says Cecil Bannister, the ship's captain for the past four years.  

      At 65 feet, this blue ship has been capable of big things, it has tracked fish populations and to date helped with over 200 nautical chart corrections.

      "Everyday the vessel is operating in Nunavut I worry a little bit because I realize some of the charts we're still working off of are from the 50s and they really don't apply anymore," says Janelle Kennedy, who works in the fisheries and sealing division for the government of Nunavut's Department of Environment.
      "We've seen a lot of starfish," says Levi Ishulutaq, a deckhand. One time we saw a bunch of shrimp... you couldn't see the bottom of the sea." (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

      'Without the forward looking sonar we'd probably be high and dry'

      Mapping uncharted water is dangerous business, says Bannister. "It's still scary sometime and keeps you on your toes. It's quite a challenge." 

      "Because we're in uncharted waters we're being cowboys," adds Kennedy. "So we have to depend on all the fancy equipment that you see here on board to make sure that we don't go to ground."

      Even with its advanced equipment, the Nuliajuk had a close call in 2012.

      "We were steaming in Boas Fiord, north of Iqaluit of course, and the water dips were 250 to 300 metres and all of a sudden with the forward looking sonar we see 200 metres in front of us, six metres of water, very very fast, same as mountains came up," recounts Bannister, adding that "without the forward looking sonar we'd probably be high and dry."

      Bannister says the technological equipment on board the ship is crucial, but it takes more than science to navigate these waters.  

      "Local knowledge is very good, very very good," says Bannister in relation to working in partnership with Inuit communities.

      He recounts one incident when he was trying to decide whether to take the Anderson Channel, rather than come through Cumberland Sound from Pangnirtung.

      "By looking at the chart you would never attempt it, but talking to local people there we made the trip and now that's the way we travel," he says.
      “Local knowledge is very good, very very good,” says Captain Cecil Bannister, in relation to working in partnership with Inuit communities. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

      Helping to stimulate fisheries

      Despite the challenges, the Nuliajuk has done a lot in a relatively short time, particularly when it comes to gathering data about ocean life to help local and commercial fisheries. The ship has facilitated research work on turbot stocks, tagging Greenland shark to study methods for reducing by-catch, plankton sampling and jellyfish genetic analysis, and mapping clams' and shrimp habitat, to name a few.

      "Being able to operate in these places and be part of a global network of tracking of Greenland shark and Arctic skate and turbot is really quite something, it really put Nunavut on the map," says Kennedy.  

      The research conducted by Nuliajuk is useful for more than the fishing industry. Some of the data collected helps with future infrastructure projects, such as laying down fiber optic cables for broadband expansion.

      "Through the mapping we found underwater landslides out in the bay, hundreds of them, and one of these landslides could be capable of cutting one of these submarine cables," says Robert Deering, a graduate student at Memorial University.
      The Nuliajuk has facilitated research work on turbot stocks, tagging Greenland shark to study methods for reducing by-catch, plankton sampling and jellyfish genetic analysis, and mapping clams’ and shrimp habitat, to name a few. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

      The adventure continues

      With so much activity, everyday is a new adventure on the Nuliajuk.

      "We've seen a lot of starfish," says Levi Ishulutaq, a deckand. "One time we saw a bunch of shrimp... you couldn't see the bottom of the sea."

      Ishulutaq's favourite part of being on the ship is getting a chance to meet with people from all over the world, who come on board to assist with the research work from places as diverse as India and the Czech Republic.  

      "The best part of this job is that we get to see a lot of beautiful sceneries, some of the most spectacular in the world, that people would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to see and we get paid for doing it," says Bannister. "That's the reason why I don't see any early retirement."

      In the next five years, the Nuliajuk will be continuing its ongoing research on tracking ocean life. There are also plans to expand operations to Nunavut's Kivalliq region.

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