Sachs Harbour Diary: August 2014


Stephen Insley
 Director of Arctic Conservation





It’s mid-August and I’m flying in to Sachs Harbour in the ISR (the Inuvialuit Settlement Region), a small hamlet in the western Canadian arctic.

~ Contributed by Steve Insley, Sachs Harbour, NWT

It’s mid-August and I’m flying in to Sachs Harbour in the ISR (the Inuvialuit Settlement Region), a small hamlet in the western Canadian arctic. As the twin-engine turbo-prop’s drone finally changes pitch with our descent, I’m jumping from window to window scanning the ocean for any sign of my buoy. What I’m really after is the several-thousand dollar instrument attached to it. Not a thing. Two weeks earlier I had heard that it was no longer visible from shore. There had been a serious summer storm and afterwards no sign of it. Had the float sank? Line broken? Anchor dragged? Anything was possible. That it occurred shortly following the storm was definitely suspect.

Storms during the ice-free season are becoming more of an issue up here. As average sea temperatures rise, the summer sea-ice deteriorates, and the amount of open water, what mariners call “fetch”, gets larger. The larger the fetch, the more space there is for waves to build in size. The larger the waves, the faster sea-ice (and shorelines) erode, in turn creating greater fetch and larger waves. This is part of the larger complex picture of how a changing climate is affecting the arctic. Warming temperatures set into motion a number of cascading affects that positively feed back upon each other. Where it’s going is anyone’s guess but there are many people, including myself, working on aspects of that question. At stake are all the species of iconic wildlife that call the arctic home and the long-term food security of those dependent on that wildlife.

Maybe I should back up a little and explain why I’m here in the first place and what I’m trying to do.

I’m a behavioural ecologist, and worked most of the past two decades on problems involving marine animal behaviour and sound. As part of an arctic conservation program for WCS Canada I am focusing on how ice loss affects animals through habitat change and increased human (anthropogenic) activity. One of the big concerns is that shipping, set to dramatically increase in the arctic as sea ice retreats, will result in serious direct and indirect impacts on marine mammals, including ship strikes, pollution, and noise. In response, I have been developing a program with locals to acoustically monitor marine mammal and shipping activity in the eastern Beaufort Sea. By monitoring the underwater acoustic environment I can get a clearer “picture” of what the local whales and seals (particularly bowhead and beluga whales and ringed and bearded seals) are doing, predict how human activities such as seismic exploration and shipping may cause problems, and develop ways to minimize or altogether avoid such impacts.

As soon as the ice moved offshore from Banks Island in early July, I was here in Sachs Harbour working with local hunters, anchoring an acoustic datalogger with hopes of retrieving it in 4-6 weeks. Autonomous dataloggers are now widespread in many scientific fields and nowhere more so than in animal ecology. Using dataloggers that record underwater sound, a set of techniques referred to as passive acoustic monitoring (PAM), can be an effective means of monitoring marine mammals and ships over long time periods. Sachs Harbour is a key area to monitor because of its position at the entrance/exit to the Canadian Arctic archipelago and the North-West Passage where shipping activity is expected to rise. This is why I now find myself in Sachs Harbour searching for a lost buoy.

Mooring an expensive piece of hardware tethered on a line from the ocean floor to the surface is not ideal. It doesn’t allow you to deploy very deeply, limiting your locations, and if anything happens to the mooring – the anchor, line or buoy – it is very likely you will have lost everything. Losing an acoustic datalogger is a big loss for two reasons. First, they’re really expensive. Second, you need to retrieve the unit to get any data. That’s right, 4-6 weeks or more of data gone. All the effort and money spend for naught, not to mention the time spent away from my kids. Now you can begin to imagine how I felt when I heard that my first mooring in this region was no longer visible. Was there an alternative? Yes, of course, there are always alternatives. You could hardwire your recorder to shore, or transmit to shore via a radio link. There are problems with these techniques too though. Perhaps the best alternative is to anchor it to the bottom and then release it automatically with a remotely detonated acoustic release – like a TV remote. When it works properly your datalogger is released from the anchor upon command, the datalogger floats to the surface, you retrieve it, and, as they say: “Bob’s your uncle”. Although these systems are far more reliable than was the case not long ago and are good future candidates, they are not currently in the budget and so not part of this year’s trial season. Consequently, there is a great deal riding on retrieving my datalogger. Hopefully you can now understand my anxiety and hopping from window-to-window as we approached Sachs Harbour with a good aerial view of where my mooring was last seen.

Within an hour of landing I was on the water with Wayne Gully skippering his 18-foot aluminium open-haul runabout, the craft of choice in the north, powered by a 50 HP four-stroke outboard. Wayne, a big guy with a constant smile, was the local hunter who I was directed to by the HTC (Hunters and Trappers Committee). Like many locals, he was very good at a lot of things. That is the way of the north. It was Wayne who had been keeping an eye on my buoy and who had called to tell me of its disappearance.

As we set out the weather was perfect: glassy calm. We had both taken independent GPS waypoints of the datalogger when it was deployed so we immediately went to that location. Wayne had already independently searched and dragged the area twice with no luck but the weather had not been as good as it was today. As soon as we reached the coordinates of the drop-point, we began a systematic survey looking for anything just below the surface. I had used floating rope with a generous amount of length or “scope”, so if the line was cut or had broken near the buoy there could be line floating at the surface. No such luck, so we began the painstaking task of trying to snag the sunken gear by dragging hooks along the bottom. We had two drags. Wayne was using a large cod jig. I had a grapple hook fabricated out of rebar that I had brought with me. Methodically we dragged the area in systematic patterns, slowly moving back and forth in concentric circles, then a grid pattern, and finally a star pattern, all centred on the coordinates of the drop point.

After an hour of dragging over and around the drop spot and hooking nothing, I was disappointed but certainly not ready to give up. If it was here, I felt we should have snagged it by now but I could also understand it being easy to miss. After two hours of dragging I was beginning to believe it wasn’t where it had been dropped. If it was, certainly we would have at least hooked the rope by now. The GPS tracks of our drag pattern had completely covered the search area at this point. But if the storm had bounced the anchor along the bottom, it could be anywhere and the chance of snagging it in 25-30 metres of water vanishingly remote. Where to even begin dragging if it wasn’t where we’d dropped it? It was tedious work and getting late in the evening.

As we continued, it appeared more and more likely that it wasn’t here. If the line had broken near the anchor, the buoy along with the datalogger would have drifted away. The storm had been an onshore wind so there was a chance that the gear had washed up on the shore of Banks Island somewhere. At least that possibility allowed some prospect of finding it compared to if an offshore wind had taking it out into the open Beaufort. The question at the moment then became: at what point to abandon the drag search at the last known location and begin a new search along the shoreline? The GPS drag tracks suggested any time would be good. Despite being late in the evening there was still plenty of light and most importantly, still no wind. We kept going and extended the reach of our search effort to cover an ever-greater area. But after dragging and pulling up nothing for the third hour it was definitely looking as though it were time to change strategies.

Suddenly, both Wayne and I got a tug on our lines. At first it seemed likely that we had snagged each other’s lines - it would not have been the first time. But my line continued to get heavier the more I brought it up. Then, when my hook was about 3-4 metres from the surface we both saw the rope on it. I had the anchor line! In a second I had a hold of it. The anchor seemed to take forever to haul up. (I had set a fairly heavy anchor – another reason to believe it would not have moved.) At last I saw yellow – the datalogger – and let out a whoop! In a minute it was in the boat and my eyes wide with disbelief. Then we began pulling in the other end of the anchor line – the end with the buoy on it. It was heavy suggesting that at least some of hardware was still there if not the whole float. In a minute we were pulling a water- filled (rather than air-filled) float over the rail and into the boat.

So the float had failed, but how? As soon as it was suspended out of the water, we had our likely answer. Two large puncture marks on the side, about 10-15 cm apart, spewed out water. Wayne’s immediate response: “it’s been bitten by a polar bear”. There had been three bears close to town over the past three weeks and two had been seen swimming in the vicinity of my mooring. Sabotaged by a polar bear - that’s a first for me. I had prepared for quite a few things but that wasn’t one of them.

So it’s time for a mooring redesign obviously – something less appealing as a polar bear chew toy. But first and most importantly, time to download the acoustic data and then begin the long, but exciting task of analysis. All said, it has been quite a day.