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Diving into the Arctic: An exploration of unknown seas

Diving into the Arctic: An exploration of unknown seas

A dive into sub-zero Arctic waters uncovers long-kept secrets

Jill Heinerth pulls on a neoprene balaclava and adjusts her thick rubber gloves. Wearing a drysuit, red helmet, and 20-kilogram tank filled with compressed air, the underwater explorer stands at the floe edge in Tallurutiup Imanga (formerly known as Lancaster Sound), Nunavut, the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage in Canada.

Heinerth is joined by her colleague Mario Cyr, two Inuit guides, and a six-person camera crew. It’s June 2018, and Heinerth and Cyr are going to dive beneath the sea ice and film what they see.

“The floe edge is like a moving buffet,” says Heinerth. “Every day, as it breaks away, it releases ice and nutrients into the ocean. In the summer, polar bears and narwhals, belugas and eider ducks come to feed.”

Far from home

Jill Heinerth,up against the underside of the floe edge

It’s the perfect spot to dive, but getting there wasn’t easy. During spring, the floe edge can move kilometres per day as it breaks up. The team—on snowmobiles pulling sleds called qamutiit packed with scuba gear—slogged through slushy top water and around growing leads (long cracks in the ice) until they found it, roughly 80 kilometres from shore outside the hamlet of Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay).

Heinerth and Cyr—hailing from Ontario and Quebec, respectively—do one last check of their gear. They are each attached to a rope held at the other end by a guide. The rope helps the drivers find their way back out through the ice. Through a tug from the guide, it also warns them if a polar bear is nearby. Tightening their flippers and popping regulators into their mouths, the pair jump into the frigid water and slowly sink beneath the surface.

The transition between worlds is sharp on the senses, and Heinerth and Cyr move slowly and cautiously. The sub-zero water is cold on the uncovered parts of their faces, but they are used to it.

Listening for life

Strands of green and brown algae, which feed small shrimp and zoo plankton, hang from the craggy sea ice above. Luminescent jellyfish drift through the water, and a school of Arctic cod darts by. Below, the divers can just make out the white of a beluga pod passing through the darkness, watching the humans with playful curiosity.

It’s remarkable to see this life up close, but Heinerth is most struck by the sounds.

“The ice is cracking, popping, and fizzing as it releases gas while it melts,” she says. “Bearded seals and ringed seals make this trill sound that goes several octaves. Narwhals click their teeth and belugas sing like canaries. All these animals will be speaking at once, communicating with each other.”

A moving kingdom

The Arctic Ocean—vast, remote, and under ice for most of the year—is something of a holy grail for underwater adventurers. Montrealer Nathalie Lasselin has been leading dive expeditions out of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), on Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), for more than a decade with Arctic Kingdom, currently the main high-end operator in the area, and the only one that offers scuba diving.

"I love that you can’t put a point on the map and say ‘This is a dive site,’ because it’s always changing"

An experienced diver herself, Lasselin has explored underwater caves in rural southwest China and on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and dove for 30 hours, covering a distance of 70 kilometres along the bottom of the St. Lawrence River to raise awareness about drinking-water sources. But the Arctic remains one of the most exciting places she’s had the opportunity to dive, she says.

“I love that you can’t put a point on the map and say ‘This is a dive site,’ because it’s always changing,” says Lasselin. “The ice might be there today, but not tomorrow. Am I going to dive on an iceberg? On the floe edge? Near the shore? I can’t predict that.”

Committed to the cold


Nathalie Lasselin descends on a line from the floe edge near Bylot Island, Nunavut

Arctic dives aren’t cheap. Arctic Kingdom’s typical eight-day itinerary involves travelling from Mittimatalik by snowmobile to a camp on the sea ice of Tasiujaq (Eclipse Sound). From there, staff and guests venture out each day to check out potential dive sites. The average cost? Roughly $22,000 per person.

Françoise Gervais, another diving guide, first ventured into the polar region in July 2014, after being asked to join a team of 10 women—Heinerth among them—travelling in northeastern Canada up the Labrador coast to an island off Qikiqtaaluk, then across the Davis Strait to Greenland, stopping to explore along the way. The group sought to highlight the disappearance of sea ice and the effects of global warming through photography, videos and conversations with people in local Inuit communities.

Gervais soon realized that she was hooked on the landscape. When a job opened up with the company that owned the boat the group had chartered, she took it and stayed in the North for the rest of the summer. Within a year, she was guiding expeditions for Arctic Kingdom.

Now, Gervais has done 30-plus Arctic dives. She once swam with narwhals as they dove under the ice. Another time, she and her diving buddy checked out a tunnel through a grounded iceberg. Covered in ridges and rivulets carved by waves, these massive hunks of ice can stretch 150 metres down to the sea floor—like a “cathedral under water,” says Gervais.

Oceans unknown

And it’s not just recreational divers who come north seeking adventure. For scientists, it can be the research opportunity of a lifetime.

It’s estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s oceans remain unmapped and unexplored, and that 90 per cent of marine species have yet to be classified. Nowhere is this truer than in the Arctic Ocean.

One group collecting data to expand our knowledge is the British Columbia–based conservation organization Ocean Wise, which started sending small dive crews north in 2015. Working primarily out of Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) when the sea ice was gone, crews would do two to five dives a day from shore or the back of a boat in open water.

Swimming along the sea floor, divers took copious notes, pictures and videos of the species they saw, from jellyfish to sea anemones to cold-water corals. At times they used a tool called a transect (similar to a measuring tape), laying it out on the sea floor and counting how many of one species they observed within two metres on either side.

"It’s estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s oceans remain unmapped and unexplored, and that 90 per cent of marine species have yet to be classified"

Marine ecologist Jessica Schultz was a dive-team member for Ocean Wise in 2017 and 2018. She can’t get over how, roughly 285 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, the summer waters around Iqaluktuuttiaq are as clear and bright blue as the tropics. She was particularly fond of diving around the Finlayson Islands, several hours by boat off the coast, where the rocky sea floor was a colourful explosion of life.

Marine scientist Laura Borden has been to the Arctic during most summers since 2016—first with Ocean Wise, then as a consultant. She’s done dives near Aujuittuq (Grise Fiord), Tallurutit (Devon Island), and all along Tallurutiup Imanga. She compares the species she sees in the Arctic to those along the Pacific coast of her native B.C., where she has completed some 650 dives. Those species are often a lot larger in the North.

“There are little animals called sea angels,” Borden says. “In B.C., they may be an inch or so tall. But in the Arctic, they’re up to four inches. By their standards, that’s enormous.”

Diving research in the North is slowly but surely increasing. Scott Johnson is the manager of field operations at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), which opened its doors in Iqaluktuuttiaq in 2019.

The station has welcomed researchers from all over the world, offering services like a filling station for diving tanks. A permanent four-person diving team, led by Johnson, has also been recently added to the roster of research supports, and CHARS plans to have a fully operational seagoing dive vessel by the summer of 2024 to assist in travelling to survey locations.

Researching real-life solutions

Now working on her Ph.D. in marine biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Schultz says she’s optimistic that facilities like CHARS can help research grow in the area—but she would like to see the work being done translated into real-life solutions for communities in the North.

It’s no secret that the Arctic, warming four times faster than the rest of the world, is ground zero for climate change. NASA estimates that average ice coverage at the end of summer in the Arctic declined by 13 per cent per decade between 1979 and 2021. A 2021 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted the Arctic Ocean would be “practically sea-ice free” in the summer at least once before 2050.

"It’s no secret that the Arctic, warming four times faster than the rest of the world, is ground zero for climate change"

Already, the animals and people living in the Arctic are being forced to adapt. So much of Inuit life relies on healthy and predictable sea ice—for transportation, hunting and recreation. The entire marine ecosystem hinges on the nutrients the ice provides.

That’s why Heinerth—with Canada’s Polar Medal, her induction into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and her bestselling memoir, Into the Planet—has made it her life’s mission to share her experiences with others. If people learn about the Arctic Ocean and its biodiversity for themselves, even if just on a screen or in the pages of a book, they might be inspired to take action in their own lives.

For Heinerth, Arctic diving is about encouraging people to love and protect these things that she’s so fortunate to see.

From "Beneach the Sea Ice", by Meaghan Brackenbury, originally published on Up Here (July/August 2022)

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