Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The once plentiful passenger pigeon

A stuffed passenger pigeon
My family kept a few National Geographic World Explorer books for kids in the house while I was growing up. The nature ones were my favourite. I poured over them regularly, fascinated by illustrations comparing the eye sight of eagles to humans and the relative speed animals move. On one page, there was an illustration of a covered-wagon-era family on the prairies looking up at a sky darkened by a flock of passenger pigeons passing by. Even then, it amazed me that a bird once so plentiful is now gone like the dodo and thylacine (Tasmanian tiger).

Once passenger pigeons might have been the most numerous birds on the planet, numbering in the billions. Their spiral to extinction was shockingly fast. The passenger pigeon's crime was eating grains and other crops, so people went out and systematically killed them, some were eaten, some fed to pigs and most left to rot. At the start of the 1880's these pigeons were still nesting in the millions. Twenty years later, the last wild passenger pigeon was shot March 24, 1900 in Ohio. Only a few were left in captivity.

The last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago this year. The pigeon, Martha, lived her life in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. When she died, Martha was sent to the Smithsonian, stuffed and put on display. There are many passenger pigeons in museum collections, which means genetic material from these birds is available. In the near future, genetically re-engineering recently extinct animals like the passenger pigeon could be possible, but should we?

My husband, who is a curator at the local museum, offered to show me one of the three passenger pigeons held in the museum's collection. Unlike the flocks containing millions of birds once found in the more eastern areas of North America, passenger pigeons were only rare visitors to BC. For anyone who is curious, the Project Passenger Pigeon site contains a lot of information about passenger pigeons including ranges by province and state.

The photo is of the best preserved specimen at the museum held up by my husband as I wouldn't dare hold such an irreplaceable specimen. The iridescent rust body reminds me of the colour of the robin's I see in my backyard, but the body shape is pure pigeon. I kept domestic pigeons around the same time I was pouring over the World Explorer books. I loved the sound my birds made. I wonder if passenger pigeons had the same soft coo?

As a tangent: here is someone collecting the old World Explorer books for the apocalypse.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Electric blue icing

A glacier dripping down the cliff in Scott Inlet
Some time ago I promised I would write about the icebergs and glaciers I saw this fall along the Baffin Island coast and in Scott Inlet.

In every gap between cliff faces in Scott Inlet, tongues of glaciers dripped in slow motion like icing on a cake of grey cliff. These weren't glaciers that could be accessed by fancy-big-wheeled buses like Columbia Glacier or even easily reached to trek across like these folks did. I wouldn't want to try to get up to the main part of the glaciers as even without the dripping ice, the cliff-gaps would have required us to use ropes to successfully scramble up.

Glaciers flow under their own weight, a direction that is obviously down hill. I have no idea how long it took, but a few of the glacier tongues had made it to the ocean calving bergy bits into the water. The icebergs in the inlet were tiny compared to the big icebergs moving south along the coast of Baffin Island.

Along the coast, the iceberg that sank the titanic once passed more than a century ago. Even knowing before I arrived that I would be heading into iceberg waters, I was surprised at how many there were. Some looked large enough to dwarf an aircraft carrier (as a tangent: there was a proposal in World War II to make aircraft carriers out of ice). Some that had grounded could easily be mistaken for an island. Many had wave-rounded forms reminiscent of modern sculpture, or ancient weathered architecture.

An iceberg glowing blue
What fascinated me about the glaciers and icebergs was their colour. Even under the grey skies parts glowed electric blue – almost like they were generating their own light deep within. Glaciers and icebergs don't actually glow, but under the right light it looks that way.

Snow looks white because of all the reflective edges from the layers of snowflakes. Once the snow is compressed into glacier, the edges merge and air is pushed out. However, any ice can look blue in time. Like the reflective snowflake edges, air bubbles scatter all the wavelength of light making young ice look white. Older ice looks bluer because air bubbles and other impurities have been pushed out.

Like water, ice absorbs the longer wavelengths of light as it passes through. That is, the red end of the spectrum is absorbed first, which is why a short distance underwater the seascape is dominated by blues and greens. Ice has the same effect on light, it filters colours as light passes through leaving blues. And it appears to glow because those blues have passed the whole way through – so the ice looks bluest from the inside.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Recipe for Maaqtak

An iceberg the size of an aircraft carrier
This is the final installment of this years field work in Scott Inlet (here are links to the first, second, third and forth).

A small boat from the community of Clyde River was supposed to come to Scott Inlet with our replacements (three of us were scheduled to leave), then ferry us to town. The small boat could do the trip in about 3 hours verses 12 hours for the Nuliajuk. Another bonus in my mind was that small boats don't make me sea sick. It was a good plan in theory, then we got the weather forecast. Four metre waves were predicted.

At 7 pm we got in touch with the small boat driver (who also happened to be the mayor of Clyde River) to confirm it was too rough to make the trip in his boat. My flight was scheduled to leave at 9 am the following morning. The decision was to take the ship south – a night time sprint down the coast through bumpy seas while dodging ice bergs.

Before we hit the forecasted 4 metre seas, I climbed into my bunk – a sea sickness avoidance plan that worked wonderfully. Although, the sea wasn't as bumpy as predicted, I still was forced to spend the night wedging myself into my bunk to prevent being tossed out of it. Sleeping was impossible. When I got up at 6 am Clyde River was just coming into view.

Groggy from lack of sleep, my field gear randomly shoved into my duffle bag, my steel-toed rubber boots handed off to an incoming scientist who's luggage went astray, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.

While sitting in a moulded yellow plastic chair, one of perhaps a dozen in the airport, a rather large man in a green plaid shirt sat beside me. I couldn't help but stare at his absurd moustache, he had shaved it in the middle exposing his philtrum. I didn't work up the nerve to ask why he made the effort to shave like that. I would assume we were about the same age and I wasn't wearing my wedding ring (I don't even take it to the field). My colleague was in the washroom, so who knows what this mountain man's intentions were but, he wanted to talk so much I didn't get a word in. I'll call him airport-guy.

Airport-guy shared his knowledge of the finer parts of the local cuisine. He told me all about maaqtak.

Earlier in the trip, when we had dropped off supplies to the hunters, they had shared some of their catch. Two cuts of caribou, a meaty scapula and a chunk of leg, plus a patch of narwal skin with blubber. I tried raw caribou and found it much milder than I expected (I had expected it to be gamy like venison), I'd happily have it again. One of the inuit crew members explained to me that the caribou was more like a snack, as it didn't have enough fat content to keep you warm. The real food was the maaqtak, that is narwal or beluga skin with blubber. She gave me a small piece to try. Her advice was to chew it slowly, so I did. An hour later I was still chewing and the skin had developed the flavour of old gum.

According to Airport-guy, maaqtak is sorted into different grades depending on if you intend to eat it raw (like I did) or cook it. He was very precise on how to go about cooking it. First cut it into small pieces and boil for 12 minutes before fishing it out. The result tastes like escargot and is equally good with garlic butter. He went on to suggest a side dish – a brown seaweed available in the north. Boiled for a few minutes in a broth and it turns bright green and tastes like wilted lettuce.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Scott Inlet - trawling and long lines

One of the glaciers
This is the forth installment on my field work in Scott Inlet, Baffin Island. Previous installments can be found here, here and here.

17 Sept 2013 – the ship spent the night just outside Scott Inlet starting out out at anchor, but wind and swell caused it to endlessly rub against the anchor chain. The mate, who was on watch, decided to start up the engines, pull the anchor and motor around for the night. All the while, small chunks of ice butted against the hull right beside my bunk which left me with visions of the sinking Titanic. No sleep was to be had, leaving us all looking rough around the breakfast table in the morning.

Over the course of the day we completed 5 trawls – the first time the Nuliajuk had done a bottom trawl. With each trawl, the turn-around time with the equipment sped up as everyone figured out what they were doing. Each trawl was slightly deeper than the last as no one knew exactly how much cable the trawl net had (it turns out around 900m worth). The catch included: Greenland Halibut, Flounder, Arctic Cod, Polar Cod, Alligator Fish, Snail Fish, Northern Shrimp, Striped Shrimp, other assorted shrimp, 2 species of skate, Hookear Skulpin, Eel Pout, and assorted jellies, sponges and stars. I saw none of the animals as I stayed on the bridge taking notes on times, locations and depths while trying not to get sea-sick (I could have popped down to the lab – but didn't think my stomach could take it).

For the night, we retreated to anchor in Refuse Bay. It was nice not to have to dance around to get my socks off at the end of the day.

18 Sept 2013 – We took the day to circumnavigate Sillum Island, one of two islands that Scott Inlet branches around. The aim was for me to do CTD casts while the long-lines were being set up for sharks. The occasional depth sounding of the chart didn't even hint at how complex the bottom topography is, multiple deep pools of 700 m and more are separated by shallower sills. Bumps and dips break the flat of the deeper pockets. Mostly, the depth sound returned a hard signal meaning the bottom was probably rock, but occasionally, the signal would return spread out suggesting isolated muddy patches (or something else).

Against the electric blue of the glaciers, the fresh snow looked dirty. In gullies where glaciers reached the water, calved off chunks floated away. These bergy-bits often sported whimsical shapes reminiscent of ancient monsters or partly submerged houses.

I finished the day with 47 CTD casts over a wide area, downloaded and backed up to three places (I'm mildly paranoid about losing data).

Greenland Shark complete with copepod (shark is on its back)
19-20 Sept 2013 – Over the next two days we fished for Greenland Shark deep within Scott Inlet (it was delightfully calm in the sheltered Inlet, I could set a cup of coffee cup down and not have it instantly spill everywhere). We used a long-line bated with squid for the sharks. A long-line is exactly as it sounds, a several hundred metre long line with shorter lines attached every few metres ending in hooks. Anchors weight down both ends keeping it on the bottom, which in our case was around 600 m. Off of the anchors at both ends were buoyant ropes attached to floats so we could recover everything (both ends in case we encountered a snarl and had to cut the line – then we could start again at the other end). Both days, the whole mess of lines, anchors and hooks was left in the water for 24 hours.

While I was there (shark fishing continued after I left), we caught 14 live shark and several more that had been snacked on. Sizes ranged from 1.6 m (baby size) to over 3 m with a good mix of males and females. We didn't catch anything else, so why were the shark even there? And what were they eating? The sharks were measured, tagged and tissue and blood samples were taken. The question as to why we needed the centrifuge was answered since the blood was spun to separate out the plasma.

Most sharks had a copepod parasite (Ommatokoita elongata) attached to their corneas. Each parasite dangled a finger-length yellowish egg case from the shark's eye, no doubt impairing the shark's vision (but, they live so deep, vision is probably not critical for their survival).

We brought on board a couple of shark heads (the assumption was that other sharks had eaten the rest of them). I took the opportunity to get a close up look. The Greenland Shark doesn't have flashy teeth like a Great White Shark does. Instead, it has tiny teeth reminiscent of a saw blade or razor wire. These shark bite and twist, effectively removing chunks of its prey. Up close, the teeth looked deadly.