Expedition to Davis Strait: Rough Seas, Cod-Liver Sandwiches and a Highly Diverse Marine Ecosystem to Study

The morning of October 21 was bright and cold in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, when I boarded the plane for Iqaluit, Baffin Island. This was the last leg of my trip home. It was −18°C in Iqaluit when we arrived and Baffin Island, like Greenland, was covered in a surprisingly thick blanket of snow.

Aerial view of a snowy coastline.

Arriving—at last!—at Baffin Island, Nunavut. This is the last leg of my trip home after a thirty-two-day trip; most of it spent at sea in Davis Strait. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

I was very glad to be heading home after thirty-two days away, almost all at sea in Davis Strait on a former commercial trawler retrofitted with a science lab. I was there at the invitation of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the company of Greenlandic and Danish/Faroese crew and officers, as well as five other Canadians who made up the science team.

We were there to assess the population of Greenland Halibut, the main objective of this expedition, and to generally study the fauna of the strait.

Close-up of the head of a fish on a scale for measuring length.

The Greenland Halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) is the most abundant fish predator in the northwest Atlantic since the collapse of the Atlantic Cod (note the large mouth and sharp teeth). The main objective of this research cruise was to assess the numbers and size distribution of the Davis Strait population. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

A man in hip waders stands at a counter measuring the length of a fish.

Noel Alfonso in the wet lab on board ship. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

The concerns I expressed in an earlier blog article were well founded. The seas on this year’s trip were very rough in the first few days. I saw waves off the stern of the ship that I estimate at 10 metres. The anti-nausea medications I had were ineffective and Gravol simply put me—instantly—to sleep. I was extremely nauseous and yes, was sick a few times. But overall, I was fine.

I did, however, have a bit of trouble getting accustomed to the traditional Danish food on the ship. A typical supper was an open-faced sandwich of sliced raw onions, tomatoes, cheese, mussels and cod livers. Being on the ship and working twelve-hour shifts seven days a week for that length of time was sometimes challenging. While sitting in my 6′ × 6′ cabin, I would often think of my family and friends back home. However, the rich marine life I saw more than made up for the hardships.

In illustration of a fish.

Stoplight Loosejaw (Malacosteus niger). This species is not uncommon in Davis Strait and is caught at depths of 900 m to 1800 m, and as deep as 3400 m. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Trawls were done round the clock to make the best use of our time in Davis Strait and to further the objective of counting Greenland Halibut and generally study the fauna. There was always a science crew of three on duty, nights and days. My shift was from 6 AM to 6 PM. The timing between trawls varied from the distance travelled between sites and the depth of the trawl. The deepest one was 1500 m, so getting the net down took more than twenty minutes and bringing it up could take forty-five minutes.

A man measures fish at a lab counter.

Unlike most other sharks, Arctic Sharks have an anal fin. The biology of this species (Deepsea Cat Shark, Apristurus profundorum) is almost entirely unknown. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Close-up of the head of a fish.

White Barracudina (Arctozenus risso). This striking species reaches 30 cm in length and feeds on small fishes, squids and crustaceans such as shrimps. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

When the trawl came aboard, the contents of the net would be dumped into the below-decks processing area, where everything—Greenland Halibut, other fish species and all invertebrates—would be weighed and measured. DNA samples were taken for Greenland Halibut and some shrimp species.

Collectively, this will be masses of data that the Canadian department of Fisheries and Oceans will use in managing fisheries, present and future, in Davis Strait.

A squid specimen in the lab.

Rossia sp. This squid feeds on small crustaceans, as well as fishes and smaller squids. In turn, it is eaten by larger fishes and marine mammals. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

I had no idea that the benthic environment was so diverse in those cold dark waters. There are both small, delicate deep-water corals and large, robust ones. Cold-water corals do not contain symbiotic algae and so do not require light from the sun to live. They can be found as deep as four kilometres!

A coral specimen in the lab.

Bamboo coral (Keratoisis ornate). Its dense stands form structure and habitat for invertebrates and fishes. Image : Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Other invertebrate species included pink anemones, sea stars, basket stars and over a dozen species of sponges, ranging in size from coffee cups to beach balls. There are isopods, amphipods and many species of shrimps, squids and even octopuses! It is really hard for us terrestrial humans to imagine this rich ecosystem down there, but it exists and I have had a part in documenting it.

Collage: Four invertebrate specimens in the lab.

Top left: The polar shrimp (Sclerocrangon ferox), with its impressive exoskeleton. Top right: A species of Minuda, possibly Minuda tenuimana, a deep-sea, lobster-like crustacean. Bottom left: Along with other corals, this gorgonian coral species, known as the bubble-gum coral (Paragorgia arborea), provides habitat for invertebrates and fishes. Bottom right: Tremaster mirabilis. The biology of this deep-sea echinoderm (the group containing sea stars and urchins) remains poorly known. Images: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Collage: Three invertebrate specimens in the lab.

Top left: Basket stars (Gorgonocephalus sp.). An unusual sea star with continuously branching rays forming its “arms”. Top right: Finned octopus (Cirroteuthis mülleri). Octopuses in this genus, known as cirrates, are called Dumbos because the large fins resemble the cartoon elephant. They can reach 1.5 m in length. Their biology and ecology are not well known. Bottom: Bathypolypus arcticus is a long lived, slow growing deep-water octopus species. It eats basket stars (top left), which is unusual for cephalopods. Images: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

I brought back an impressive diversity of species for the museum: 71 fish specimens and 119 invertebrate specimens. Some of the fish species, such as the Black Snailfish (Paraliparis bathybius) and the Portuguese Dogfish (Centroscymnus coelolepis), were new to the Arctic collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Also, we are adding specimens for species represented so far by one, two, or just a handful of individuals. Our museum will keep samples of DNA from the fish species that I collected. So our already world-class collection of Arctic fishes is now even better and we have added tissues from a rarely visited region to our DNA collections. All in all, a worthwhile expedition!

Close-up of the head of a fish on a scale for measuring length.

Portuguese Dogfish (Centroscymnus coelolepis). This species is found at depths below 400 m, and down to abyssal areas to 3600 m (among the deepest known records for any shark species). It is both an active predator, eating fishes (including other sharks), squids, octopuses and gastropods, and it also scavenges on whale carcasses. We did not already have a specimen of this species in the museum’s collections. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

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10 Responses to Expedition to Davis Strait: Rough Seas, Cod-Liver Sandwiches and a Highly Diverse Marine Ecosystem to Study

  1. Peter Verstappen says:

    Hi Noel,
    great pics and interesting commentary – some of these creatures are works of art as well as physiology.

  2. Rebecca Last says:

    Wonderful photography, Noel! Sorry to hear you were sea-sick. You have my sympathies; it’s not fun. Thanks so much for sharing your Arctic adventures!

  3. Robert Alvo says:

    Fantastic, Noel! An opportunity of a lifetime. Any signs of humanity down there, as in garbage, plastic, shipwrecks, Franklin? Thanks for sharing. Rob

    • nature says:

      Thanks, Rob. Thankfully there was almost no trash, plastic or otherwise to be seen. But we know that there are pollutants that are not visible accumulating in the Arctic.

  4. Rik Van says:

    It seems that the Davis Strait is still relatively pure. I hope that it will remain so in the near fututre. Anyway, I love your photos, Noel. The octopus “Bathypolypus arcticus” looks like an alien. Can I use this photos in my blog? Are they in the public domain?

    • Noel Alfonso says:

      Both Davis Strait and Baffin Bay remain relatively unaffected by human activity, although there has been shrimp and Greenland Halibut trawling for more than fifteen years. Also, climate change will increasingly affect this transition area between the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

      These Davis Strait images are not in the public domain, but we do give permission to use Canadian Museum of Nature images. Please send me a link to your blog and we will talk further.

  5. Teo says:

    I konw a blog as a divulgative article but I think is better you correct one of the images. It´s not a Steromastis sculpta is a Munida species, maybe Munida tenuimana.

  6. Barbara Neves says:

    Hi Noel,
    Nice photos! I found this post when doing a google search for photos of Paragorgia. Where was this Paragorgia fragment collected? I’m interested in deep-sea corals in this region 🙂

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