Fieldwork is oftentimes done in teams, but even so, you can easily find yourself working in isolation. This was the case when I joined a research expedition to the Labrador Sea in October 2014 to collect fish and invertebrate specimens for the Canadian Museum of Nature. The Canadian crew of the research ship FV Paamiut consisted of four people, myself included, but working twelve-hour on-and-off shifts, seven days a week for thirty-two consecutive days meant that we usually just saw our shift partner. Other crew members were Danish and Greenlandic, but unfortunately for me, my Danish and Inuktitut were fairly nonexistent.

An open, wooden bunk with a mattress and pillow.
Getting in and out of my bunk required a bit of contortion. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Life on board was physically and psychologically constrained. As our vessel was not a luxury cruise ship, there was no space to take a leisurely stroll. One of the few saving graces was my cabin; it was two-and-a-half metres by two-and-a-half metres, but even so, it was mine. A lab area and a separate open area where we sorted samples from the huge trawls that came in roughly three times per shift were located below decks. Initially, I did the midnight to noon shift, but thankfully had switched to the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift by the end of the trip. When loneliness set in, we were able to communicate with our family and friends back home, but the only way to do so was through a shared e-mail account limited to a single page of text. This was my entire universe for thirty-two days, with some bouts of seasickness thrown in for good measure.

A large net on the industrial-looking deck of a ship.
No sightseeing from this deck! This is where the crew members deployed the huge trawl net. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature
An industrial space in the hull of a ship with harsh fluorescent lighting.
A conveyor belt would bring in the contents of each trawl: many fishes and invertebrates. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

The cook prepared very traditional Danish meals, with lunch being the biggest of the day. It would often consist of open-faced sandwiches with some unidentifiable—and to me, unappetizing—ingredients like cod liver. One day, the cook kindly prepared a stir-fried vegetable and noodle dish specifically for the Canadians who were struggling with the old-school Danish food. We Canucks found it delicious; however, the officers and other crew complained, and that was the end of that.

A table laid with packaged Danish food.
I sometimes had no idea what I was eating. I found out much later that Skinke Ost is processed cheese with ham and Rege Ost is soft melt cheese with shrimp. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature
A panel of controls on a washing machine. The only writing is in Danish.
Doing laundry really mystified me. I ended up asking one of the English-speaking crew members for help. The written instruction says, very reasonably, “Clean after use.”. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature
Four different fish species.
Some of the fish species collected (clockwise from top left): Abyssal Eelpout (Lycodes frigidus), Goitre Blacksmelt (Bathylagus euryops), Gelatinous Seasnail (Liparis fabricii) and Atlantic Poacher (Leptagonus decagonus). Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature

At long last, after thirty-two days, we were homeward bound. As we approached Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, I reflected on the challenges and rewards of the trip. I occasionally saw the beauty of the Labrador Sea, an infinite variety of magnificent icebergs and the graceful flight of kittiwakes. But overall, I was grateful for the opportunity to witness with my own eyes and increase our collective knowledge of the rarely seen and underappreciated world of Arctic marine biodiversity.

A ship’s bow in the foreground. Grey ocean and snow-capped mountains in the background.
Land in sight at the end of a short October day. Image: Noel Alfonso © Canadian Museum of Nature