Winter Newfoundland explorations

  • 2138 Premier bivouac pres de Buchans©EB
  • 1105 Eric sur la rive du lac Hinds©FPdS
  • 1522 France sur le lac Hinds©EB
  • 1254 Pause snack au soleil©EB

From Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, the large Canadian island of Newfoundland reaches out to us. An hour and a half by ferry only.

In search of wide open spaces well covered in snow, and after a few weeks of preparation, France and I set off for the center of the island. Starting from the village of Buchans (the same size as Miquelon and 5 times larger than Grise Fiord!), we discover a region with exceptional conditions for a nice little ski-pulka expedition!

Temperatures are between -20°C and -5°C, the layer of snow is thick, wooded areas provide good shelters in high winds, a large frozen lake reminds us of the sea ice, small mountains offer beautiful panoramas, animal tracks are everywhere... Two memorable encounters with moose, another with a coyote.

For about ten days we tow our sleds and carefully choose our bivouacs, what a freedom! What is unusual, almost weird, is that we have neither scientific instrument nor protocol!

In the only emergency shelter in the area (located 8km north of the site indicated on the map!), we enjoy the wood stove to unfreeze our equipment and we meet some happy hunters passing by. They wonder how we decided to come here: the only foreign travelers they can remember are two Germans with huge backpacks, fifteen years ago, in summer, exhausted! We definitely picked up the right region for our winter wanderings.

Miquelon's seaweed

  • Mesures algues©Eric Brossier
  • Plongee Miquelon©Pascal Leborgne
  • Prelevements algues Miquelon©Eric Brossier
  • Prelevements algues Miquelon©Pascal Leborgne

The water is cold and gales follow one another in winter in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, but on January 18 and 19 the weather conditions are exceptionally calm.

Thierry and Pascal join me for a great sailing from Saint-Pierre harbor to Miquelon. We spend the night at anchor in front of the village, and we have a successful dive the next day in the bay.

Our mission? To collect around fifty Saccharina Latissima, a kelp algae currently being studied by Merinov over the Canadian Atlantic provinces. Perhaps we will discover that the genetic and nutritional properties of seaweed from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are unique, even exceptional?

From Grise Fiord to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon

  • 0827 Loic premiers essais filtrations ADNe Grise Fiord©EB
  • 1103 Equipage Grise Fiord Saint-Pierre©EB
  • 0554 Vagabond voiles ciseaux sud Terre Neuve©EB
  • 0759 Vagabond a quai a Saint-Pierre©EB

Before we set sail and leave Grise Fiord, I am invited by the Hamlet to say goodbye. There are many of our friends, gifts, speeches, each one higher than the other, hugs, tears... "Thank you for giving us another look at science", "Aboard our little boats, we feel safer when Vagabond is around", "Come back soon with the whole family". Very emotional moments.

Loic Sanchez arrived three days before departure, which allowed us to set up the water filtration system to collect environmental DNA. The aim is to better predict the impact of climate change on fish populations. The DNA collected in the filters makes it possible to identify the species present in the area during the 30 minutes before sampling. Our friend Sébastien Roubinet is also taking part in this unprecedented scientific program and we chat together every day, while he is on an incredible expedition!

France, Leni, Ana and Yves flew back south, also I'm happy to welcome my four Breton teammates: Marie, Christophe, Ronan and Yves. Time to get our last food supplies, fresh water and fuel: ready to head south.

The ice is blocking the northeast of Devon Island, we are struggling to get out of Jones Sound. And darkness is back and it is snowing! The crew is adapting quickly, the watches are intense, we reach open water the next day. Here we are in Baffin Bay.

First stop at Clyde River where I find my old friend Philip. He provides us with engine oil and we share our diving memories!

Three days later we have a very friendly time in Qikiqtarjuaq where I lived with my family between 2013 and 2016. I'm so happy to see all our friends again, I keep sharing news for almost two days, without forgetting to climb the hill overlooking the village with my teammates.

The next stop, in northern Labrador, is due to the bad weather. Luckily, we find a good shelter for two days in a magnificent region. A polar bear, caribous, lots of blueberries and other berries that we can even pick up under the northern lights!

On September 21, Loic, Ronan and Yves disembark at Nain, in the middle of the night. Time for them to fly back to France. Vagabond set off again while the weather is fine.

Last stopover in Cartwright, still in Labrador, to let Fiona pass! Another four days for Vagabond to round Newfoundland and reach Saint-Pierre and Miquelon on October 1 at 1am, after sailing 3,200 nautical miles (5,900 km) from Grise Fiord.

Scientific explorations between Ellesmere and Devon islands

  • 1045 Yves collecte coralline Tiriqqualuk©EB
  • 1832 Leni filtrations©EB
  • 1122 Arrivee Borge Ousland et Vincent Colliard glacier Sverdrup©EB
  • 0551 Manips oceano depuis Vagabond dans le pack©EB

The latest events have also affected the crew, Leni is replacing Minoli who is sad to leave our team...

Still too much ice to reach Nares Strait (between Greenland and Canada), so the search for coralline continues on the south coast of Ellesmere Island. We cannot find any thick algae near Harbour Fiord neither at Cone or Smith islands, but Starnes Fiord is a real mine! The thick samples collected might offer great sclerochronological analyzes (the aquatic equivalent of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating).

We probably have to forget about Talbot Inlet this year due to the ice conditions, but the winds have blown away the ice in Jones Sound: so Vagabond can repeat oceanographic transects through Jones Sound and in front of Sverdrup Glacier, as well as an ocean profile at the deepest site (852m), as every year since 2019.

It's at the front of Sverdrup glacier that we pick up Borge Ousland and Vincent Colliard. They have just crossed the Devon Island Ice Cap. It's really great to meet again! Vince is staying on board for a few days more, happy to help us out with the science work.

At the end of August, we drop anchor at Vagabond's overwinter site 2011-12. A good opportunity to stretch our legs and to climb "our pyramid" where two batteries used for timelapse series have been waiting for recovery. Vagabond's three timelapse photo equipment are being used since 2021 by David Didier's team for a Grise Fiord coastal erosion study.

At the end of the mission, I was asked to search for some equipment lost near Brume Point, not far from Grise Fiord. This ended up with a great dive for me and a relieved scientist!

Belcher's Hell

  • 1254 Recuperation mouillage oceano endommage par icebergs©EB
  • 0901 Ours observent Vagabond devant glacier Belcher ile Devon©EB
  • 1909 Vagabond echoue devant Grise Fiord pour reparations©EB
  • 1045 Longue lutte dans la houle et la glace©EB

For the fourth consecutive summer, the science campaign takes us in front of the spectacular Belcher glacier front, coming straight down from the ice cap of Devon Island.

The breakup was late this year. Impossible to navigate before the beginning of August, "as before" said our friends from Grise Fiord. On August 8, there is still a lot of ice in Jones Sound, we have to be patient to find a way to Belcher (100km). Luckily we meet two bears in this dazzling maze.

At first, too much ice to get to the site. But we manage to reach a kind of shelter from where we observe the ice drift and recover a tide gauge set up a year ago. It's a no visibility dive: the water is so laden with sediments that it is already dark at less than 10m depth! Fortunately the icebergs didn't damage the instrument and the GPS coordinates are precise enough to find it.

August 11, Vagabond finds his way through the ice, pushing from time to time. The oceanographic mooring site is reached, there is little ice around, the sea is calm, so it's time to trigger the acoustic release and free the mooring from its weight. It works! Buoys and instruments gradually appear on the surface, all connected by a 300-meter-long line. Everything is recovered and secured on the deck which ends up very cluttered. The cages designed to protect the instruments from the icebergs are totally destroyed, but the majority of the sensors recorded properly for a year. The whole team is satisfied!

A moderate easterly gale is announced. No shelter in the area but the ice should protect us, as usual. Problem: the winds offshore are much stronger than expected, it's a very unusual storm. As a result, most of the ice is swept away and the swell forms. For endless hours, Vagabond is trapped between thick and hard ice floes hitting hard the hull, at every wave. Stress is increasing on board. At times we have to hold on not to fall, to shout to be heard. Will Vagabond resist? As the hours pass, we imagine the worst. I remind everyone where the survival equipment is.

I don't want to think about our crew taking refuge on the large ice floe that just sank our boat... Would we be able to wait for help? Which help? This scenario that we have always been prepared for has never seemed so close to happen.

The wind and the swell are finally decreasing, the pressure of the ice slackens, we get out of the trap and leave behind the three bears who kept us company during these thirteen hours of struggle. Exhausted, aboard a battered Vagabond, we search in vain for a shelter to wait for better conditions to sail to Grise Fiord. We end up going back into the ice, but this time in a very small bay filled with brash which dampens some of the swell.

On August 15, Vagabond is voluntarily stranded on the beach off Grise Fiord. At low tide, we can see how much Vagabond is damaged, but its sturdiness still impresses us. The hull is terribly dented, nothing to do. The rudder is fine, a miracle. The cages, twisted, protected the propellers; but the starboard cage is so deformed that it blocks the propeller. Yves helps us to straighten everything with a hydraulic jack, a blowtorch and an hammer. Inside the boat, cracked walls and broken pipes are quickly repaired. The science campaign can carry on.

After Belcher's crevasses, Belcher's ice...

This episode will haunt us for a long time, we will never finish learning about sailing in ice, captivating and formidable.

Campaign 2022, action!

  • 1918 Deux loaders pour tracter Vagabond©EB
  • 1622 Claire Maya Minoli Ana Leni recuperent donnees CTD©EB
  • 1250 Yves collecte coralline ile Skerries©EB
  • 1450 Vagabond et banquise en debacle tardive pres des iles Skerries©EB

The ice breakup is late... France and I have been back in Grise Fiord since July 25, but the ice is forcing us to be patient!

Finally, on July 31, after two attempts, a lot of shoveling and the use of four different machines, Vagabond is floating again. Thanks to Charlie, Nathan, Paul and Jessie. And thanks to the whole community for looking after our boat so well.

The same day, the scientific team is boarding and setting up all its equipment. On August 1, Maya Bhatia, project manager, and four students are on board for a first trip: our goal is to test everything and validate the protocols. The pack ice, beautifully covered with large melt ponds, is keeping us close to Grise Fiord. No way out. On the other hand, the neighboring fjord is free of ice and on August 3 there are eight of us on board for a long day of oceanographic measurements and sampling. All good.

Yves arrives from Qikiqtarjuaq just in time for a first dive at the bottom of the Greenlander, the mountain next to Grise Fiord: we get a nice collection of coralline! So we dive again at the foot of this amazing cliff the next day. Minoli and Ana, the science team, are busy with the samples.

There are therefore five of us on board: Minoli, Ana, Yves, France and me, for a one-month mission in Nares Strait, between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, and north of Devon Island. When the ice will permit.

On August 7, we attempt a dive at Skerries Islands. Search in previous years were promising, but conditions were never favorable for diving. This time, thanks to the pack ice which has not yet broken up, the sea is perfectly calm around the islands which we manage to reach by zigzagging through the ice. A polar bear sunbathing on the ice is watching us from afar. France, Minoli and Ana first explore the seafloor from the surface, using the drop camera, and identify the best sites. When Yves and I jump into the water from Vagabond, the ice is quickly drifting around us. Barely time to reach the bottom and take a few samples of coralline that we hear the boat's engines! We come up, find that Vagabond is coming straight at us and that the ice is compacting against the islands... Under the moving ice, we are looking for the right place and the right time to surface. There you go! On the ice with all our equipment, then on the boat! The bear didn't move, phew, enough emotions for today.

Geophysical survey on top of Devon Ice Cap

  • 1305 Equipe et pilotes mission geophysique ile Devon©EB
  • 1754 Tim et Brittany installent capteur magnetique vertical©EB
  • 1729 James aux commandes des mesures TEM©EB
  • 1243 Eric marteau source prospection sismique calotte glaciaire ile Devon©BM

Back from 27 incredible days of field work on top of Devon Ice Cap, at 1800m altitude. With a great team of 4 people, carrying over 3 tons of equipment, we looked for subglacial lakes!

Airborne radar surveys flown in 2016 and 2018 gave evidence for the existence of a hypersaline subglacial lake complex beneath the center of Devon Ice Cap, Canadian Arctic, where the ice is 760 m thick and the estimated basal ice temperature is -14.5°C. Read more: Radar sounding survey over Devon Ice Cap indicates the potential for a diverse hypersaline subglacial hydrological environment

To confirm the airborne surveys and determine the thickness of the water layer, we did a detailed ground-based geophysical survey on Devon Ice Cap. The data acquired included: 9 km of seismic reflection data, 17 magnetotelluric (MT) stations, and 7 large loop transient electromagnetic (TEM) soundings that used a 500 x 500 m loop. Twice more data than expected!

This research is part of the SEARCH-Arctic project funded by the Weston Family Foundation. Thanks to the Polar Continental Shelf Program for logistical support, in particular Dom, Pierre, Tim and Glenn. Field team members: James Killingbeck, Eric Brossier, Brittany Main and Tim Hill. Team members involved with this project, not on the ice cap: Siobhan Killingbeck, Martyn Unsworth, Chritine Dow, Alison Criscitiello, Ashley Dubnick, Anja Rutishauser and Zoe Vestrum.

Brittany and I also went down to Belcher glacier (and almost into crevasses!) to service 2 glacier velocity trackers. These devices were set up in the summer of 2021 by Luke Copland and his Laboratory for Cryospheric Research to better understand how glacier motion is evolving in a warming climate.

Vagabond all set for winter

  • 1013 Position finale pour hivernage ©France Pinczon du Sel
  • 1704 Travail de terrassier ©France Pinzcon du Sel
  • 1638 Position de Vagabond apres premiere tentative ©France Pinzon du Sel
  • 0104 Maree haute au milieu de la nuit ©France Pinczon du Sel

Once Léonie and Eric left for Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, just on time for school and new position (new research station), we remained two of us, Louis Wilmote and I, onboard Vagabond, for the two following weeks. Louis, before landing in Grise Fiord, made a stop in Arctic Bay in order to dive and recover most of the coralline samples and about ten sensors waiting since last year. Successful job after two stops, on his way to and back from Grise Fiord!

Very busy fortnight: a lot of maintenance, including smelling sessions in the engine room... at anchor in front of town or sheltered behind small islands not far from Grise Fiord, before beaching Vagabond. Finally everything is ready for the first attempt. The tide will reach a sufficient level of water by the middle of that night. In the evening Paul digs with his loader at the same place where Vagabond wintered last year. Everything would have been simple if ... is it the violent gust of wind or the beluga that came two times around Vagabond, who would have decided that we would not see the depth of the hole dug that evening? Vagabond began to drift as the loader was digging. When the anchor hooked again in front of Grise Fiord, the hole was finished but we didn't feel like leaving Vagabond, doubting about the good behavior of the anchorage.

Later on this moonless night, we begin the approach. But we quickly realize, immobilized in front of the shelter and after that broke a line by the traction of the loader, that it is not for tonight...

The following evening Paul digs again around Vagabond, high perched without water on the slope of the foreshore. At 1am, Vagabond progresses 3 meters before the chain slips. Then a second rope breaks... The pressure is rising: there is only one more attempt possible before the tide coefficients will decrease again.

Then comes back Raymond: he is the one who dug last year, "as much as he could"! The next morning he finds a longer and bigger chain that we prepare. Without any notice, at midday he arrives with his loader to make a test. Vagabond turns little bit but the loader rears up! A bit later at the highest of the tide, he comes back with Paul: in line one in front of the other, the two loaders hoist Vagabond without difficulties in its cradle! Before having finish our meal, spectators on the deck, we are in place for winter! Thank you Paul and Raymond for your pugnacity.

Next mission on summer 2022!