Sverdrup Glacier

  • Bonne ambiance sur le pont pendant les manips ©EB

Endless westerly wind is challenging our North Devon Island cruise. After standing by for three days, we took full advantage of a calm weather starting measurements and sampling at 4am yesterday morning in front of Sverdrup Glacier. The transect was completed not long after 1pm, when wind and swell were picking up again! We are back at anchor near Cape Hardy, sheltering as it is impossible for now to head West to followup with the schedule.

However we are determined! Either searching for coralline or kelp, either studying the glacier meltwater impacts on marine ecosystem. Scientific protocols have been digested, jobs are getting clarified, routines start running, fieldwork is going smoothly, more efficient, more fun. Enjoying team work together with the family in an incredible scenery!

We are happy to meet again with Jones Sound wildlife. Despite polar bears, we have been watching muskox, walruses and even belugas. Vagabond keeps faithfully offering us an intense experience, facing wind, swell, snow (already on August 3rd!), uncharted shoals (many times in less than 3 meters depth the past few days) and drifting ice.

Vagabond is sharing her position every two hours, see the Vagabond Cruise 2020 map.

A polar bear on the beach

  • Leonie Aurore et ours Pointe Raper ©France Pinczon du Sel

The day before yesterday, in the evening, we went for a hike to see if the swell would be less on the other side. I was walking a little bit behind to watch all the drift wood on the shore, also to look at the skuas flying above us, suddenly I stopped. My eyes just came across something white, slowly looking at me. My first thought was: "A bear! How did I miss it!?!". My second thought was: "Oh my god, Dad, Mum and Aurore didn't see it, they are walking strait to him!". So I shouted, not too loud: "There is a bear!". I was getting worried because Dad was still walking at a good speed towards him, when Mum stopped: she had just seen the bear too, he was then coming down to us. I didn't want to catch up with them, but they did by turning around: we were heading back to the dinghy (not running of course!). Mum took out her flare gun and Dad got the riffle out of its case. The polar bear was following us. He was even walking faster than us although he looked like he was taking his time. We reached the dinghy. Once all onboard, we went closer to the shore, where the bear was standing, to take some pictures from a safe position. Then, once on board Vagabond, sitting around the table, we watched him until he disappeared behind the cape.

First day of transect

  • Ours devant glacier Belcher ©EB
  • France et Leonie remontent la bouteille Niskin ©EB

This day begins early: at 2am we bring back the anchor and are heading to Belcher glacier. The swell prevents any rest between our watches and six hours later we end up at the glacier front. A nice brash is breaking down the swell, still strong. If brash and icebergs, then polar bears! Great show this morning: two, then three bears, including one cub, are watching out, standing up on their back legs, looking at each other, moving around. While working on our first station we are also watching them, looking for them and finding them again... When bringing back up the CTD, some grumbles surprise us: walruses, drone? No, one of the bears caught a seal, he is running on the ice holding his prey between his teeth, and the game between the three fellow creatures doesn't look friendly. On board Vagabond, we feel safer than yesterday on the beach...

This was a great way to start again a day which is going to be busy: one transect with nine CTD stations (hydrographic profiles) of whom four with water sampling. For this, we have to integrate, set up and optimize the choreography; so the first station is taking us up to three hours! And it is work for everyone on board. Two people doing the CTD cast then sampling water with the Niskin bottle at three different depths (bottom, maximum chlorophyll and surface). After that, two lab technicians to do the filtering and samplings, manual pumping to filter and eventually two more hands to hold well the funnels and containers in the swell! And we have not to forget the icebergs around while Vagabond is drifting or sailing to the next station. We improve our methods along the day and Eric do the last filtering in less than one hour while we are looking for a shelter in the heavy fog.

It's ten at night when we finally have our supper, happy to be finished with the swell and the transect, and soon enjoying some rest.

Coralline, icebergs, polar bear and patrol

  • Ours pointe Johnson ile Devon ©EB
  • France regle genois ©EB

Devon Island East coast survey is over. Icebergs from Baffin Bay are visiting all of the eight suggested sites and coralline has not much time to grow before being ripped off by drifting ice. France is spending hours in the dinghy with the drop camera to select the best diving spots if any. Samples are then dried and marked, we will ship them to Toronto at the end of the cruise. Clathromorphum compactum is a promising climate archive for improving our understanding of past changes in Arctic ocean and ice sheet conditions well before the beginning of instrumental observations.

Very loud sound, scary. An iceberg is breaking up not far from me... France is watching from the dinghy, she is not sounding the end of dive alarm, so I keep searching for coralline. She tells me later that she was scared too!

On Sunday, a large aircraft suddenly flies very low near Vagabond, twice, before a friendly interview in French! The military patrol is asking us name and call sign of the ship, flag, port of registry, last stop, destination, number of people on board, cargo, radar make and model! To their knowledge, there is no other ship around, neither further North.

In the evening, the surprise is a polar bear. France is alone in the dinghy, focused on the camera's small screen, she announces by radio that the bear is slowly coming down the cliff, then nothing. We cannot see her from Vagabond, we are getting worried, I end up saying to Aurore and Léonie "let's go!". Finally France is answering the radio and meets us at anchor, we are all still a bit nervous. The following morning, Vagabond is sailing around the small island and we can watch the polar bear, still there: I decide not to dive at this site!

Not many shelters, luckily the weather is fine. To get rest at anchor is all about the swell: either we get nicely rocked, either we are swinging incomfortably!

A lonely mission

  • 20200721 Montage du kayak ©EB
  • 20200721 Bivalves Arctic Bay ©EB
  • 20200720 Appro vivres Arctic Bay ©EB
  • 20200715 Aurore et Leonie equipieres de choc ©EB

Fair winds finally, it is time for Vagabond to leave Arctic Bay and begin her two month mission around Devon and Ellesmere Islands (map). As with every departure, it's a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

Despite the restrictions related to Covid-19, Transport Canada and the Ministry of Health of Nunavut gave us their consent as our family crew has been up North for months. But the various researchers for whom we work are not authorized to join us in Nunavut, nor our team members, in order to best protect the local communities. Only a hydrographer will exceptionally be allowed to embark at the end of August, for 3 weeks, and he will first have to spend two weeks of quarantine in a hotel in Ottawa.

Our daughters Aurore and Leonie, 10 and 13 years old, will be our team members for this cruise. A unique family configuration, unprecedented for a sailing season that promises to be wild. Arctic waters will indeed be very uncrowded this year, we will meet no cruise ship, no yacht attempting the Northwest Passage. Even the scientific icebreaker Amundsen is confined to the south of the Arctic Circle. Neither boat nor ice as sea ice melt already reaches record level.

The recovery of the last coralline samples, to end properly this one-year study, has been entrusted to our friends in Arctic Bay whom we are nostalgic to leave. Tuesday evening, the executive committee of the Hunters and Trappers Association (all Inuit over 16 are members, automatically) invited us to share our impressions and our projects during a friendly meeting. The audience also asked me about the potential impact of hydrophones on marine mammals that some scientists would like to install to listen to underwater activity, especially this summer with little ship traffic. There is also this lake in which fishermen would like me to dive to retrieve a few lost nets... See you soon Arctic Bay!

Three months after my return on board Vagabond, on Saint Brigitte's day, we are sailing again (map).

Open water

  • 20200708 Linaigrette ©EB
  • 20200705 Chez Hanna et Paul ©EB
  • 20200705 Baie Victor depuis la peninsule Uluksan ©EB
  • 20200704 Anniversaire un an Morgan ©EB

It is the end of the snowmobile season, no more hunting at the floe edge: many marine mammals gather at the edge of the ice to feed from the rich waters of the fjords which are once again accessible. It's +12°C, the ice is melting very quickly this year and we are the first to sail in front of Arctic Bay! Yesterday I dived from our boat while the day before there was still too much ice to navigate to the site.

We are busy on board Vagabond during the day with scientific work, end-of-winter maintenance and preparations for the summer mission, and we camp in the evening at Victor Bay to enjoy the flowery tundra.

Our tent neighbor Philip knows our daughters since he works at the school. He lives with his wife Sarah in a very small cabin, all year round, at Victor Bay, as there are eleven people in their house in Arctic Bay. The housing shortage is significant in Nunavut.

Sarah and Philip's niece Julian and her husband Isaia invited us to their son Morgan's birthday party on Saturday night. He was born a year ago, the day after his brother's suicide from whom he inherited his first name. Around the tents and small cabins, there were many of us to share these moving moments, happy despite everything. Their friend Cherita organized on June 26 in the village a suicide prevention march.

After a nice hike on Sunday with a magnificent view on open water and three icebergs in the Admiralty Fjord, we visited Paul. The hamlet's mechanic, so helpful to us throughout the winter, lives with Hanna in a little red house he built 7 years ago. Hanna teaches traditional culture at the Arctic Bay school, she helped France to make Leonie's parka pattern. She has just lost her son, another suicide... Paul tells us about his childhood far from his family, the residential school he went to be able to eat three times a day, and the government help he received much later to make up for the years away from his father and from his hunting and fishing apprenticeship. He caught up. He explains without bitterness that thanks to his education and his work, over time, he was able to offer several snowmobiles to his father.

In recent decades, behind the beautiful Arctic postcards, social problems have been more difficult to overcome than the polar cold. Fortunately the coronavirus did not reach communities in Nunavut.


  • 20200628 Vagabond a Nanisivik en 1983
  • 20200628 Plage Nanisivik ©EB

Nanisivik, "the place where people find things", in Strathcona fjord. A lead and zinc mine was running from 1976 to 2002. It was on a beach near the mine that Vagabond stayed for two winters, between 1981 and 1983, during an expedition in the Northwest Passage to the magnetic North Pole. The beach has not changed!

Frank May took us to Nanisivik last Sunday. It takes just over 30 minutes by car from Arctic Bay, the 36 km track is well maintained, even excellent. Frank has lived in Arctic Bay "only" since 1985 and therefore could not remember Vagabond! He was mayor for 4 years and gladly shares his memories. Some elders remember the boat overwintering more than thirty-seven years ago.

Today Nanisivik has grown into a small Canadian Navy base, just up and running, primarily to refuel ships. Its creation was decided when a Russian flag was deposited on August 2nd, 2007 at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, at the North Pole.

Before the sea ice is no more walkable

  • 20200612 Camping pres de Arctic Bay ©EB
  • 20200610 Leonie avec chien et Eric en kite-ski ©France Pinczon du Sel
  • 20200519 Vue 360degres au pied des falaises St Georges society ©Aurore Brossier
  • 20200613 Fonte et banquise inondee pres d Arctic Bay ©EB

May and June are THE season for camping. Then, the sea ice becomes risky to walk on drily, and then the melt ponds are too big and the black ocean appears like a sneaky puzzle.

15 days after my birthday, it is the fishing derby long weekend but without a snowmobile we can't join. The wind is strong and many people have to turn back, as driving when dragging the heavy family qamutiks is dangerous. Holes are opened all over our bay for the village's version of the fishing competition. As soon as the wind calms down, we go camping at the entrance of the fjord, outside our bay. In 5 hours walking and skiing along the cliffs and with only one crack to cross, we are in another world. Still cold, however the tent is no longer set up on snow but on a perfect carpet made of small stones split by the frost. And we breathe, with a larger horizon on the pristine Admiralty fjord and its 20km wide!

10 days later we cross Victor Bay to settle at its north-west point. The sea ice is more beautiful that in our bay, however we have to make 2 big detours in order to find where to cross the two cracks too wide for our steps. When we arrive, nearby a lonely weekend hut, we discover the life that is reborn. Many geese can be approached, or are screaming in the sky. And now we have two dogs: Stone and Mickie, the second one is loaned for one month by Paul, the hamlet chief mechanic. So each girl has her dog, for their greatest happiness!

For June 10 Eric's birthday, we leave again harnessed in the same way to our pulkas and our dogs, but on a turquoise sea ice full of melt ponds. Eric even tries to kite with a little wind. Magic journey but cold foot bath guaranteed. And the return trip will be even more aquatic: we will feel like going from islets to islets across-lake! In a pretty little bay we spend few heavenly days, crawling on the rocks, discovering a multitude of birds and nests, snow buntings as much as gulls and even a hawk. The air is maritime, while the blue flooded sea ice still hides some thick ice.

Mid June, going camping on foot by the sea ice is no longer reasonable. Otherwise, before the first rains, we bivouac under the stars ... or rather under the permanent sun!

Cool job

  • 20200609 Prelevements eau site pH ©EB
  • 20200609 Bouteille Niskin sous la banquise ©EB
  • 20200603 Benthos Arctic Bay ©EB
  • 20200530 Eric rejoint le site de manip en kite-ski ©France Pinczon du Sel

To study the coralline growth, in addition to diving to regularly recover some of the samples prepared in September and to check the various sensors (pH, salinity, light, temperature), we have a protocol for water sampling at both sites. It's my job of the day.

Even after twenty years of field work on the ice, I still think this job is cool.

On skis, I'm hauling my sled to the first site where I set up the tent and the mini lab. I open the hole, it's easy at this time of the year even if the ice thickness is more than 1.6 meters, and I lower the Niskin bottle down to 15m depth, right next to the coralline samples. It is this water that we are looking at. Previously, to monitor the experiment, I drop the 360-degree camera give by Exocéan. Well setup in the tent, I carefully follow the protocol for filling the different bottles which will be kept either frozen either in the dark until they reach Jessica Gould's lab. She has just received a prestigious award for her work!

By VHF radio, I talk to Léonie who is usually doing this lab work on board Vagabond when it is too cold to setup a mini lab on the ice. On the Internet, I check the correct setting of the pipette. It's amazing to be so well connected in the field, having a mobile phone in winter is completely new for us! The 25 communities in Nunavut have had a cellular network since September 2019.

Zachary is coming back from hunting and stops to greet me. He offers me a skidoo ride to the next site! I just hook my sled behind his machine for the 10 minutes trip. He helps me set up the tent, we share a tea and look at some pictures. He missed a goose this morning, 3 hours south of here. I show him what the seabed looks like under our feet, he is surprised by their richness and would have bet that I took the photo in tropical waters! For sure the contrast with the ice at the surface is incredible. Three days ago, Zachary visited us at Victor Point, where we were camping with the family, and showed me a picture of a young seal lost on the ice, too far from its hole. Fifteen seals have been lost in recent weeks in the Arctic Bay region, such as the one found near Vagabond in 2012. In two days time he will go Arctic char fishing and seal hunting with his father Mishak, who is also collaborating with the SmartIce program: ice thickness surveys similar to those we regularly do for Christian Haas (co-founder of SmartIce), either alone or with him.

While finishing the water sampling, putting everything back into the sled and stopping the timelapse camera, the wind picks up gently. I'm happy to use the kite to cover most of the 4 km to Vagabond. Science, a hunter's visit, skiing, snowkiting, photography, on top or under the ice. A great day. It must be my birthday tomorrow.

Science and light logistics

  • 20200601 Pousser bloc central sous la banquise ©Aurore Brossier
  • 20200517 En route vers Nuvua ©EB

During the previous eleven winterings, we used snowmobiles to travel on the ice from Vagabond. For science and for our leisure. This year, conditions are pushing us to do without.

Reduce our expenses. These practical machines cost at least € 10,000 to purchase, consume a lot of gas and oil, and require regular maintenance.

Nearby scientific sites. The three sites defined for the 2019-2020 winter scientific program are in the bay of Arctic Bay (6x3km).

Lockdown. Visits between families have been strongly discouraged since March, whether in town, out on the ice, while traveling or camping. Participating in a fishing derby, for example, 8 or 10 hours by snowmobile from the village, loses much of its meaning if you have to stay confined near your tent.

Effort and sharing. Aurore and Léonie have grown well, it's a pleasure to walk or ski together, with the help of our dogs Stone and Miki or kites to haul our pulkas which guarantee our self sufficiency. We certainly don't go as far as by skidoo, but we chat on the way and listen to the birds!

Similarly for diving and water sampling, we do not have a powered auger or chainsaw so we drill through the 160cm thick ice with a hand augers and tuks. Contact with the ice is more intimate, and no need to go to the gym!

Finally, solar panels and new boat batteries are allowing us to considerably reduce the use of the generator. Our diesel consumption is around 7 liters per day for energy, heating and cooking.