Young scientists explore Kalaallit Nunaat aboard Que Sera | Polarjournal
Sailing in reduced visibility, a sailor at the bow with ice on the water. Image: Léa Dillard

The Fondation Pacifique takes young scientists on board to explore the Northwest Passage, starting in the North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Greenland, then along the west coast of Kalaallit Nunaat.

The sailing vessel Que Sera has just completed its stopover in Point Inlet, Nunavut. This marks a pivotal point in the Pacifique’s Arctic expedition, which this year is attempting to cross the Northwest Passage. We first introduced this project two months ago, and now we bring you the next stage in this scientific and educational adventure.

For the record, Fondation Pacifique usually welcomes teenagers, young men and women suffering from social or family disruption, aboard their two sailboats. However, the polar experience proved a little too extreme for this audience, prompting Pacifique to focus on science, and welcome young researchers who are also looking to explore new horizons.

Maria Sabogal, a Colombian from a village 4 hours from Bogota, is the first Latin American woman to have been on board Que Sera and probably the first Colombian woman ever to visit these parts of Greenland. She stayed for 26 days and celebrated her 30th birthday on board. Image: Léa Dillard

“It allowed me to discover this aspect of scientific work, which I’d never done before”, she said upon her return to the University of Geneva. “I wanted to work on a project related to climate change, for my MSc thesis, so I contacted Professor Daniel McGinnis. He told me about the project and the unique and incredible experience of being a scientist on board.”

Before leaving, she took up sailing on Lake Geneva, her only experience on board a vessel being a sightseeing trip. “I knew I was a bit seasick, and when we crossed the Baffin Sea, that’s when it really hit me,” she added. She also underwent mountain rescue and safety training with the Swiss Polar Institute.

“It was an incredible experience, out of my comfort zone, and I was lucky with the crew,” she noted. Maria Sabogal was in charge of taking seawater samples for Daniel McGinnis of the University of Geneva along Que Sera‘s route. McGinnis and his students are investigating the exchange of carbon dioxide and methane between the atmosphere and the Arctic Ocean.

These parts of the ocean are little studied in relation to the importance they play in the functioning of the climate and the changes they undergo. For instance, glacial meltwater sweetens seawater and modifies the physical movement of water, as well as photosynthetic and animal activity, all of which play a role in gas exchanges between the atmosphere and the ocean.

Maria Sabogal collected a series of measurements on the physical state of the water on site, before taking further samples to the University of Geneva for more detailed analysis using more powerful equipment. Image: Léa Dillard

“We also have to ensure that local communities benefit from science projects,” says Marion Cherrak, Pacifique’s scientific coordinator. “This is especially important in Canada, where they are very attentive to this, so we submit permit applications, translated into Inuktitut.” Cherrak coordinated the equipment on the Que Sera to enable it to take continuous data as soon as it left Newfoundland.

Last June, the crew boarded the Que Sera in Newfoundland. In mid-June, the ship then set sail with the intention of arriving in Qeqertarsuaq, south of Disko Island, in early July. “The crossing went well,” recounts Pere Valera Taltavull, the yacht’s captain, “we crossed a small low pressure system, not too much headwind, and were able to sail close-hauled without too much wind, at around thirty knots. The course was a little too far towards Cape Farvel, so we had to come back a little, then we managed to sail upwind with a little engine power.”

When the wind had dropped, a group of northern bottlenose whales appeared right beside the yacht, a rare species classified as endangered by Canadian authorities. This beaked whale is known to dive down as far as 2’339 metres, making it one of the deepest diving marine mammals. “Their blows came out of the sea, which was flat as a mirror,” he remembers.

At the beginning of July, they sailed from Qeqertarsuaq to Ilulissat to collect the scientists and an artist who had come on board to document the expedition. Some adjustments were made to the rigging, “reefing the sails, but no major modifications”. This is the 3rd time that Pacifique had come to Qeqertarsuaq, where they had spent a winter. Very familiar with some of the locals, they were welcomed by them with some of the fruits of their hunt, matak, i.e. prepared narwhal skin, and musk ox.

“I had the opportunity to meet the locals, they’re very nice, they opened the door of their house to us and they were very curious to see what we were doing there, who we were, they always greeted us when we arrived at the port,” recalls Maria Sabogal, “In Ilulissat, the hotel manager told us that winters can be long, and on the contrary, summers can be very long. Before, the seasons were regular and very marked, which has an impact on the fishermen.”

Que Sera travelled up the west coast from Kalaallit Nunaat to Upernavik then Nuusuaq before crossing to Point Inlet at the end of July, trapped in a fog bank.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the Pacifique website

Link to a related study

Link to the François-Alphonse Forel Department for Environmental and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Geneva

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