Marine expedition whets appetite of future scientists

October 26, 2018
Lisa Weighton
“The Earth is basically doing the same thing over and over again, so if we take a look at the past and we see major earthquakes here every 400 years or so, then that gives us a hint of when the next one will be.” - Dr. Randy Enkin

Dr. Audrey Dallimore digs science—sediment to be exact.

Dallimore, a marine geologist in Royal Roads’ School of Environment and Sustainability, has been fascinated by mud since childhood.

“When I was young and it rained, everyone would go inside and I would run outside,” she says. “I wanted to see where the water was running on the street and where the dirt was going.”

Today, she’s joined six other research scientists to stimulate that same curiosity in students visiting the PromoScience Expedition, an innovative floating science project aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Vector.

Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the joint project with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Natural Resources Canada and Royal Roads University, aims to pique students’ interest in marine science, engineering, navigation, and search and rescue.

It’s an unseasonably warm October afternoon in Bamfield, a remote fishing community in Barkley Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Docked alongside the Bamfield Coast Guard Search and Rescue station, Bamfield is the Vector’s first of four ports of call on the five-day expedition that will also make its way to Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet.

A group of senior undergraduate students and hopeful future marine scientists gather around a selection of sediment samples.

“These are three sections of a 60-metre sediment core taken from nearby Effingham Inlet,” Dallimore says to the students, currently studying at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. A university student touches a 12,500-year-old sediment sample during the PromoScience Expedition in Bamfield.

If you’re a sedimentologist, you’ll know about Effingham. Famous for its sediment, the low-oxygen environment and calm waters provide an abundance of undisturbed organic matter.

“You’re going to see a lot of high tech stuff here,” Dallimore says, referring to tools like drifters that measure surface currents or high-performance underwater gliders that measure oxygen content and salinity. “Piston coring is about as low tech as you get!”

Lowered by two powerful cranes, steel encased plastic tubes are fired into the sediment, capturing a sample for analysis.

The samples range in colour from grey to chocolate to light mocha. Each has distinguishable lines like the rings of a tree. Dating back up to 12,500 years, these samples provide clues about the natural environment and marine ecosystems long before humans were on the planet.

“They give us an idea of how the oceans function naturally and how the Earth is functioning naturally,” Dallimore says.

Dr. Randy Enkin, research scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada-Pacific, says uncovering the Earth’s past tells important stories about what’s going to happen in the future.

“The Earth is basically doing the same thing over and over again, so if we take a look at the past and we see major earthquakes here every 400 years or so, then that gives us a hint of when the next one will be,” he says.

That information helps inform building codes and provides coastal communities the information they need to be resilient against things like climate change or rising sea levels, Enkin says.

Peter Chandler, oceanographer at the Institute of Ocean Sciences, crouches down to get on the same level as his next group of eager students—all kindergarteners from Bamfield Community School.

“These are little animals that live in the ocean,” he says, holding up a jar of rose-coloured krill.

“I see a pink one!” a student offers excitedly.

“Pink is my favourite colour!” another chimes in.

Chandler continues, explaining how these little pink fish make a big difference to the health of the overall marine environment.

“These are really important because they feed the bigger fish and the bigger fish then can eat them. Without the little fish, nothing works. So it’s really important for scientists to understand if they’re healthy,” Chandler says.

The PromoScience Expedition is about inviting students into the imaginative world of science, Chandler says, especially students from remote communities who may have limited or no access to science and technology enrichment opportunities.

It’s also about planting the seed for future careers in the marine environment.

Rebecca Waines, a university student studying at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, says the multidisciplinary team got her excited about each of their respective areas of expertise.

“You have geologists, you have oceanographers and they tell you about this cool interface between mathematics and the messiness of the real world where we can use mathematics and what we find on the ocean floor and in the ocean columns,” she says.

Chaz Francis Comia, a biology student from the University of Calgary says his future career is a toss-up between joining the Coast Guard and supporting coral reef restoration.

“Any job where I can be stinky and dirty and touch gross things and tell other people about how cool and significant it is—any job like that—I dig it.”