Under the sea as we’ve never seen it


Cambridge Bay, a 1 500-person community perched on the south coast of Nunavut’s Victoria Island, comprises an eclectic mix of people including local Inuit families, teachers, contractors and government workers from other parts of the country. The community boasts two general stores, which sell clothing and packaged food, all of which must be flown in. There is also the Ikaluktutiak Elks Lodge No 593, a social gathering place that serves a steak dinner and drinks once per week in the otherwise “dry” town.

Cambridge Bay is roughly the size of UVic’s campus — at least, that’s the comparison UVic student Ryan Flagg makes. He should know. Flagg, along with fellow fourth-year mechanical engineering student Ryan Key, spent a co-op term from May to September 2012 planning and installing an undersea mini-observatory in Cambridge Bay’s icy waters.

“It was the ideal job [in that] we were given a goal and an outline but were given free rein in terms of how the design was to progress,” said Flagg.

Ocean Networks Canada looks north 

The Arctic mini-observatory is an Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) project. ONC is a not-for-profit society established in 2007 by UVic to support ocean discovery and ocean-related technological innovation. ONC is responsible for both the VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea) and NEPTUNE (North-East Pacific Time-Series Underwater Networked Experiments) underwater observatories. These observatories gather data from numerous underwater instruments and transmit them via high-speed fibre-optic cables from the seafloor to an archiving system at UVic. The live and archived information is available on the Internet for free. This new approach to learning about the oceans revolutionizes traditional methods that relied on infrequent oceanographic cruises.

ONC has been building a series of scaled-down versions of the larger observatories. Flagg and Key got the gig installing ONC’s first cabled undersea monitoring system in the Canadian Arctic.

Flagg first became involved with ONC in the summer of 2011 when the organization was searching for senior engineering students to install a mini-observatory at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay. He was one of the students chosen to build and install the observatory, which included a weather station on a dock as well as an HD camera with audio capabilities, a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) water sampler, oxygen and turbidity probes and a fluorometer (which identifies the presence and the amount of specific molecules in a medium), all attached to a tripod and affixed to the seafloor.

After the project was completed, Flagg kept in contact with ONC. He was keen to work more with the organization. “It’s important to go out and make your own contacts and get face time with the people that you want to work with,” he said. “I poked my head in the door every once in a while.”

Following the successful installation of the mini-observatory at Brentwood Bay College School, ONC decided to install a mini-observatory in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and having actively stayed in touch with ONC, Flagg was in the perfect place to help out. He recruited fellow student Key to help him.

Key was keen to get hands-on experience. “It’s a much less artificial environment than what you get in school,” he said.

The project involved traveling to Cambridge Bay with everything they could possibly anticipate needing for the installation, such as steel pipes, drills and plywood, as well as a wide array of scientific instruments including an HD video underwater camera encased in waterproof housing, a water meter and an ice profiler. The students were also required to make connections with local contractors to help them with the logistics and installation of all of the instruments and equipment. The mini-observatory had to be able to withstand the harsh conditions of an arctic winter.

While the two students had some project management support from UVic and ONC, they had a lot of autonomy. The project timeline was restricted only by the ice, which thaws at the end of June and begins to form again in mid-October.

“We were given a lot of freedom to set our own timeline and do things in ways that were most practical,” said Flagg. “From beginning to end, we got to design [the observatory] ourselves, build it ourselves, come up with the timeline and budget.”

After the ice melted, Key flew from Victoria to Cambridge Bay for reconnaissance. Back at UVic, he and Flagg organized two large crates of materials and equipment to be shipped to the Arctic. In September of 2012, the two students flew from Victoria to Cambridge Bay, via Edmonton and Yellowknife. In two weeks, they set up the observatory.

supporting science-based understanding of changing waters 

Cambridge Bay, located on an island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is roughly 1 900 kilometres north of Saskatoon. It was selected by ONC for an observatory pilot study because it has been designated as the location for the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), a facility devoted to the study of arctic land and marine environments that is scheduled to open in 2017. Cambridge Bay was selected for CHARS because of its relative accessibility; it features an airport and shipping dock.

The ONC mini-observatory consists of an above-ground weather station and a collection of underwater instruments including: an underwater camera, a device that measures ice thickness and sensors that record physical properties of the water such as temperature and salinity. As is the case with ONC’s other observatories, the information collected is freely available on the Internet.

In order to install the ONC observatory, the students had to connect the underwater instruments via a cable to a shore control station on a dock, which then sent the information collected via wireless signal to the Nunavut government building where there was a satellite uplink.

The main challenges involved in the installation of the observatory were the remoteness of the area, the absence of the usual support services, such as reliable cellphone and Internet service, and finding a way for real-time transmission of data collected by the sensors back to southern Canada.

The data and images generated by the larger VENUS and NEPTUNE observatories off Vancouver Island are used by researchers to study a wide range of topics, from geohazards such as submarine earthquakes, tsunamis and underwater landslides to the behaviour of whales and dolphins.

When introducing the Cambridge Bay mini-observatory at the Arctic Net conference held in December 2012 in Vancouver, Kim Juniper, associate director of science for NEPTUNE Canada, said, “This specially designed, scaled-down version of our seafloor networks off the coast of Vancouver Island will support a longer-term science-based understanding of the dramatic changes taking place in Arctic waters. These changes include the historic receding of the northern sea ice and its impact on marine ecosystems.”

In the shorter term, the data generated by the observatory will be used for research and educational purposes. Just as the data collected by ONC’s mini-observatory at Brentwood College School is used by the science program there, ONC hopes the data collected by the Cambridge Bay mini-observatory will be incorporated into science classes at local schools. Towards the end of their stay in the Arctic, Key and Flagg presented the project and the data being collected to a local senior biology class.

The data is also being incorporated into various research studies, from testing a computer model for ice growth in the nearby Amundsen Gulf to aiding the study of how organisms respond to sea ice breakup.

Why students should look to co-ops 

As engineering is an applied science in which hands-on experience is important, co-op is mandatory for UVic engineering students. Students must complete at least four co-op terms to graduate. According to Meeta Khurana, acting program manager at the Engineering, Computer Science and Math Co-op office, co-op gives students a chance to explore where their passion lies and also to discover more practical things like the size of company they would like to work for.

Key values the exposure he has had to the logistics of creating and installing a design, as well as testing it out. “Building relationships with suppliers, co-workers and other people in the community is the single most important thing in the entire project,” said Key.

As engineering is such a technical discipline, it is easy to overlook the softer skills that are also important to success. Key cites the experience of working in such a small community as one of the highlights of the experience. “It is important to understand how each individual person fits into the community.”

“This co-op has given me a lot of great exposure to working with new people and new methods,” said Flagg.

While school has to focus on knowledge and grades, co-op terms can go a long way to help students define themselves in terms of the type of work they want to do. “By the third or fourth co-op, you start to get a sense of what you want to do, and then you can start looking into what companies are doing work in that field,” Flagg explained. “The co-op office does a great job at finding work for people, but until you get face time, you are just a piece of paper.”

Flagg has been interested in the marine and submarine environments for some time. In 2002, he joined the Navy Reserve. Since then, he has worked as a Marine Engineering Systems Operator with the local reserve unit, HMCS Malahat. In 2005, he graduated from the Mechanical Engineering Technology program at Camosun College. Immediately after, he completed a six-month Mechanical Engineering bridge program, which gives college graduates university credit for their technical diplomas and bridges them from second-year college to third-year university.

Co-op terms, many in the field of marine engineering, have been a valuable addition to his formal education. During his last co-op term at Camosun College, Flagg worked for the Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS) and for a small company called Oceanetic Measurement. During these two work placements, he went on four different cruises aboard Canadian Coast Guard ships: two around Vancouver Island, one in the Arctic from Inuvik around the MacKenzie Delta region, and one from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to Nome, Alaska. He also completed a co-op with Fugro Seafloor Surveys in Seattle, Washington, where he designed and oversaw the fabrication of a shipside seafloor mapping instrument.

In addition to helping Flagg and Key carve out a meaningful professional experience for themselves, the co-op with ONC was a personal adventure. The students were able to experience a part of the world that is not easy to get to. “It is cheaper to travel almost anywhere else,” said Key.

During his long morning runs on the road that led out of the hamlet of Cambridge Bay into the surrounding tundra, Flagg encountered tundra swans, snowy owls, Arctic foxes, lemmings and Arctic hares. He met people sailing around the world alone and in groups. He and Key were also able to participate in the first annual Cambridge Bay Run for the Cure, witness narwhals in the surrounding waters and celebrate the success of the observatory with a victory swim in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.