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Unexplored ocean floor

MI student surveys Northwest Passage during summer work term

special feature: COASTS

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).

By Leslie Earle

Sarah Porter has something on her resumé that not many others do.

The fourth-year ocean mapping and bachelor of technology student at the Marine Institute has mapped one of the most unexplored areas of the ocean floor: the Northwest Passage.

Ocean mapping student Sarah Porter in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.
Photo: Submitted

“I was on a work term with the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology (CTec) when my supervisor, Kirk Regular, offered me the opportunity to partner with the Canadian Hydrographic Service to survey through the Northwest Passage using their new shallow water multibeam system, Norbit,” said Ms. Porter.

It was an opportunity Ms. Porter could not pass up. She joined the RRS Ernest Shackleton – the escort vessel for the Crystal Serenity’s second voyage through the Northwest Passage – in St. John’s on Aug. 8 for a 28-day adventure.

“My job was to mobilize the Norbit system on a small boat called the Narwhal,” said Ms. Porter. “As we sailed through the Northwest Passage, I completed my work from the smaller zodiac-like boat during stops in Pond Inlet, Bellot Srait and Cambridge Bay.”

Mapping efforts

The last nautical chart production for the Northwest Passage is dated 1957.

Heading into the expedition, Ms. Porter knew that drastic changes to the seafloor were possible since that time — something that was validated during her surveying.

“As a student, I was so fortunate to have been trusted with such an incredible project,” said Ms. Porter.

“To take a system, get familiar with it and its software, take it to the North and to survey areas that are unknown, with no charts, was an incredible experience.”

Important data

During the expedition, Ms. Porter collected a unique data set which she hopes will be published eventually.

“I hope the information I’ve gathered will someday benefit any kind of boating activity happening in the North. Not many have had the opportunity to transverse the Northwest Passage and collect the kind of information gathered during this survey.”

On a personal level, the experience has helped her with a different type of navigation — the one that leads to her future career path.

“I love the ocean and I really enjoy discovering the unknown underneath.” — Sarah Porter

She’s interested in putting her skills to work in areas newly available for boating activity.

“I love the ocean and I really enjoy discovering the unknown underneath. I think it’s crucial to know what our sea floor is all about.”

Northern exposure

Outside of the mapping work, the work term experience taught her some valuable lessons about working in Northern environments.

“Working in the North can be very difficult due to limited resources, including communication,” said Ms. Porter. “It is also important that you are well prepared for any situation and ensure that you have extras of everything.”

During her time in the North, Sarah enjoyed some close encounters with local wildlife.
During her time in the North, Sarah enjoyed some close encounters with local wildlife.
Photo: Submitted

She was also impressed with her summer office space.

“I saw polar bears, walrus, seals, a variety of birds and a narwhal, which really made for an interesting summer work experience. I also got to learn about the Inuit culture and meet a number of locals who were friendly and welcoming and very helpful with our project.”

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