Schooner crew investigates climate for documentary

Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002

The 168-foot, 394-ton, three-masted steel schooner Sedna IV tasted Little Norway hospitality this past weekend as it stopped in Petersburg for fuel, a local "ladies night," and a day of nosing up to the face of LeConte Glacier.

The Sedna IV is completing a six-month, 10,000 mile journey to document the effects of climate changes on the Arctic. Their journey planning began in Montreal. Sailing began July 8, from their home port of Cap-aux-Meules in the Magdalen Islands, south of Newfoundland in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. From the Atlantic coast the boat followed the east coast of Canada through the Northwest Passage of the Arctic Ocean, and is currently traveling through the Inside Passage to Vancouver, British Columbia.

On board is mission chief Jean Lemire, one of five filmmakers shooting footage for separate documentaries about the effects of global warming.

"Now we can relax," Lemire said of the hectic schedule the boat undertook. "Normally when you do the Northwest Passage it takes two years, two seasons really...because the window to get through the ice is really small, but we wanted to do it in one season so we pushed a little bit."

The five-hour documentary series will help explain how the Arctic is changing due to climate using visiting research teams in the field and local natives. The five parts are on science, the journey through the Northwest Passage, the effects of global warming on the wildlife of the Arctic, effects on the Inuit people and other Natives, and a general overview of the changes affecting the whole planet.

"We just hope people will understand that it is just one planet," said Lemire. "For example we will follow the village of Shishmaref in the Chukchi Sea, where they have problems with the sea level rising...and we'll follow a small atoll near New Zealand called Tokelau, completely at the opposite end of the world but experiencing the same problem. We'll try to make a conclusion by looking all around the planet."

One of the highlights of the trip was fighting through the ice in Bellot Strait. The boat were stuck in the ice for seven days and, if it hadn't got through, it would have had to wait another season. At some points Sedna IV was surrounded by 7/10th to 9/10th sea ice, which means that 70 percent to 90 percent of the surface water was frozen over. The vessel can only sail if ice fields are 3/10th or less.

"One day it was looking really bad with seven tons of ice," said Lemire. "This is not an ice breaker, we have to take care of it. We decided to use the tide that was moving the ice to get past and it worked. That was really a strong moment."

Because it was a heavy ice year, wildlife was abundant, including polar bear, seal, walrus, and narwhal. The crew conferred with Natives at Point Barrow concerning the rise of sea level and melting permafrost and how the change has affected their whaling. The uncommon appearance of a sperm whale in Hudson Strait was also noted. As for weather, the Bering Strait featured flat calm waters while some of the roughest seas encountered were from Dutch Harbor to Prince William Sound.

"It's always hard to arrive with an answer clear," said Lemire in accented English. "One thing which is fascinating ... in the eastern Arctic it is even colder than it was, in the western Arctic it's much warmer. When you're traveling in the field it is real obvious with the amount of icebergs."

Lemire cites natural factors as well as manmade in the climate changes.

"What should we do? Just wait and try to find the answer or start to take care, really, on our planet? It is a good and long debate."

Lemire noted that his talks with the Inuit peoples have coincided with some of the areas experiencing the most climatic changes in the Arctic, such as the Hudson Bay area, the Siberian side of the Arctic, and the Chukchi Sea. The permafrost in these areas is melting.

Lemire attended universities in Quebec and France. He is a biologist, a self-proclaimed "whale lover" whose research in Hawaii included diving with the large mammals. Lemire started driving a Zodiac for film crews working with scientists and the power of film soon captivated his own ambitions. His film, "Encounters with Whales," about the whales in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, became a field guide and was broadcast in 25 countries. Lemire recently purchased the Sedna IV with five friends who also are on the crew.

"We sold everything," said Lemire. "Houses, furniture, everything ... and here we are. It's crazy a little bit, but it worked. We transformed it to a platform for filming."

The Sedna IV has a 500-horsepower diesel engine and 3000 square feet of sail. She has two editing rooms on board, three high-density cameras and a satellite system. Of the 15 people on board, five are crew - skipper, engineer, cook and two sailors. Six work in film and diving, and three handle the Internet. Their site is

"That is something we didn't expect so big," enthused Lemire. "We have thousands and thousands of people following us ... every day we send pictures and information." Ship doctor Isabelle Deslandes doubles as a deck hand. Skipper Sylvain Brault as a cinematographer. Lemire has his hand in everything.

"They call that the 'chief of the mission,' laughs Lemire. "It is an idea I had years ago, to have a platform like this ... a boat like this. I wrote the script, direct the film. It is called Mission Arctic."

Mission Arctic will be broadcast in Canada on CBC; with French broadcasts on Tele-Quebec, in France and on all local stations; and in the United States on PBS or Discovery.

Lemire will head to Antarctica in a month to further investigate the water temperature there, which is at least a degree warmer then normal. Then he will join the Sedna IV in Hawaii and head to Baja, Calif., the Galapagos, Costa Rica, Belize, and back to home port in the spring. Lemire's project "Requiem in Blue," a seven-part biblical creation set to music (artists Sting and Peter Gabriel are collaborating) will be made from some of this travel footage.

"The only thing missing is a million or two," Lemire quipped.

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