Even mermaids? Scientists seek new Arctic marine life
Documentary might be fake, but search for new species is real
SPECIAL TO NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Do mermaids live in Arctic waters?
If you happened to have watched a fake documentary entitled Mermaids: The New Evidence on the American television cable show Animal Planet last May, you would have seen one.
A team of researchers in a submersible descend into the dark ocean depths off the northeast coast of Greenland.
Flecks of matter float eerily in front of the craft’s headlights and there is a spooky high-pitched howling sound.
Suddenly, a ghoulish greenish creature reaches a webbed hand out from the dark and smacks the ship. It is the half-human, half-fish mythological being known as a mermaid.
The researchers were surveying an area that was to be developed for oil — and discovery of the mermaid halts the drilling plans.
The story is shocking, but a message at the end of the television episode reveals the incident never happened.
Animal Planet created the fake documentary to draw ratings, and perhaps spark some fun dialogue on the topic of mermaids.
Yet the television program brings up a very real point.
As climate change continues to alter the northern oceans and Arctic oil and gas exploration takes researchers deeper and further than they have ever been before the question arises, just what type of species do live at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, and how might the changes now occurring in the Arctic affect them?
“What we are concerned about as biologists is a tipping point,” said Rolf Gradinger, a biological oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“You change the Arctic system we have now to a completely new one and you don’t know what the new players are, and that process might be irreversible. Over the next decade you could lose some of the truly Arctic species.”
In 2005, Gradinger joined scientists from Canada, Russia and China on the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Healy to search for new organisms in a vast swath of Arctic Ocean known as the Canadian Basin.
Researchers used underwater robots to capture samples of marine organisms in waters more than three kilometres deep.
They discovered several new species of marine worms and a previously unknown type of jellyfish, with a cone-shaped orange body.
“There are wonderful discoveries still to be made,” said Gradinger. “Even if we know the species we don’t know their life cycles, and all the adaptations that enable them to live in the Arctic.”
But what are the possibilities of a mermaid being one of those discoveries?
“I think the likelihood is really rare,” said Gradinger, “and the reason why is there have been humans living in Arctic areas for thousands of years. These people rely heavily on the ocean, whether it be the harvest of whales, fish or birds, so if there was something like a mermaid I am sure they would have seen that.”
“The people of the Arctic have a very good oral history of passing knowledge from one generation to the next,” added Gradinger.
“If mermaids did exist in the Arctic Ocean they would have been sighted and reported through oral history records.”
Of course, just such a being does exist in the oral history records of Arctic peoples, in the form of Sedna, the goddess of all marine animals.
There are many versions to the legend of Sedna, and they vary from Russia through Nunavut and Alaska.
One well-known among Baffin Inuit tells of a woman who refuses to marry the man her parents chose for her and is later thrown out of a kayak by her father during a storm.
She clings to the side but her father chops off her fingers. From each finger joint a different sea creature is born, and the woman sinks to the bottom of the ocean where she becomes Sedna, goddess of all the animals of the sea.
“Often in the artwork, Sedna is depicted as a mermaid-like figure with a whale’s tail or a fishes tail,” said Brian Lunger, manager of the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, “but in a lot of the stories she was just a woman under the sea. She didn’t have the tail of the fish or whale.”
Lunger says that it was not until European whalers arrived in the Arctic during the 1800s, bringing with them stories of sirens and mermaids that Sedna began to take on the form of a mermaid.
“I think the two stories kind of got mixed together,” said Lunger. “I’m not sure but that’s my guess.”
Inuit lore describes several other human-like sea creatures, including the Qalupalik, an underwater creature known to snatch children from the edge of ice flows, and Taleelayu, a spirit that is part human and part whale.
“Still, every once in a while you hear of people out on the water seeing things and they think it is Taleelayu or Sedna,” Lunger said.
“There are sightings of unusual things people can’t explain and they attribute it to being one of these creatures.
“But I don’t think scientists believe in these kind of mythological creatures or sea monsters until they actually have got one in their lab. Scientists tend to be pretty fixed on scientific fact you know.”
But as researchers like Gradinger know, the boundaries of science change with every new discovery.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada have recently conducted deep-water fish surveys in the Beaufort Sea, Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. “One of the species encountered around 1000 meters depth appears to be new to science,” said DFO Arctic ecologist Jim Reist.
The creature, a long eel-like fish that lives on the seafloor might not be a mermaid, but it is something.
“We have sent the specimens to the world’s expert on this group of fishes at the Danish Natural History Museum in Copenhagen,” Reist said, “and are awaiting a reply.”