A few years ago, Grace MacIntyre skipped her graduation ceremony from Dalhousie University to hop on a Finnish icebreaker. An oil and gas company needed to meet a deadline on background environmental baseline data before it could begin exploration work. The company was willing to pay an immense amount of money to have samples taken from the sea floor off Greenland’s west coast.
MacIntyre, a newly minted marine biologist, saw a world alive below a frozen wasteland of ice.
She also saw a series of harbours on Greenland’s coast equipped with wharves and airports.
That’s a big deal, because that’s what Canada doesn’t have. There is nowhere in the Canadian Arctic for a ship to tie to a wharf and get fuel and supplies.
“When we head north, our last stop is Nain (Labrador) and then that’s it. We need to be able to operate on what we carry from there,” said MacIntyre, who grew up with Arctic exploration.
Her family owns Superport Marine Services Ltd. and operates Canada’s largest private research and survey fleet working in the Arctic.
Their yard and wharves in Port Hawkesbury are home to three research vessels, two pilot boats, two tugs and three work boats.
“We are the gatherers of fact,” said
As global warming opens up the North to industry, tourism and science, her family sees opportunity for Atlantic Canada.
“It’s a wild west,” Les MacIntyre said of the Arctic.
The founder of Superport Marine Services skipped his own graduation from Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law in 1975 to hop aboard a boat in Puerto Rico.
As third mate aboard Columbia University’s three-masted research schooner RV Vema, Les MacIntyre plied the waters of Panama, Japan, Indonesia, Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean for three years.
“That vessel logged 1.5 million miles and it’ll never be topped because you’re not allowed to run a slave ship anymore,” he joked.
Its scientists also did some groundbreaking work on the theory of plate tectonics.
The opportunity the MacIntyre clan sees in the North is for private industry to fill in where government capacity falls short. The Canadian Coast Guard’s aging fleet of icebreakers, built through the 1970s and ’80s, are taxed with search and rescue, keeping the shipping routes open and breaking free the many that get stuck.
Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the Arctic seabed hasn’t been charted and there are huge holes in our knowledge of the intricate web of life below those cold waters.
“It’s teeming with life,” said Grace.
“You can’t measure the impacts industry has on the environment unless you have those baseline studies. That’s important information to have, and you can’t have it without the capacity to be there and do the research.”
After working for Superport Marine as a diver around Cape Breton, Les bought the company in 1988 when it was “little more than a letterhead.”
He bought boats and got marine service contracts with the industries along the Strait of Canso, and carried workers to the platforms on the fixed-link project to Prince Edward Island.
When he wanted a long-range tug and wasn’t satisfied with the hull design from the marine engineers, MacIntyre spent an evening with a glass of whisky and a chunk of wood and carved a halfmodel the way generations of Cape Breton boat builders had before.
His workers built the Strait Raven on-site in Port Hawkesbury.
MacIntyre, his wife Sue, and three children added scientific research to their services in 2003 when they bought MacGregor Geoscience in Bedford.
Two years later they landed their first Arctic contract, charting the bottom of Foxe Basin for Baffinland Iron Mines. The company was seeking a new route for its ore carriers, requiring 21 metres of water to safely get to a loading station on Baffin Island.
The Strait Signet spent four of the Arctic’s short navigable seasons charting two routes through the Foxe Basin with its multibeam sonar. Superport Marine has since added the Strait Hunter and the Strait Explorer, which can work in half-metre-thick unconsolidated ice, to its research fleet.
And it’s teamed up with universities to develop technologies that will allow them to listen on the sea floor for everything from tectonic activity to passing ships and whales.
They’re poised to take advantage of the great changes underway in our North.
But Les MacIntyre, who between the RV Vema and the U.S. Navy Research Vessel Robert Conrad has manned the helm of expeditions all around the world, won’t be captaining their trips north.
“I’m an office ball and chain now,” he said. “You can’t do both.”