Imagine yourself immersed in a snow globe. Not a happy winter scene, but rather a black-flaked London in the 1800s during the soot-filled industrial revolution. This occurs when you scuba dive and settle into the bottom of a highly productive lake.
Water fascinates me. Perhaps not so much its composition, but what it can hold, foretell and create. Water holds an almost mythological attraction for Canadians. What lies beneath the waters surface provides the greatest research opportunity. And potential for misadventure.
The desire to explore beneath the water’s surface led to my obtaining a scuba diving certificate. Carrying a thin walled aluminum tank containing 3000 psi of compressed air provides great opportunity for hijinks. I took most of my lessons at West Hawk Lake where a meteor impact created the deepest lake in Manitoba. Within its 377 foot depth, one can find old style beer bottles, cans and other bits of litter. Visualize diving in a large well.
I majored in marine biology at the University of Victoria and spent five field seasons working with the Freshwater Institute located on the University of Manitoba Campus. My favorite season involved diving in Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area. These people at the ELA did the initial work on impact of phosphorous on algae growth. These people also pointed out the irony of my having a degree in Marine Biology and my not being able to get any further from any coast line.
The ELA scientists wanted to track the phosphorous cycle in a natural environment. As team diver, I arranged for the project implementation. My task involved inserting a number of plastic bottom sample collectors into the sediment of this poor lake subtly numbered 227. Probably one of the more researched lakes in Canada based on size. This meant there could all types of research projects hidden away in the murky depths of the lake.
Breaking all safety protocols, I dove alone while one of the research scientists in the aluminum Lund above me watched my progress. All of the added nutrients increased the lake’s productivity and reduced visibility to about 2 feet. I swam to the bottom of this 35 foot deep lake and settled into the flocculent. Normally, when you get to the bottom of a lake, you stop there. But in this lake, I manage to sink another half foot into the muck. Technically flocculent muck.
I experience not a serene surrendering to the muck, but a sense of mild panic as I sink even further. Any movement raises more flocculent and reduces visibility. Using a flashlight becomes pointless as the light merely reflects back on all of the floating material in front of my face mask.
Regardless, I press on and press a plastic sampler into the muck. A string and float attached to the sampler allows us to collect it by boat later. Unfortunately, all of the samplers come with a 34 foot 6 inch string. Just ever so short of the 35 feet I needed. This prevents me from inserting the sampler, so the boat followed the coke bottle float to where I found 34 foot 6 inch deep water. Eventually, I plunge all of the samplers into the sediment.
Earlier, the science team arranged for delivery of a substantial amount of radioactive phosphorous. Not surprisingly, Canadian customs did not care for this small box marked RADIOACTIVE arriving at their centre. Every known warning covered the triangle shaped loaf of bread sized box. Everything else seemed superfluous. They had me at radioactive.
When the little box of radioactivity finally arrives, the head scientist dons his hazmat suit. Not something from Chernobyl or even the Andromeda Strain, but rather sheets of clear plastic held together with duct tape. He intends to break the glass vial containing the radioactive phosphorus into a plastic tub with a clever mechanism at the end of a long pipe. This clever mechanism, too clever by far, does not work and he resorts to using the rod to smash the vial in the tub along with some of the lake water. He drives around the lake while a pump sprays the liquid along the surface. Wave and wind action will do the balance of distribution.
The other research scientist and I intend to shield ourselves in the lead lined room. Of course, if intentions were horses, we would all gallop away. Instead, we both cower behind a boulder. Mostly Canadian shield granite. Little way in lead content, I suspect. We watch the distribution process since no horses appear to cart us away.
By the next day, no mutant crayfish appear. My next task involves retrieving water samples from the center of the lake. Our little Lund rests on the shore. The funny thing about this nutrient filled lake would be the amount of algae attached to the logs acting as a submerged dock. Stepping on the dock, I immediately slip and fall into the water. Only one leg. Mid thigh, thank you very much. None of my three children express any mutant superpowers. Except in their ability to boomerang home.
The team remains calm. They calmly express my need to sprint to the nearest non-radioactive lake and wash off. Any algae there would be happy to absorb any excess phosphorous. Even radioactive phosphorous. I carry out this additional task with a bit more zeal and urgency and swish around in the nearby lake.
Ultimately, the experiment provides greater insight into the phosphorous cycle. Canada’s lake form part of our heritage, so we should be doing all that we can to protect them. Although research scientists appear to be lab-coated people in spectacles, most of them have extensive field experience collecting data. My data collection experience taught me I would make an excellent lawyer protecting Canada’s heritage from the safety of the shore.