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One on One: Diving Deep with Oceanographer Louis Fortier

The ecologist talks winter cod, icebreakers and narwhal pods.

Louis Fortier

Hometown and Home Base Quebec City

Claim to Fame Officer of the Order of Canada; lead of ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada that studies the Arctic; and professor/researcher in oceanography at Université Laval

Current Project Establishing an Arctic research institute in Canada

Travel Essentials “I travel light but I’d feel naked if anything happened to my MacBook Air.”

Next Trip Winnipeg for the ArcticNet general assembly


What drew you to oceanography?
To my mother’s horror, I spent winters on the ice at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, when I was a kid. I was fascinated by winter cod. Now I study a very similar fish – Arctic cod – on the Amundsen, our research icebreaker ship.

How much time do you spend aboard the ship?
I try to go for at least one 42-day rotation a year; it’s how I escape the dreariness of academia. Last year, I got on at Kugluktuk, Nunavut, on Coronation Gulf. There is a team of 40  researchers and 38  crew members who work on the icebreaker. As head of the mission, I orchestrate this scientific symphony that pulls an astounding amount of information from the ocean, ice and atmosphere.

What role does travel play in your work?
I travel mostly to cold places like St. Petersburg, Russia, Sapporo, Japan and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories to conduct research and attend meetings and conferences. I never get to wear Hawaiian shirts.

What’s the coldest environment you’ve been in?
James Bay in the winter. A colleague and I had to spend two nights there to sample the sediment load in the estuarine waters in the middle of February. We recorded -52ºC and that was without the wind chill!

What is one of your most memorable travel experiences?
On a helicopter trip above the Greenland Sea, I saw a pod of about 150 narwhals swimming below. The pilot tipped the helicopter on its side, so I had a bird’s-eye view when I was pressed against the glass door; it was crazy.

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