ECOPOLARIS, GREENLAND | Tara, a schooner for the planet


© P.Tournaire/Tara Expéditions


Northeast Greenland in summer 2004. A child is playing on Tara’s deck. What is he doing there? Maybe he’s even more interested than the adults in the surrounding spectacle. One thing is certain: when Etienne Bourgois took charge of the boat, he was thinking of children, and the state of the world we will leave them.

“In 2 months we gathered more data about the seabirds of northeast Greenland than all of the expeditions working in this area for two centuries,” says engineer-ecologist Olivier Gilg,  Ecopolaris leader and head of “GREA” (Arctic Ecology Research Group). “This is more than we hoped for, thanks to Tara’s logistics.”

GREA researchers wanted to explore the coasts of northeast Greenland, between Amassalik and Kilen (81st parallel North). The aim was twofold: to cover some gaps in our knowledge of terrestrial and marine Arctic ecosystems, and acquire necessary data for analysis and prediction of the impact of global warming. Despite the decrease in pack-ice that opened up some parts of the northern coast of the Arctic Circle, access remained extremely difficult.

Ecopolaris was Tara’s very first mission, during the summer of 2004. The boat brought French, Danish and Greenlandic researchers to explore and study more than 1,500 km of coastline between 68° and 81° 15′N, less than 1,000 km from the geographic North Pole. “Although he’s not a naturalist, Etienne Bourgois understood immediately that his boat could facilitate access to the data needed to evaluate changes in Arctic ecosystems,” says Olivier.

Specialists studying mammals, toxicologists, ornithologists and botanists: twelve scientists on board for a job they will never forget. Usually their expeditions are quite difficult and less successful. Up to eight people are transported by air, they live in tents for weeks and waste a lot of time traveling to the specific places where they do scientific experiments. They record data, take samples, go from site to site on foot or in a dinghy.

With Tara, they slalomed around ice-floes and were able to come very close to the coast, thus arriving at their field of study comfortably, without effort or concern. This was such a rare opportunity that they didn’t get much sleep on board, taking advantage of the constant daylight to work on shore. Olivier, chief scientist and his wife Brigitte Sabard, responsible for Ecopolaris logistics were accompanied by their 20-month old son, Vladimir.  Some team members were also former companions of Sir Peter Blake and Jean-Louis Etienne, so were well-acquainted with the boat.

With these excellent conditions, Tara led the team to unexplored regions of the largest natural park in the world, twice as big as France.

“Some areas had never been mapped, or just barely,” says Celine Ferrier, the young captain. “I was on the alert at all times.” Used to navigating on trawlers in the North Sea, Celine Ferrier was perfectly able to accommodate the needs of scientists. “On fishing vessels much larger than Tara, I was scared when I saw ice. With this boat, from the first contact with ice, I felt  there would be no problem. It reminds me of a tug boat. Even without speed, it generates enormous power, so we can do whatever we want.” The Ecopolaris scientists were able to penetrate some unexplored regions on Greenland’s northeastern coast, and advance their research in a single trip.

The list of experiments is long: 55 seabird colonies visited, 53 bird species and 32 mammal species observed, 304 plants of 26 species sampled, numerous feather and egg shells collected, and blood and muscle samples taken ​​by toxicologists to assess the levels of heavy metals circulating in the food chain. In addition, geological surveys were made, and some unknown Paleo-eskimo sites were discovered. Even before making a complete analysis of this immense data, it seems clear that global warming has already impacted the Arctic. We had never seen, for example, sea gulls nesting in the region, and their presence now threatens other species, some of which have already left their colonies. The lunar Bryophyte, a primitive fern, is now found nearly 100 km north of its known habitat, and two varieties of plants were found that were previously unknown. Walruses lying on the mainland are much more numerous than before, due to the lack of off-shore ice.

“North-East Greenland is certainly one of the least known regions of the world,” says Olivier Gilg in his scientific report. “Our study program was very ambitious, but we were very successful and we owe everything to Tara. Without the boat and the generosity of its owner, this work would have been impossible!”

Written by Frances Franco – excerpt from the book “Tara, a sailboat for the Planet” published by Guérin, 2005