A Day on Clipperton – almost.

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9 December 2011

The entire crew was waiting impatiently to spend a day on Clipperton, this tiny island lost in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. A mixture of excitement, but also apprehension: would we be able to set foot on this legendary island? Would the sea allow us this chance? Find the answer in the following account of a very unusual day.

It’s 6 am, Wednesday December 7th. Surprisingly everyone is already on deck, looking very tired. Not even taking time for breakfast, a small group is on Tara’s fore deck, gazing at the ocean bathed in early morning light. Gradually a slight shadow appears far away on the horizon line. We see nothing more until the sun finally emerges from the night, a deep red suddenly illuminating the cloudy sky. Like a sign, a solitary opening in the clouds on the horizon gives us a glimpse of Clipperton.

Armed with our cameras, everyone begins to distinguish through their zoom lens the sandy beach, the rocks, the first palm trees. Excitement is on all faces, and this feeling of living a privileged moment, a very unusual sunrise. As the day breaks, Tara approaches the atoll. The first seabirds begin to circle the boat and quickly become a horde, sometimes hovering at arms’ length. At 7 am, we finally reach Clipperton.

The boat begins to circle the island at a certain distance in order to find a place where we might pass through the barrier of coral. We sail by coconut groves, a few shipwrecks on the beach, the famous Clipperton rock, and a monument bearing the French flag. When we come back to our starting point, there appears to be a small opening in the waves crashing on the reef, so we launch the dinghy with François and Alain aboard for a reconnaissance tour. From Tara’s deck, all eyes are fixed on the little boat, which from afar looks like it’s struggling against the elements.When they return, the news isn’t good. “Landing here would be very risky.”

Loïc replaces Alain on the dinghy, and heads toward the reef to make his own decision. Not even ten minutes later they’re back, and the captain is categorical: the heavy surf makes this passage too dangerous for 15 people to disembark. Also, the tide is going out, making the manœuvre more perilous with every passing minute. As a consolation prize, Daniel and François take turns ferrying small groups of people closer to the island. Just a few dozen meters away, the beach seems so close, so accessible; but the din of waves crashing on the reef reminds us that we’re not willing to risk the challenge of this island. The wind chases away the clouds, revealing a gorgeous blue sky. Tara anchors a hundred meters from the beach so we can spend a few hours within view of Clipperton.

Once anchored, some people take out the fishing rods, while others prefer masks and snorkels. Beneath Tara’s hull fish are abundant in water so transparent we can see huge coral formations 15 meters below. Some small sharks with black spots approach the swimmers.

A few hours in this spectacular setting give us all a good rest, but still, we’re very disappointed. Not able to feel solid ground underfoot, to taste a coconut on the beach, to walk among the boobies (seabirds of the Sulidae family) or even bring back a tangible souvenir from Clipperton. It’s a cruel disappointment, especially as Tara hoists her sails and glides away from this long-awaited island stopover, while we all return to our daily routine. We’ll spend another 2 weeks at sea doing science, until we reach Panama. The legendary atoll will keep its mystery; the strong attraction we felt these past days will remain intact. As the Clipperton rock disappears on the horizon in the boat’s wake, a group of dolphins perform their acrobatics in front of Tara’s nose – a good-bye ballet.

Yann Chavance