13 September 2017
On Monday, September 11 at 8:30 local, Tara’s motors were turned off. Sailing the 500 nautical miles (more than 900 km) from the Great Barrier Reef had been very challenging: On this easterly route, we were constantly heading into the wind. Once the schooner was well anchored in the sandy bottom (to a depth of 10 meters!), the team of scientists was already equipped and didn’t waste a moment before jumping into the water. In this uninhabited French archipelago located 550 kilometers north-west of New Caledonia, 3 spots must be explored by Friday.
The view of Reynard Island at daybreak was a pleasure and a relief, bringing hope of a little calm. For the last 4 days none of us had really slept a full night, not counting the night watch. “That looks like Clipperton”, said deck-officer Francois Aurat, whose birthday we just celebrated. A cloud of birds — gannets, and frigates — was flying over this green clump rising from the Pacific Ocean. The anemometer showed the wind was still strong, at 20 knots (37 km/h).
Discovery of Reynard Island, in the Chesterfield Islands lagoon. © Vincent Hilaire / Fondation Tara Expéditions
We made a first attempt to anchor near this island, but our cautious captain Simon Rigal kept Tara’s 2 engines at a standstill. The reef around the island didn’t protect us sufficiently: the schooner rolled from side to side, preventing us from launching the diving boats.
So, the anchor was raised and we headed further south to another part of the immense Chesterfield reef. This archipelago — 120 km long by 70 km wide — is composed of 11 islands separated by numerous barriers of coral.
From the Coral Sea to Chesterfield
This group of islands owes its name to the ship of an English captain, Matthew Boyd, who explored the Coral Sea in the 1790s, and nearly sank here on June 2, 1793. Afterwards, ships sailing in the region were primarily whalers. The archipelago became French on June 15, 1878, when it was taken over by Lieutenant Louis Adolphe Guyon. At this time, the primary goal was exploiting the abundant guano. Then the islands were apparently abandoned, until Captain Arzur in the French warship Dumont d’Urville explored the Chesterfield reefs and erected a plaque here in 1939.
Sunrise on Reynard Island. © Vincent Hilaire / Fondation Tara Expéditions
Practically unknown French islands
The Chesterfield reefs are now part of New Caledonia, and since 2014, are included in the Marine Park of the Coral Sea, the largest French Marine Protected Area.
The Chesterfield lagoon covers an area of about 3,500 km2. A barrier of coral encircles the lagoon, interrupted by wide passes, except on the east side. Most of the lagoon is exposed to trade winds and ocean swells from the southeast. Average water depth is 51 m.
© François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions
Isolated and totally uninhabited, the Chesterfield Islands are renowned for offering exceptional underwater biodiversity. Throughout the year, many green turtles come here to lay their eggs. Sharks are as numerous here as outside the barrier reef, and the waters can be several hundred meters deep.
Since this morning, Tara Pacific’s scientific team has continued its mission, sampling coral in these rich, turquoise waters.