Interview with Etienne Bourgois, president of Tara Expeditions

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28 March 2013

After Tara’s long stopover in Paris, and before the next Arctic adventure, Etienne Bourgois gives us the latest news about Tara Expeditions.

The schooner Tara was in Paris for 4 months this winter. What are your conclusions?

It’s always magical to see Tara at the foot of Pont Alexandre III with the Eiffel Tower in the background. I was especially pleased to present to the general public our exhibition which clearly explains the two previous expeditions, Tara Arctic and Tara Oceans. I also think it’s  very important to welcome young people on board. Almost 5,000 school children came on Tara’s deck and asked questions as diverse as “Why and how does a boat float? “or “Why is it important to discover plankton?”.

During the evenings of screenings and discussions, the many questions raised by the general public added a new perspective to the exhibition.

Finally, I was very honored to receive such personalities as the late Stéphane Hessel, Jasmine and Philippe Starck, Nicolas Hulot, Yann Arthus Bertrand, Elsa and Jean-Louis Etienne. We also welcomed three government ministers, two ambassadors, the President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, and many scientists with whom we collaborated.

I have only one regret — that we underestimated Nature, and were blocked for 15 days by the flooding of the Seine not being able to pass under the bridges. We were really looking forward to sailing in the Mediterranean, but we had to cancel due to lack of time.  Stopovers in Toulon, Marseille, Nice and Monaco will certainly happen sometime in the future. Tara is in Bordeaux for the “Week of Sustainable Development” until April 7th, with a program including the exhibition, projections, and tours for the general public and schools. 

What are the preparations for the upcoming Tara Arctic expedition? What will be the mission of Tara Oceans Polar Circle ?
After the tropics and the high seas during Tara Oceans, we’re returning to the Arctic and I am delighted! This will be the completion of the Tara Oceans Expedition on marine plankton, with highly sophisticated equipment on board, and the experience we have gained with laboratories and institutes involved for several years. 

We will also carry out studies on plastic in the Arctic, and therefore try to provide answers to questions about the pollution occuring in these remote areas.

It is very important to conduct these studies in the current context of major changes in this region. In fact, after the sad record of 2007, the melting of the Arctic ice pack in the summer of 2012 surpassed any of the last few thousand years.

We will also use our local presence to mobilize the political and economic world, and inform the public of the most pressing environmental challenges in the Arctic, as well as issues faced by the 5,000,000 people populating the Arctic Circle. At the same time, the first part of the IPCC report on climate science will be published in September.

Is the budget finalized for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle ?

An important partner finally withdrew because of the major economic crisis that we are experiencing. Today we lack 25% of the total budget, and we’re trying hard to find other sources to fill this lack. If we do not succeed, we will have to drastically reduce the program, which I would enormously regret.

I would like to thank the partners who are with us today despite the difficult economic context — Lorient Agglomeration, the Foundation Albert II of Monaco and of course agnes b.

The environment is an even more serious crisis in the medium and long term. This is why it’s very important for me to lead a program like Tara Expeditions.

Will you embark on the Tara Arctic expedition?

I’m thinking of spending 8-10 days on board for the Northwest Passage. The boat is, however, basically ‘requisitioned’ by the scientists.

How is the boat specifically prepared for this mission?

Tara is in very good condition thanks to the hard work of the crew, captain Loïc Valette, Jean Collet (former captain of Antarctica) who are helping prepare the boat for the Arctic, along with the companies in Lorient with whom we work. Tara is constantly being improved. More specifically we recently completely overhauled the engine cooling systems, the electrical system,, and the dry lab has been totally renovated for science. It was also necessary to provide heating in the wet lab, due to the freezing temperatures we’ll encounter in the Arctic. We removed the rigging while in Paris, tanks were cleaned, a rudder changed, and drop-keels and anchorage were revised.

Has the crew been finalized?

Romain Troublé and Philippe Clais have assembled a full crew, good sailors and polar experts. Loïc Valletta and Samuel Audrain, who participated in the Tara Arctic expedition, will take turns as captain.

When is the scheduled departure?

The weekend of May 18-20 from Lorient. We had a big party a year ago for the return of Tara Oceans. This time, we’re counting on all of Lorient’s spontaneity to accompany us at the beginning of this new adventure.

How is Tara Oceans coming along? What’s happening in the laboratories?

Last week I attended the launch of the OCEANOMICS project. It won first place in the government program “Investments for the Future.” OCEANOMICS will help structure a database from thousands of planktonic samples collected during the Tara Oceans expedition. I’m more and more amazed by the extent of the results and discoveries that lie ahead.

Tara Oceans has collected an immense treasure. Gaby Gorsky, one of the main scientific coordinators of Tara Oceans, said “It takes madness to undertake such projects.” The whole Tara Oceans team was sufficiently “crazy and determined” to carry out this extraordinary expedition.

What motivates me about the OCEANOMICS program is the basic research towards understanding and discovering the ocean, where each day a little more unfolds.

Tara Expeditions news is happening increasingly on land. You are co-organizing a conference on the High Seas at the Economic, Social and Environmental Council on April 11th.

France has a very important responsibility in issues concerning the oceans. We are the second country in the world in terms of the size of our ocean jurisdiction.

The High Seas is a free space but should not be one of lawlessness. In 2013, and at the very latest in 2014, the UN must re-examine the question of the High Seas. This issue is extremely important, which is why we wanted Tara Expeditions to be involved. 

Where are you finding the energy for your commitment?

Each person involved in our expeditions, with his resources and expertise, is committed to a  better world. Dealing with environmental issues today prevents humanitarian risks and conflicts of tomorrow.

I feel that this preoccupation is far from that of the generation of 15-30 year olds. I would like Tara to make her mark, by encouraging them to mobilize and take control of their destiny.