16 December 2016
It’s been 5 weeks since Maren Ziegler embarked from Papeete as Tara’s head scientist. In Wallis, we had a chance to take stock of this past leg of the expedition: TARA has been exploring and sampling around the islands of Aitutaki, Niue, and Samoa, and just reached the archipelago of Wallis and Futuna.
Maren Ziegler off the coast of Moorea © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
After 5 weeks of sailing between Tahiti and Wallis, what’s your report on the sites you have studied?
The mission protocol is very well established: At every site, we find the same species and follow the identical daily procedures done throughout the whole Tara Pacific expedition. The work is sometimes very difficult since weather conditions are not always good around the islands. We started at Moorea on fairly well-known coral-rich sites, but when we got to Aitutatki in the Cook Islands, we were very disappointed. We discovered that most of the reef was dead, and we had a lot of trouble finding sampling sites. Niue had been devastated by the tsunami in 2009, but we were surprised to find a lot of diversity, good coral coverage and damaged areas that are in the process of rebuilding. The encounter with sea serpents during our dives will remain a lasting memory.
But we were very depressed at our stations in Samoa because we explored 83 km of coastline and it was difficult to find good coral reef sites. The species we are studying had mostly disappeared. It’s a very isolated area, not well-known, and the islanders do not have many resources to access and monitor the coasts. I didn’t expect such a situation.
Site scouting on the coast of Niue © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
How can the islanders change this situation?
I think it depends on individual cases. In Samoa we observed some sites where the coral seems to be recovering, and we are preparing a report to send to the local authorities. This could push them to protect these fragile areas by controlling fishing and human impact which has affected the water quality in this lagoon. Many things can be done locally, but on a much broader scale, these islands can do nothing in the face of increased cyclones, unless their voices are heard internationally.
What challenges have you faced in your position as head scientist on board?
It could have been a real challenge, but everyone worked together towards the same goal. The beginning was tricky because the scientists didn’t know what to expect and weren’t totally prepared, but in the end we managed to adjust, and it was a pleasure to work with the whole scientific team on board.
© Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
You are currently working in Saudi Arabia. What are the differences between the coral reef situation in the Red Sea and the Pacific?
The Red Sea has long been considered an area that is highly resistant to climatic changes. But last year we had a sharp increase in surface temperature, sometimes over 34° C, and we observed an important bleaching phenomenon in the southern part of the Red Sea. The reefs were fully impacted, even very far from the coasts and human influence.
What is the next step for you regarding Tara?
I would love to come back on board and I hope there will still be a place for me on this expedition (laughs). I am very curious about all these Pacific islands and next year Tara will pass through Papua New Guinea and Indonesia — all of these places will hopefully be fantastic.
Interview by Pierre de Parscau
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