31 August 2017
On Wednesday, August 30 at 7am local time, Tara arrived at Heron Island. This green island surrounded by shades of blue, 2 hours off the Australian east coast, appears to be a paradise on earth. A hundred people live permanently on this islet of barely 16 hectares. Among them, a dozen work at the Heron Island Research Station*. For the Taranauts, Heron Island marks the restart of the study on reef ecosystems, with sampling of corals, fish, sea water and air. The Tara Pacific expedition, has just entered its second year and will continue to collect massive amounts of data.
Tara arrives at Heron Island (photographed with a drone). © François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions
Day was just breaking and the team on Tara’s deck was already busy. Simon Rigal, our captain, and Jonathan Lancelot on his quarter watch, were there. François Aurat was preparing his drone, unaware that a few minutes later, he would take amazing footage of a humpback whale and her calf.
The low-angled sun was diffusing a soft orange light. Heron Island was slowly appearing on the horizon, an oasis in the middle of nowhere.
Sunset on the way to Heron Island. © Vincent Hilaire / Fondation Tara Expéditions
Keeping an eye on the schooner’s progression over the last miles, Simon was already thinking about the best anchoring place to allow our scientific divers to be as close as possible to Tara during their underwater work.
That’s when François, who had taken refuge in the wet lab** to operate his drone in the shade, called out: “Look, Vincent, look!”. On the screen, a whale and her calf were basking in the pass between Heron Island and Wistari Reef, slapping every now and then the calm water surface with their caudal fins. A gentle wake-up for this probably recent tandem. Heron Island is known to be a nursery appreciated by these marine mammals, who come here to give birth.
A humpback whale and her calf in the channel between Heron Island and Wistari Reef. © François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions
With Tara at anchor and sails lowered, there was no respite on deck. Supervised by Jonathan Lancelot, divemaster, our scientific divers, Christian Voolstra (KAUST), Claudia Pogoreutz (KAUST), Benjamin C.C. Hume (KAUST) and Ryan McMinds (Oregon State University) prepared their diving gear for the first exploration around the reef.
This afternoon, the 4 scientists are in the water to sample biodiversity at 2 different depths, looking for characteristic species.
A little further away, Jonathan Lancelot is coring a Porites. Just like trees record changes in their growth environment, these massive corals record in their skeleton, variations in sea water properties through time. Therefore, they enable us to study and understand how climate changes impact coastal and marine ecosystems.
The first coral samples from this second year of the Tara Pacific expedition. © Vincent Hilaire / Fondation Tara Expéditions
Heron Island exhibits exceptional biodiversity with 900 species of fish and about 72% of the coral species present across the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike half of the Australian barrier reef, strongly affected by the third episode of global coral bleaching that just ended, Heron Island seems to have withstood this situation according to the scientists from the research station. The corals here have remained healthy so far.
* University of Queensland
** a sheltered structure on deck for sea water analysis