The « date line » off Wrangel


10 September 2013

Yesterday the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition crossed the famous “date line” as our English friends call it. This official but imaginary line is essential for us to live together on this planet with a single unit for measuring time, no matter where we are. Everyone knows that days are 24 hours long, but when we cross over the line, the day starts over again. Magic !

Today is also yesterday and yesterday we said that tomorrow would be today! Sounds like the beginning of a sketch from the late Raymond Devos. Until now I knew the expression “word counts double” in Scrabble, but not the “day counts double”.

On Monday at precisely midnight, Tara time, we changed time zones. Where we were at UT*+12, or ten hours ahead of Paris time, we went to UT-11 or eleven hours after Paris time. This miracle — a line making us go back in time –  was crossed in an instant. When the GPS arrived at 180° East, it suddenly began to count the minutes in the other direction: 179° 59′ West, 179° 58′ West…

In a split second we were in the west and were starting a new Monday. Many have dreamt about someday going west in this way, but to repeat a Monday – well, that’s debatable.
This is also how Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s famous hero, succeeded in finishing his voyage “Around the World in 80 Days”, by crossing over this date line, thus adding up the days that ensured his success, and winning his crazy bet.

This time marvel, the fruit of man’s genius, is just a few miles from Wrangel Island ** which separates the East Siberian Sea from the Chukchi Sea. Immersed in a thick fog, we never saw this jewel of biodiversity, classed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004. Wrangel Island is the place where the last woolly mammoths survived, and has the highest level of biodiversity in the northern Arctic. 100,000 walruses from the Pacific also gather there.

In fact we are only 600 kilometers from the giant Pacific Ocean, the biggest of all, and also only a few miles from the Bering Strait. At the time of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, early humans migrating from Asia passed here, also from east to west (like us) but on foot, because the sea level was low enough. This is where Tara is sailing today.

Last Sunday, the new scientific team sampled Russian waters for the last time, but no one knows when and where the next station will take place on this leg of the expedition, ending in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada.
There’s lots of ice here at summer’s end in this region of the Arctic, and we must not lose sight of the Northwest Passage, or risk getting blocked in its white trap.

Vincent Hilaire

· * UT: Universal Time
· ** Book on Wrangel Island: Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven. published by Paulsen