The last station


25 March 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012 was a real milestone. In the Atlantic Ocean, 300 nautical miles from the Spanish coast, the Tara Oceans Expedition ended. This was the 153rd and last station of an extraordinary adventure: Two-and-a-half years of collecting marine organisms in oceans all over the world.
“It’s a real success, the fruit of hard work,” said Eric Karsenti, scientific director of Tara Oceans, visibly elated, even though he’s anxious to know the results of these efforts, i.e. what all these samples will tell us. And it will take lots of patience from the researchers, and at least the same tenacity shown by the two oceanographic engineers, Sarah Searson and Marc Picheral, who launched the rosette 674 times during this period.
They constantly took turns on this expedition, crossing oceans and making stopovers, innumerable flights from distant countries, to find their way back onto Tara’s deck. Long-distance maritime runners!
Sarah Searson herself has spent 19 months aboard! Respect! Chief scientist of this leg, and a scientific coordinator of the expedition, Quebecois biologist Stéphane Pesant also says he’s “very, very satisfied” especially with this leg. The idea was to repeat station number 152 in the same body of water, but after the passage of a gale.
The gale occurred, for just the right length of time, and allowed Stéphane’s team to do another sampling of the body of water and its tiny occupants. Before analyzing these new samples, he’s already certain,“There are changes associated with the passing of a wind of 40 knots.”
The types of zooplankton sampled before and after the gale are not the same. It’s clear there was mixing linked with the wind.”
For two days we experienced this mixing first-hand. Under sail, Tara crisscrossed the sampling zone several times, preventing many of us from sleeping. In some valleys between two liquid mountains, our berths were more like trampolines!
For Loïc Vallette, our captain,“With this weather, we could have sailed with a tail wind directly to La Coruña. Instead of that, we tacked back into the 40 knot wind — not very seamanship-like, but we had to do it, and we succeeded!”
The following day, after a sunset and sunrise with amazing colours, our last station began under the best conditions. From the first light at dawn, the air was mild, the sea much calmer, with only gentle swells. All the better, for this would be a very long day.
At a pace worthy of a marathon, the scientific team, helped by the sailors manning the winch, managed over 22 immersions lasting until 11:12pm. At which time the last net, the WPII with a 200 micron mesh was brought up. It wasn’t a great catch — on the contrary. But Stéphane and Eric were smiling. As Marc Picheral said a few minutes earlier, his face drawn, “all good things must end.”
The smiles of Stéphane and Eric seemed to echo this sentence. A new marathon had ended and the entire expedition too.
With this sense of accomplishment, and before taking a well-deserved rest, the whole team raised a glass to this success, thinking about the rest of the team scattered across the globe.
On Monday, March 26, a symbolic last rosette will be launched at exactly the same spot where the first station took place, two-and-a-half years ago. The circle is complete.
Succeeding in this important new mission, 4 years after that of the Arctic, required a lot of money and the adventurous spirit of Etienne Bourgois, President of Tara Expeditions, who supported the idea, Eric Karsenti’s rather crazy dream, of exploring the world’s oceans in Darwin’s footsteps. Success depended on an international team: 250 passionate people, committed and available, from different horizons and very diverse professional backgrounds. And while the work is completed for some, for others it’s continuing, and in a way just beginning!
So as Fridjoff Nansen and his team shouted, after the first Arctic drift in human history, “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!” Tara has just accomplished another feat: Since leaving Lorient in September 2009 we traveled 60,000 nautical miles to learn more about the world’s oceans. But aren’t plankton worth that effort? Plankton or us? Without plankton, human beings might already have stopped breathing!
Vincent Hilaire