The link between what’s happening on board and the rest of the world

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8 September 2014

”The correspondent aboard Tara is “the person who makes the connection between what’s happening on the boat, and the rest of the world.”

Correspondents are the ones who relay information, write the logs, and make videos and photos for the Tara website during the various expeditions. Ten of them have taken turns as correspondent aboard since the beginning of the Tara adventure. They work at sea and during stopovers, a camera always at hand, then disappear for long hours into the “PC com” (their office) to write articles, compress photos, edit videos, and sometimes struggle with computer problems. Tara’s correspondents all have different profiles. Yann Chavance is one of the lucky few. A science writer, he is appreciated for his writing skills and his ability to make even the most difficult scientific information accessible to everybody. The young man covered Tara Oceans in 2011 and 2012, and then Tara Oceans Polar Circle in 2013, for a total of 6 months on board. At each embarkment he feels real emotion when, arriving in a foreign city and looking for the schooner, he glimpses the orange tips of Tara’s masts. In late August, before leaving the boat in Malta and turning the job over to me, Yann agreed to answer some questions about his role.

Can you explain what the role of Tara correspondent is?

He’s the person who makes the connection between what happens on board and the rest of the world. Tara’s scientific expeditions involve the media since the schooner’s goal is to raise public awareness about issues of environmental protection. So, it’s important to have someone on board to relay information. The correspondent is there to explain the science, show what’s being done on the boat, and introduce the threats confronting different ecosystems. His role is also to disseminate scientific information. But it’s not just the scientific side. Tara is also about life on board: certain complex scientific information can be explained by using the human side of the adventure, which provides an escape from the somewhat abstract image of researchers in their laboratories. And there’s also everything you don’t see – exchanging emails with the communication team in Paris, responding to requests from sponsors, welcoming journalists on board. All this is in addition to the work that’s the same for everybody aboard Tara: doing household chores, participating in night shifts, and giving a helping hand when maneuvering the boat.

The public often wonders how one is selected to voyage aboard the schooner. What is your background?

In fact, the story is simple. In 2011, during the Tara Oceans expedition, the communications team based in Paris was looking for a new correspondent. They published an ad, which I answered, and my application was accepted. It’s a position that requires a particular profile because you have to master 3 media: writing, photography and video. Of course, each correspondent has his or her strong points: some are journalists who do video, others have photographic skills. Personally, I’m a science journalist on land, and this profile wasn’t yet included among the group of correspondents, that is, someone specialized in writing about scientific subjects. When I’m not aboard Tara, I’m a freelance journalist. I write articles specifically focused on animal biology, the environment and ecosystems.

What are the difficulties inherent to the position of correspondent?

The people who follow Tara’s expeditions often say, “How amazing to live such extraordinary adventures, on the other side of the world.” This is true, but when we’re on board, a certain routine can set in. In the middle of the ocean, scientific manipulations take place every day, and are repeated over and over. For me, it’s sometimes difficult to find new things to write about. That might sound silly. Since I’m seeing the same thing every day, the challenge is to step back and say “This is actually something out of the ordinary for the public, and it deserves to be talked about.” It’s a great job, but it’s not a pleasure cruise, and the work pace is difficult. It’s an exciting job, and totally absorbing! Another challenge is to juggle the 3 media. When something happens on deck, you have to think very quickly which of the media will be used to relay information: Should I make a video? You end up with the video camera in one hand, and the still camera around your neck. You have to be responsive and stay very alert. The final difficulty for a correspondent on board is being alone on the job. You have to follow various protocols for mailing, and for compressing videos and photos. I use about 10 different software programs, and run 3 computers. I spend a lot of time on the computer! The correspondent aboard Tara must be very autonomous and make sure that everything works.

Tara Mediterranean is your 4th expedition. What’s your best “journalistic” memory from a voyage?

One of my best memories of Tara was arriving in Panama. I was on watch, there were lots of boats on the horizon, and I was on the bow, in the middle of a plankton bloom. It was a concentration of bioluminescent plankton that rises to the surface at night and lights up green whenever there is movement. I had already had the chance to see this once before, but each time it’s a magical moment. I saw 2 dolphins enter the bioluminescent mass and remain right under Tara’s bow. In the dark I couldn’t see the dolphins, but their contours became iridescent in contact with the plankton. I remember thinking, “I have to talk about this, it’s so magnificent, it needs to be explained.” It was probably one of the most difficult papers to write, because I had to transcribe the emotions I experienced while watching this spectacle. Finally, transcribing an interview or facts is relatively easy. But conveying an emotion, a moment experienced intensely, something out of the ordinary like this plankton bloom – this is the essence of journalism.

Do you want to come back on board to cover the next expedition?

Of course! The next expedition seems very different from the previous ones. Aboard Tara Mediterranean we have seen and experienced absolutely superb things, and it’s a wonderful expedition, but we are all already thinking about the next adventure.

Interview by Noélie Pansiot

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