Final hours in Greenland

Mesters Vig, Monday, August 6.

8am – The Tara-Ecopolaris mission is coming to an end.  All hands on deck now. No time to hang about, we have to empty the boat’s holds and load half a ton of equipment into the two zodiac dinghies. Food, gas cans, batteries… All the equipment that GREA (Arctic Ecology Research Group) will need for the next three years of ornithological missions will be carefully stored here. The sailors are busy offloading the canisters that have adorned the deck since the schooner departed from Lorient.

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

9:30am – Four crew members, already on land, wait on the dusty runway of this Danish military base for the plane that shuttles between Greenland and Iceland. The small plane will first make a stop at Constable Pynt before dropping off this group of Taranauts in Reykjavík. Among them are Christophe Cousin and Fitzgérald Jégo, the Thalassa film crew who’ve been following the mission for the last 15 days. We’re already missing their sense of humor. The scientist Gabriel Gorsky, nicknamed ‘Gaby’ and Romain Troublé, secretary general, are also leaving the boat. Gaby never finds it easy disembarking from Tara. The director of the Observatory of Villefranche-sur-Mer admits that he feels sad each time he leaves Tara.

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

3pm – On land, Olivier Gilg and Brigitte Sabard receive a helping hand from Kim Hansen, the military commander of the base. He has generously put a 4by4 at their disposal, enabling them to transfer their equipment from the port to a cabin which will serve as a depot. We have to clear everything away now and leave nothing to chance before departing. On board, the messroom has become a shelter as the warming sun’s rays shine through the protective bubble-like windows, and a delicious smell of chocolate emanates from the kitchen. Dominique ‘Do’, our wiz of a cook, is busy making dinner. On the menu tonight: bagel with salmon, cabbage & grapefruit salad, and chocolate birthday cake decorated with raspberries.

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

4pm – In the rear hold, Daniel Cron the chief engineer is busy at work: he has to change a cooling pump before departing tomorrow. The young man is patient and persistent: he’s been working on this part for several hours. The sound of his voice reaches us in the messroom, “Who’s the boss?” Intrigued by the commotion, we peer through the doorway leading to the workshop below, where a grinning Daniel can be heard exclaiming, “That’s what I like about this job – it requires a certain attention to detail!”

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

7pm – Everybody on the team is present; it’s time to relax now. Tomorrow the GREA members will conduct their last sampling day on this 2015 campaign. It’s already time to leave Greenland. A new crossing to Iceland awaits the Taranauts, and the maps are indicating a difficult passage through sheets of ice.

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

Noëlie Pansiot

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“Sky, Birds and Sea”

Author and documentary filmmaker, Christophe Cousin is primarily a storyteller. Camera in hand, he came aboard Tara 2 weeks ago. His next film, co-produced by Tara Expeditions and Via Découvertes, conceived for the TV program Thalassa, will recount the Tara-Ecopolaris mission.

Christophe has long been one of the “New Explorers” on Canal+, showing us the life of nomads around the world. “Traveling led me to photography,” he says, “at a time when I wanted to turn my back on a society that didn’t suit me, that was encouraging me to go around the world by bicycle.  After that  experience I wanted to prolong the encounter.”

©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

What did you know about Tara before boarding?

What vision of Tara did I have? A boat for scientific expeditions whose vocation is to highlight the future of the oceans and their marine ecosystems. I had no notion of the human dimension, and that’s what I was looking for.  Try to put into perspective the connections there may be between scientists  researching  plankton and the sailors who are on the boat all the time and make it move forward.

You’ve been filming the Taranauts for 2 weeks now. What will be the subject of your next documentary?

Last year while I was finishing a film, the production company with which I work, Via Découvertes, offered me a project – a continuation of the previous film. The producers wanted to make a documentary showing the role of the oceans in the climate system.

I must admit that initially the subject was unfamiliar to me. But after exploring it a bit, I felt this was a clear challenge. I’m part of the generation who were told that the “lung” of the planet is the Amazon, which is not necessarily wrong. But it’s not the only lung. Just 6 months ago I learned that the oceans play a role too, and my new awareness made me want to get involved in this project. I’m not a scientist, and I’m the first to be surprised by the subject, but I want to take up the challenge, popularize these ideas, and ensure that viewers fall in love with the Ocean, and with life. This deserves a story!

Everything began at a meeting between Romain Troublé (secretary general of Tara Expeditions) and the production company. We were reflecting on ways to express the relationship uniting “man, sky and  sea.”

Can you tell us something about “Once upon a time the Arctic”, your previous documentary?

I had this film in mind for several years. I wanted to tour the Arctic region, describe the geopolitical issues, but without interviewing politicians or economists, just speaking to the people living there or  traversing the area. The film incorporates 4 stories that echo one another: 150 Chinese millionaires go to the North Pole on the largest nuclear icebreaker in the world; Inuit men go hunting on the sea ice for their survival; Canadian soldiers deploy their force in the northernmost areas of the country; and finally, Nenets in Russia see their transhumance evolving to the rhythm of gas and oil pipelines. The film questions and challenges without judging. Describing the interdependence of ocean and climate  comes as a logical continuation of our goal – to make films that have an impact and real meaning.

N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

I’m aware that it will be difficult to reach a wide audience because ecology sometimes seems far removed from everyday problems. At the same time, the opportunity was too good not to take. The way I want to make this film different from the others by maintaining the human dimension. Science is one thing, but we must not forget that in the midst of all this are humans – their presence on Earth, and their impact. Humans are part of the whole, yet we tend to set them apart. I just returned from making a film in Malaysia with the Badjaus Laut (sea nomads). There’s a lot of talk about marine protected areas as a potential for recreating a dynamic biodiversity, except that people are left out of all this. The Laut Badjaus living from the sea can no longer go to their traditional fishing areas. And here we’re not talking about intensive fishing, we’re talking about a few families who need food.

What are you looking for through these encounters?

In every journey and encounter, in every population we meet and each issue raised, there’s a portion of everyone’s history. Let’s try to understand why we are here, what we’re doing here, where we’re going.  Finally what interests me in this multitude and in their differences is the universality of emotions.

How do you see your work in view of the upcoming climate conference next December?

The climate conference belongs to the people with power in this world, but I think we should all be concerned everyday by the notion of climate. Let’s worry about what we’re doing to the planet, and not just during a special meeting. If the fact that important people come together and manage to change things, so much the better.  But I think that the solution, if one day there is one, will depend on the masses, on large numbers of people rather than an elite.

This is why I think it’s important to communicate about climate, or at least to talk about climate by telling human stories. Because it’s thanks to these stories that we feel concerned, and we will eventually act.

Interview by Noëlie Pansiot

 

Stay alert

A short call was enough to bring all the Taranauts out on deck. We were preparing for landing when Sylvie Duboué, President of Friends of Tara, gave the signal: “Polar bear in sight!” Everybody rushed outside with binoculars to see the famous animal. A week ago we were hoping to see a bear on a patch of ice. But here they are roaming peacefully in the very area we want to explore on foot. After some questioning glances thrown at the boat, the animal finally took off, or at least disappeared from our field of vision, leaving some doubt about his presence. This bear was unfortunately too far away to be captured by our cameras – a pinhead lost in the middle of the tundra. None of our photos proved conclusive.

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Tara, lost in the landcape. ©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

After some consideration, the zodiac was finally launched and landed on the pebble beach at Ymers Island. Equipped with a rifle and flares to ensure the crew’s safety, we had to be vigilant and decided not to explore a canyon with glowing colors. The captain’s instructions were clear: stay together, scan the horizon with binoculars, and carefully choose your route to avoid finding yourself nose to nose with a bear hidden in a valley.

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Dominique Limbour (cook) and Mathieu Voluer (deck officer) check the horizon to avoid an encounter with a polar bear. ©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

As for GREA researchers Olivier Gilg and Brigitte Sabard, they took a much steeper path to reach the foot of a cliff, in search of a nest of gyrfalcons. They have been exploring this territory for nearly 25 years, accompanied by their son Vladimir. Sometimes they bring along a tent and camp out for several days. Brigitte recalls: “When Vladimir was 13 months old, I carried him on my back. At age 4 he was already climbing the cliff alone. Now 12 years old, this is his 13th Arctic mission.” The youngest of the Taranauts shows great maturity and a surprising analytical sense. “These animals are really beautiful to see, majestic, and they inspire respect. We observed 3 young falcons, then the adults came to feed them.”

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Gyrfalcon. ©N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

Eleven years after their first expedition with Tara, the GREA researchers continue their observations, returning to strategic locations day after day to take photos, count birds, and collect samples that will constitute an inventory of species. The schooner just headed out to sea again. It will take 17 hours of navigation to reach Myggbukta Bay further north. Brigitte and Olivier point out places on the map: “We’ll be passing many more beautiful landscapes, so stay alert.”

Noëlie Pansiot

Photos credits: Brigitte Sabard and Noëlie Pansiot

The Tara-Ecopolaris mission reconvenes at Scoresby Sund

It’s been 4 days since Tara left Iceland. The thick fog that envelopped the schonner has finally dispersed so we’re sailing at a good speed northwards, towards the largest fjord in the world: scoresby sund.

The Taranautes have all assembled on deck to enjoy the breathtaking landscape. So it’s not particularly easy for this onboard journalist, locked away in the computer room, to be writing this log. Computer on lap, with one eye on the keyboard and the other on the icebergs, the windows of this temporary office on the deck, overlook the stunning mountains of black rock mottled with white. The whole scene is perfectly reflected on the water…

Earlier, at lunch time, Tara made a stop in front of the basaltic cliffs of Cape Brewster, a much coveted object of desire for the two ecologists onboard. Armed with long zoom lenses screwed onto their cameras, the two researchers from GREA, Brigitte Sabard et Olivier Gilg, have been frantically ‘shooting’ one of the east coast’s largest colonies of sea birds. These photos will be assembled later, enabling us to count one by one the thick-billed murres and the black-legged kittiwakes. Olivier, half smiling, jokes about the work that awaits them when they return from this mission: “there’ll be some long winter nights in Burgundy…

Face au mur de glace

Faced with a wall of ice. ©N.Pansiot/TaraExpeditions.org

These researchers don’t seem to be scared easily by the endless days of work, as was demonstrated yesterday criss-crossing the frozen island of Dunholm for 13 hours in search of waterfowl. With a bag full of provisions on one shoulder and a rope perched on the other, they were on a mission to capture a dozen eider ducks – a species of sea duck – in order to take a series of samples and measurements. Huddled over their nests, the female eiders are perfectly camouflaged. Only a trained eye could distinguish these birds whose feathers blend into the rocky surroundings. Once spotted, the bird must be captured with a rope and this task doesn’t prove to be easy.

This is a new part of our scientific program” Olivier explains. “In 2004 we were happy to simply collect eider down to study pollutants. We’ve repeated that operation which will allow us to determine levels of contaminants, including mercury, but we’ve also conducted blood tests on a dozen birds. This is a first, and we quickly realized the difficulty of the task. These new samples will provide us with an additional way to measure the levels of not just mercury, but also hydrocarbons – pollutants which are likely to increase with the development of maritime traffic in the region. These contaminants are anthropogenic: pollution from  regions inhabited by humans is carried by wind and ocean currents. There is little or no source of pollution here. So by sampling locally, we can measure the circulation of pollutants around the planet.

Mathieu Voluer, deck officer, and Dominique Limbour, cook, watching a colony of thick-billed murres at Cape Brewster. ©N.Pansiot/TaraExpeditions.org

It’s 4pm already, and a few Taranautes have gathered in the large messroom, others are taking a break to recharge their batteries for the next night shift. The schooner is far from the coast and sailing at over 7 knots to reach a safe place. The captain studies the maps: “We’re heading north and it’s a bit of a gamble. A gale is expected during the night of July 29 to 30, so we have to get a move on if we want to cover 200 miles in 35 hours.

Noëlie Pansiot

 

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THE GATES TO GREENLAND SEEM TO HAVE OPENED

Tara repeats her attempt and for the second time sets North on course for Greenland. The schooner left the port of Akureyri yesterday hoping to find calm sea at the exit from the icelandic fjords.

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The sailboat is motor-sailing peacefully, so the stomachs of our recently-boarded crew have nothing to fear from this swell. Everyone takes their marks and gets on with their respective tasks. Among them is Gabriel Gorsky, director of the Oceanological Observatory of Villefranche-sur-Mer, who is working on deck, accompanying documentary filmmaker, Christophe Cousin. Gaby needs to be fitted with a lapel microphone as filming is about to begin.

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9:40, the cameras are shooting as our first Manta net is launched with help from the sailors. This scientific protocol is well established, a series of actions carried out with ease, repeated so many times before in previous missions. Beneath the bubble-like window that caps Tara, our wiz of a chef is already preparing a meal for 15 Taranautes.  The smell of those lovely little simmering vegetables reaches all the way to the communal computer room where captain Martin Hertau is checking his emails. A native of Saint-Malo, Brittany, the captain opens up the precious NASA satellite map and says, in an upbeat tone, to Olivier Gilg, researcher from GREA (Arctic Ecology Research Group): “Look at this, you’re going to like this! That confirms it, the movement of ice we were hoping for seems to have begun. Perhaps the gates will open in the next few days. We just have to keep our fingers crossed!” For Martin, it’s already time to go back up on deck to help raise the first Manta, as our 30 minutes of sampling time have elapsed.

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Still in front of the computer, Olivier continues his careful analysis of the maps: “We’re halfway between Iceland and Greenland. So we’re going to try and pass through the south of Scoresby Sund where there’s always a bit less ice. There are strong currents at this site which prevent ice from forming throughout the winter. Here the ice can be pushed away, and that’s what we want. On the other hand, depending on the wind, we could get trapped and be pushed towards the fjord. That’s what’s been happening over the last 10 days, forcing Tara to back-pedal. This time though, it seems like we have quite favorable winds. So for the next 3 or 4 days our passage might be completely open. We’re going to head for Brewster Cape, home to a large colony of birds that we’d like to count.

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Christophe Cousin and Fitzgerald Jego, head cameraman of the 110-minute documentary being made for France 3, are busy filming on deck with a handheld video camera. We need to capture some scenes of the net before arriving at the ice this evening at which point we won’t be able to use it.

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On the large outdoor worktable a small white drone equipped with a camera sits alongside precious samples teeming with microorganisms. The device is about to take off on its first tour to film a whale from overhead. Before that, we have to hoist the sails and show off the schooner in her best light. Tightrope-walking sailors enter the scene: our first-mate Mathieu Voluer steps along the boom to release the sail. Everyone is at their post. “Silence, camera, action!

Noëlie Pansiot

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THE FJORDS: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW

On the way to the east coast of Greenland, Tara’s crew must exercise patience and prudence. Brigitte Sabard and Olivier Gilg, two Greenland specialists, are waiting to complete their observations on this little known coast of the great white continent.

Sea ice has significantly reduced access to the Scoresbysund fjord for more than fifteen days, thus delaying the Tara-Ecopolaris mission, conducted in collaboration with the Research Group in Arctic Ecology (GREA). Looking at a map of Greenland, ornithologist Oliver Gilg explains how he plans to conduct his research.

“Since Tara’s expedition eleven years ago, no one has gone back to this place, located far from civilization, to see how its overall situation has evolved. This is the purpose of our mission. We will try to reach the south coast and sail along it to Cape Brewster, located at the southern entrance of the fjord. In theory, there should be less ice there, since it is somewhat protected from the northeast winds and since sea ice tends to drift straight down.”

“This is where the largest colonies of common eider live with more than 500 nests on some islands. Originally, we had intended to capture birds to take blood samples. However, we’re still planning to recover bird down from their empty nests for the first scientific phase of the Tara-Ecopolaris program, where work will focus on pollutants, mercury in particular. We intend to collect bird down from a dozen nests per colony, in five or six different colonies. We had already done this in 2004, so the comparison will be interesting.

“There is a large colony on Cape Brewster which includes black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres. Scoresbysund fjord is usually free of ice early in the season and the counting of this colony has been performed for almost a century. This will allow us to monitor trends. Thick-billed murres are decreasing in number, both on the east and west coasts. This is most likely due to hunting as Inuits consider this bird to be a delicacy. Conversely, the number of black-legged kittiwakes has significantly increased in Greenland. The more the sea ice melts, the greater the population grows. We also observed in 2004 some Atlantic puffins, a very rare species in this region. We are not certain that they nest on the east coast of Greenland. It would be interesting to find some nests or burrows.”

“Then, we would like to sail up the Scoresbysund fjord, where we had identified the presence of great and lesser black-backed gulls, two species that eleven years ago had just arrived in Greenland. The goal is to be able to confirm that the population has indeed established itself, and know if it has increased. Everything will depend on weather conditions since it takes a full sailing day to reach the far end of the fjord” (Editor’s note: Scoresbysund is one of the longest fjords in the world, with a length of nearly 300 km).

“Finally, we hope to sail further north along the coast in order to count the two other colonies of black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres. In other fjords, there are a lot of different species. There are several hundred arctic tern nests on the small islets, as well as dozens of glaucous gulls, the two most common species in the fjords. As there are no disturbances, no hunting or fishing, these population trends will be interesting to study. They will be compared with GREA data collected for more than 30 years. However, many scientific question marks remain. Going on a mission with Tara allows us to closely approach the shore, make our way through the ice and get ashore aboard a dinghy. This would be impossible otherwise. It will all depend on the ice cover.”

Interview by Dino Di Meo aboard Tara

 

In the Uummannaq fjord

Since late Friday afternoon, after crossing the Baffin Sea without incident, Taranautes are relishing the thousand wonders that make up the beauty of the Uummannaq fjord (Greenland).

In this fjord which opens on the west coast of this icy giant island, on Saturday the scientific team will carry out a long sampling station at the surface, and to a depth of 400 meters.

At the center of this landscape surrounded by high snowy mountains, lies the island of Uummannaq. Covering an area of 12 km2, it is dominated by a rocky peak 1,175 meters high and is named after its shape. Uummannaq means heart in Greenlandic.

This is another one of those places that make you love life and appreciate the chance to “be here”. This is what we wish for people we love who for some reason or other can not travel. A gift of nature which, besides the purely visual pleasure, nourishes your soul.

This is what the 14 aboard felt after traveling the first few miles. There are colors, sculptured icebergs, and snow-capped mountain chains, often with steep cliffs taking on reddish hues at dusk.

This Saturday morning after a good night spent drifting among the icebergs, the scientific team returned to the task in splendid sunshine. This fjord is full of diverse little treasures  which Lars Stemmann, chief scientist, intends to identify. To begin with, the mysterious “brines” * — these very cold surface waters from the previous winter which sink until they meet water of the same density.

Multiple rosette immersions have located them between 100 and 120 meters at temperatures of 0.8° C. The scientific interest is, of course, to find out which micro-organisms live in these “brines”. Are they a particular habitat for plankton? This is one of the main questions for sampling station no. 206.

We will remain at this scientific station in the fjord until tomorrow afternoon, a few miles from Uummannaq. Several hundred wooden houses of all colors are miraculously clinging to the rock. 1,400 Kalaallit** live here along with some Danish immigrants. It’s a paradise for dog sledding, and people say the best Greenland drivers are here in Uummannaq Bay.

At the base of this majestic bay also reigns the Qarajaq, one of the world’s fastest glaciers. It produces most of the icebergs that we’ve been admiring for the past 24 hours.

Vincent Hilaire

* Brines: Salt water with a higher concentration of salt.
** Kalaallit: Inuit inhabitants of Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat)

All Calm in Beaufort Sea

Tara and the 15 current crew members of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition just entered the smooth waters (with a slight swell) of Beaufort Sea. At the same time we left international waters and entered the exclusive economic maritime zone of the United States.

When Emmanuel Boss, chief scientist of the mission between Pevek (Russia) and Tuktoyaktuk (Canada) came into Tara’s main cabin with a smile even more radiant than usual, we knew he had received an email with good news. “We’re allowed to sample in U.S. waters because our business doesn’t generate any economic benefit!” For several days he’s been waiting impatiently for a response from Washington, to know if we’re permitted to take samples in this zone situated between 12 and 200 nautical miles* from the coast of Alaska.

Tara continues her journey East after yesterday’s long station in the ice, the fourth of its kind since the expedition began. Six members of the scientific team worked amidst the ice, under the distant gaze of some lascivious walruses. For a good part of the day we enjoyed generous sunshine that little by little de-iced the bridge. For the last time during this expedition, scientists explored the waters of the Chukchi Sea. Two sampling depths were on the program – the surface area, and the 40-meter zone at the DCM **, both at the edge of the ice.

The first samples revealed rich planktonic life, with lots of seaweed. Nichtia – very long, thin diatoms were coming up in great quantities in the collectors, and also those appropriately named creatures, the Sea Angels – angels that float gracefully in the liquid sky of this icy Arctic Ocean.

Our next scientific objective is to explore the waters of the Beaufort Sea and perhaps those of Barrow Canyon, located near the famous Point Barrow. The deeper layers of this “small” sea (450,000 km2) come from the North Atlantic, and are therefore particularly interesting for our scientists on land. This new one-day station should take place within 48 hours.

We are one step closer to the Northwest Passage, because the Beaufort Sea opens to the east on Amundsen Gulf which is the western entry to this labyrinth.

Vincent Hilaire

*From 22 to about 370 km.

** DCM (Deep chlorophyl maximum): Depth at which the level of chlorophyll is at a maximum.

Cut off from the World

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning when a strange ringing resounds in the wheelhouse. It’s the SSB, the single sideband radio sending a message to all ships. This message is not a warning: it’s labeled “not urgent.”

The call provides a good excuse to plunge into the GMDSS guidebook (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) and discover that Tara is currently sailing in zone A4, the most remote zone in the world in terms of communications.

Like Antarctica, the Arctic is a region where maritime information circulates the least. Aboard Tara, as on every ship, we have 2 systems of communication: one transmitted by radio frequencies and the other by satellite. This morning’s call proves that communication by SSB (single sideband modulation) is functioning well. According to the GMDSS guidebook, SSB is the only official instrument of reception and transmission accessible in the Arctic!

In other oceans, besides SSB, ships can use Navtex, Inmarsat and VHF. Like SSB, VHF is a radio, but its scope is limited to 50 nautical miles. Navtex can receive weather reports and navigation information. This data is transmitted by stations on land, but in the A4 zone there are no ground stations to perform this function. The Navtex data would certainly have been useful to us when passing through the Vilkitsky Strait. As for Inmarsat, its communication system is relayed by 4 geostationary satellites above the equator. The transmission of these satellites does not exceed 75 ° North and South, so it doesn’t cover the Arctic and Antarctic.

Given Tara’s current position, only SSB radio is functioning. This medium and high frequency radio can send distress messages throughout the world, to other ships and Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCC).

Currently in the East Siberian Sea, we are linked to the Russian coordination center of Petropavlovsk- Kamchatsky, located on the Pacific coast. Anyone on duty at an MRCC must be able to speak English. But how can a Russian and Frenchman with thick accents manage to understand each other over the radio, especially if the connection is poor and the situation is an emergency?

“At the merchant marine academy, you learn standard phrases for communication at sea. Recently I tried to remember the model phrases I had learned at school to enable communication with an icebreaker. In all merchant marine schools throughout the world, we learn the same expressions in order to avoid misunderstandings in emergency situations,” explains Loïc Vallette, Tara’s captain.

With each SSB communication, the position of the ship emitting the incoming call is indicated. There’s also a program that allows the boat in distress to quickly indicate the situation: a man overboard, a fire, a leak. So much for the short list of ‘official’ communication systems, those included in the international agreement signed in 1999, accessible to Tara in the Arctic. But fortunately we also have “Iridium” on board.

Thanks to Iridium, we can send and receive emails in this remote area of the world. In case of real need, we can also make phone calls, but the cost is prohibitive. Iridium is a system of communication by satellites that converges at the poles, so we have the best possible connection! “I’ve recorded onto the mobile Iridium phone the vital numbers such as the French MRCCs, the coordination center for medical aid at sea, etc. In case of need, at least we’re sure the connection will go through, no matter where we are,” says the captain. Without being superstitious, let’s knock on wood that Iridium remains just an excellent communication system for sending news from the Arctic to the people we love.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

A challenging station in the Laptev Sea

A change in the weather signaled the end of the latest sampling station aboard Tara. Within a couple of hours, the wind and the waves turned the Laptev Sea (Russia) into a vast battlefield, with drifting ice floes. Fortunately, the scientists had time to do all the planned sampling, and everyone did their best to succeed.

“For me, it was not only a struggle for each sample but also a victory!” recalls Margaux Carmichael, responsible for protist sampling and victim of seasickness. “It was very tough, especially on the second day when the sea was very rough. I’ll always remember my trips to the forward hold to stock my samples in the freezer and refrigerator. “Nevertheless, I am very pleased to have completed this station because it was one of the areas that interested us the most on this leg,” concludes Pascal Hingamp, chief scientist between Dudinka and Pevek (Russia).

Tara’s scientists carried out this sampling station in the Nansen Basin, a region of the Arctic with particularly deep waters, accessible by boat during the summer. The seabed is over 1200 meters below sea level. The rosette CTD was launched down to 1000 meters on the first day of sampling. On the second day, the research team focused efforts on sampling in the 300 meter mesopelagic layer. In the Nansen Basin at this depth, water masses originating in the Barents Sea and the Atlantic come together.

But at the end of the second morning, instrument immersions had to stop. “I ended up with my feet in the water because of the waves, and despite an anchor deployment we were drifting at more than 2 knots. It would have been risky to continue – for us and the instruments,”said Claudie Marec, the oceanographic engineer on board.

The scientists were proven correct in their weather assessment. In the early afternoon, winds exceeded 35 knots, and wave troughs more than 5 meters. Tossed by the waves, avoiding the dancing chunks of ice, we headed east, more specifically towards Pevek in the far northeast of Russia – the next stopover for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. Exhausted by the sampling station, chased into their bunks by seasickness, some of Tara’s teammates resembled the survivors from Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa.”

Unfortunately, nightfall gave us no respite. Kitchen utensils, workshop tools, picture frames in the corridor – everything was tuned to accompany the sad song of the creaking boat. Embarked against our will on a hellish rollercoaster ride, all of us, from the bottom of our bunks, hoped that the boat’s tossing would cease. But our request was not heard. No doubt it was drowned out by the engine noise. The next morning, in a still turbulent Laptev Sea, we had our breakfast. Rested demeanors and smiles failed to appear with the morning call.

But tomorrow is another day. Hopefully the Laptev Sea will be a bit kinder to us.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Tara’s situation on August 22

For a week Tara has been waiting to go through the Vilkinsky Strait (Russia) and pass Cape Chelyuskin – the northernmost point in Asia, and a strategic place in the Northeast passage.

This year the ice is particularly dense along a 400-mile strip in the Strait. So, for 7 days Tara has been positioned alongside other small ships near the ice block, in good weather conditions. An anticyclone has been dominating the region for a while.

At present, maps and satellite information show that the ice is melting in Vilkinsky Strait, but not fast enough for the schooner to pass through without the help of a Russian icebreaker and the expertise of its crew. The Yamal, which assists ships in the area, will be able to open the way for Tara as well as the other boats, sometime during the day tomorrow.

Roman Troublé, Secretary General of Tara Expeditions favors this solution, and is in constant communication with local contacts and Tara’s partners. “We are confident that the situation will evolve in a positive way in the next 24 hours,” he confided this afternoon.

The Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition is therefore a few days behind schedule. After the next 24 hours, part of the scientific program will probably be shortened in order to reach Pevek, our next stopover, on time, and continue the mission to Canada.

Time to wait

Since Sunday, Tara has been anchored at the entrance to the Vilkitsky Strait. We are waiting for the powerful Yamal, the Russian nuclear icebreaker that will enable us to pass through the white barrier.

For 3 days, activity on board has slowed down. Even the most active people are beginning to go around in circles. Like the lyrics of a broken record, the words “icebreaker” and “Vilkitsky Strait” get repeated all day long in conversations. Patience is the name of the game, so we’re biding our time, hoping to hoist the anchor soon and continue our scientific mission in the Laptev Sea.

“We just have to be patient; it’s part of the adventure. Above all, we must remain humble before nature.” This is the philosophy of Vincent Pennec, first mate. So, to pass the time, everybody is busy accomplishing the few tasks still left to do.

Claudie Marec and Simon Morisset, the 2 oceanographic engineers, have embarked on a comprehensive inventory of the measurements made so far on board. Pascal Hingamp and Margaux Carmichael have cleaned and polished Tara’s scientific equipment “like never before.” A manual activity to forget that science has been relegated to the background these past few days.

As for the sailors, they’re taking care of ship maintenance. We must be ready, ready to go, ready at any moment! On the bridge, we take turns watching out for threatening pieces of ice. Hunting ice cubes is one of the fun activities on board, and turns out to be much more productive than fishing! “There are very few fish in this area, and with ambient temperatures being what they are, we don’t spend hours outside just for the pleasure of fishing!” says François Aurat with a smile.

Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist on board, nevertheless persists every day in fishing, but a special kind of fishing –  for information. Starting at 8 o’clock in the morning, he moves heaven and earth to get fresh news from the “front.” Thanks to his scientific colleagues who are crisscrossing the region, he finds out about ice conditions, the movements of ships through the Vilkitsky Strait, and tries to figure out solutions. “I learned this morning that 2 research vessels are navigating near the strait. I will call them to ask for advice.”

At the table in the main cabin, oceanographer Diana Ruiz Pino is preparing a presentation for the next “science cafe” – a way for us to learn new things and diversify our evening activities. Despite these occupations, the hours seem long. Some people devour books, other slices of bread and butter. Some do sports, others take naps. We must be clever so that the very long days do not seem endless. We need to find ways for the close quarters to remain bearable.

Yesterday afternoon, everyone sat down together and watched a Thalassa program about Dudinka. In one of the sequences, a Russian research vessel’s crew was spending their fifth month imprisoned in the ice. We were almost ashamed to feel bored after only 3 days.

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Tara and the Northeast Passage

August 15th was the date Tara had planned to go through the Vilkinsky Strait (Russia) and pass the famous Cape Chelyuskin (point A on the map), northernmost point in Asia and strategic point of the Northeast Passage.

The strait is strategic because ice conditions here vary from year to year. This year the ice present along a 400-mile strip is particularly dense at this point, and Tara can not make the passage on her own. For 5 days Tara has been positioned near this “plug” of ice, waiting to see how the situation will evolve.

At present, a total melting of ice in the Vilkinsky Strait seems highly unlikely, and the schooner will not be able to pass through without the help of a Russian icebreaker with an experienced crew. The Yamal, already in this area, could eventually open the way for Tara as well as other vessels of similar size waiting in the zone.

So the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition will be a few days behind schedule, but as it looks now, this will not be a problem for the future. Part of the scientific program will probably be shortened in order to arrive on schedule at our next stopover, Pevek, and then continue the mission in Canada. Stay tuned for further news.

Patience is the primary quality of polar explorers.

Up against a wall of ice

The Vilkitsky Strait is blocked. For 4 days, the phrase resounds like a leitmotif aboard the schooner. And ice maps confirm the rumors. Tara will not be able to cross the Northeast Passage in the coming days. We have to be patient, enjoy the winds that make for great sailing, remain flexible, and constantly review the scientific program. Faced with this wall of ice, we are sailing into the unknown.

“The icebreaker asked the cargo ship it was supposed to accompany to wait another week.” According to the sources of Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist on board, even the biggest ships can not pass. In the Vilkitsky Strait – the passage between the Kara and Laptev Seas – blocks of ice are still 3 meters thick. Only a Russian nuclear icebreaker could make its way through in these conditions. But the ice is still so dense that behind the monster’s passage, the opening could easily close up again, paralyzing any other ship trying to follow behind it. “Man thinks he can control everything, but in the Arctic, nature shows us who is actually in control,” states Diana Ruiz Pino, a scientist aboard, experienced in polar oceanographic campaigns.

After the passage in 2011 of the oil tanker Vladimir Tikhonov – the largest ship ever to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific via the north, and the 26 other ships that followed the same year – the northern maritime route seemed a sure thing for the coming years. Reassured by the data on global warming, ship owners were already imagining how much money they could save. Rotterdam – Tokyo: 23,300 km via the Panama Canal, 21,100 by the Suez Canal, and only 14,100 km via the Northeast Passage! The balance sheet is clear: less fuel consumption, fewer taxes, and zero risk of falling into the hands of Gulf of Aden pirates.

It seems however that the Arctic has not said its last word. Cape Tchelyouskine is still surrounded by ice, so we’ll just have to be patient and wait – and maybe even enjoy the situation. The polar bears we’ve encountered may have gained a few more years of peace. The legendary Northeast Passage – the dream of so many explorers – has not yet become a maritime highway.

Swedish baron, Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld can be reassured. He was the first explorer to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Siberian coast in July 1879. Embarked upon the Vega in July 1878, Nordenskjöld and his crew spent 10 winter months among the Tchoukotes people before achieving their goal. It was not until 40 years later that Roald Amundsen, pioneer of the Northwest Passage, accomplished a second passage. And in 1935, the Soviet expedition led by Professor Otto Schmidt was the very first to go through the Northeast passage without spending the winter.

In view of past history, and confronted with a wall of ice, we realize that circumnavigating the Arctic Circle on a sailboat in just one summer is more than an epic. It’s a real feat!

Anna Deniaud Garcia

The Franz-Josef Archipelago

Land on the horizon. The archipelago has kept its promise. The scenery is majestic. Beneath a chilly sun, giant glaciers flow into the icy sea. Temperatures have dropped below zero and a biting wind reinforces the cold. Once again Tara slaloms between ice sculptures: here the Arctic’s most ambitious artworks are on display.

Huge icebergs, sometimes 5 meters high, float peacefully on the blue sea. The schooner cautiously but without hesitation continues her journey through the archipelago. At every nautical mile, the pearl of the Arctic reveals its wonders.

After skirting the towering ice cliffs of Nortbruk Island, Tara headed towards the legendary Cape Flora. Cape Flora is the starting point for expeditions to the North Pole, and the last resting place for a large number of polar explorers. It’s nearly midnight when a green mountain, the top veiled in mist, appears on the horizon.

On the rocky shore, we see some men. Equipped with theodolites,* they seem to be going around the island establishing new maps. In the distance we see their camp, but the Jackson house has disappeared from the landscape. Jackson was an English explorer who, in the late 19th century, spent several winters on Cape Flora. Wearing a stylish suit and high rubber boots, he even welcomed Nansen and Johannsen after their failed expedition to the North Pole.

We try to communicate with the men on land, but our broad gestures and radio calls are in vain. Ah, if only Jackson was here to greet us! After lingering to observe some guillemots* perched on an iceberg, we resume our journey towards the island of Alexandra. There, men, soldiers and park guards are expecting us.

Light rain and thick fog cover the land and glaciers surrounding us. Only a row of rusty storage tanks is visible on the dark coast. Tara will anchor for 48 hours in this inlet. We give a radio call to inform the authorities of our arrival. 20 minutes later, a military truck is waiting for us on the shore, headlights on to indicate its presence. It’s almost like in a war movie. Our small inflatable boat heads directly for the gunmen. Strange feeling, but these soldiers are actually our hosts for the day.

After introductions are made, we embark on a big military truck which turns into our tour bus. Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist aboard, translates the information provided by our guide, head of the nature reserve. First stop is the Nagurskaya base.

In these buildings, blue metal siding hides an artificial garden: fake grass, plastic trees, illuminated fountain and aquarium with exotic fish. There’s also a pool table, a babyfoot, a giant screen and games for children. Necessary entertainment to pass the time in winter, to forget the cold, and make up for the lack of sun. We take off again in the truck along a muddy track to discover the rest of the island. Despite the big cleanup efforts made since the creation of the park, carcasses of old military vehicles and rusty antennas still dominate this lunar landscape. But footprints of bears inform us that nature has not totally surrendered this place to man.

According to the guards, there are 2 mother bears and their young prowling around. So, whenever one of us plays the unruly tourist and leaves the group, a man with a gun follows close behind to ensure his safety. Just in case the bear should appear… as we hope. We continue our journey to Sergey’s old scientific base. A house in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a lake and the sea.

More than 20 years after his last mission, the researcher finds his old instruments, often abandoned outdoors. “With a small repair, this winch could function again!” says Sergey, enthusiastic and nostalgic at the same time. But already we must leave, and bump along the uneven terrain to find Tara. The sun has finally deigned to pierce the clouds, flooding glaciers and the schooner’s masts with light. The visit was brief, but actually our adventure is just beginning!

 

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia

*Theodolite: surveying instrument for measuring horizontal and vertical angles.

*Guillemots: seabirds.

Headed for Franz Josef Land

Leaving the Russian Yenisei River, Tara set sail for the archipelago of Franz Joseph, the Arctic islands located only 900 kilometers from the North Pole. Full sail on a glassy sea free of ice, the  schooner is heading towards the “jewel of the Arctic.” On Wednesday, land – or rather glaciers – should appear on the horizon and we will approach the group of islands some people call “Mini-Antarctica.”

“The archipelago of Franz Josef  is the jewel of the Arctic.” This is how Christian de Marliave, French polar explorer, described the place to Vincent Le Pennec, first mate, before the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition began. 191 islands, mostly covered by glaciers. A large, difficult-to-access region  where wildlife still abounds.  

We hope to meet polar bears, arctic foxes, walruses, Greenland seals (the bearded and harp species), and of course a multitude of birds – more than 40 species inhabit this region. If fauna and flora still flourish here, it’s probably because the Soviet Union appropriated this territory in the 1930s, and denied access to all other countries.

Over the years, 3 weather stations and 2 military bases were established.  In the 1980s, more than 50 people wintered on these islands. In summer, Russian scientists and explorers flocked here. It was still the golden age for research. For Sergey Pisarev, scientist aboard Tara, the Franz Josef archipelago served as home base during his Arctic drifts. For 10 years, Sergey – researcher in physical oceanography – criss-crossed the region on a snowmobile, including the Cambridge Passage where Tara will soon sail, located between Alexandra Land and Prince George Land.

Sergey also remembers having flown over a field littered with amazing stones. “From the helicopter, I saw stones shaped like balls, but they were partially covered with snow. A few years later, I saw a photo of Victor Boyarsky.* He was standing next to one of these stone balls that had a very regular shape. It must have been at least 3 meters high.” The origin of these natural stones still puzzles geologists today – a mystery that stirs up our curiosity and desire to discover the archipelago!  

The real discovery of this polar territory was in 1873, by the Austro-Hungarian expedition Tegetthoff, led by Julius Payer and Carl Weyprecht. In the following years, the archipelago became a vast domain for summer hunting. It was also a place of exploration and haven for many adventurers. Nansen, the famous Norwegian scientist who led an Arctic drift aboard the Fram, wintered in Franz Josef after his failed attempt to conquer the North Pole.

Today the island is still a place of passage for those wishing to venture to the North Pole. Two or three nuclear icebreakers bring over 300 visitors each year. But far from adventurers, these are privileged tourists willing to spend more than 25,000 dollars for 10 days in the Arctic, stopping over on the archipelago before being taken by helicopter to the Pole. Parallel to this development of limited tourism in the archipelago, the Russians created a natural park in 1994 – 42,000 km2 encompassing the islands and surrounding waters.

Now it only remains to erase all traces of past military activities, and educate new adventurers concerning the fragility of the polar ecosystem. The jewel of the Arctic must never stop shining, and we will do our part to assure this.

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia  

* Victor Boyarsky: Director, Museum of the Arctic in St. Petersburg, and traveling companion of Jean-Louis Etienne during his Antarctica expedition.  

Bibliography: Franz Josef Land by Susan Barr, Le grand défi des pôles (in French) by Bertrand Imbert and Claude Lorius, Practical Dictionary of Siberia and the North.

Getting ready to sail again

It wasn’t easy for people and luggage to reach Dudinka, Russia. Delays, an unexpected stop in Moscow – unforeseen incidents give charm to travel but complicate the changeover between 2 crews. In any case, on Thursday the scientific schooner will set out to sea again, headed for the Franz Joseph archipelago. On board, the new team is busy making final preparations before departure.

Some people are leaving, others coming aboard. It’s the usual routine for Tara’s stopovers, but we still can’t get used to it. With a twinge of sadness, we watch our 7 fellow travelers leave the ship at 5:30 am. Last night the temperature in Dudinka dropped, but even so, our goodbyes on the dock are very warm. Certain lucky people talk about seeing each other on board again; others promise to write. Suddenly, the boat seems very calm, even deserted. We take the opportunity to relax a little. Suddenly, laughter echoes in the main cabin – a familiar laugh. No doubt about it – “captain Vallette”* is back on board! Despite the vicissitudes of travel, the new team has finally arrived and our rest period is very short.

While some settle into their cabins and get their bearings on board, others take care of the supply of water, diesel fuel and food for the months of expedition to come. It’s amusing to observe our sailors trying to make themselves understood by the Russians they encounter. With the driver of the freshwater cistern truck, Yohann Mucherie, the chief engineer, opts for drawings. We need 2 water deliveries for July 31. In jest, we envision the arrival of 31 water trucks on July 2! As for Celine the cook, she seeks the help of Sergei, the Russian scientist aboard, to place an order at the corner supermarket. Dudinka gets its food supply via the river. Ships depart from Krasnoyarsk with their holds full, and sell their wares all along the Yenisei River. But no ship will arrive before our departure, so there will be no fresh eggs. We’ll just have to do without them. We’ve been so spoiled with fruits and vegetables, there’s no reason to complain. One thing is certain, we won’t get scurvy*!

In the front hold, amidst stocks of fresh produce, Claudie Marec and Simon Morisset, the 2 oceanographic engineers on board, try to fix the Flowcytobot (flow cytometer). This device, which enables us to photograph small zooplankton, is causing problems. It had already exhausted Marc Picheral the night before his departure. Now the machine continues to try the patience of both engineers. In the main cabin the atmosphere is studious. Scientists are studying the protocols and reports of previous sampling stations. We must get ready, because in 3 days, under the direction of Pascal Hingamp the new chief scientist, nets and rosette will go to work again.

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia

* Loic Vallette took over the helm from Samuel Audrain.

* scurvy: a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, which can lead to death. Many polar explorers were victims of this disease.

Peaceful Dudinka

After two days sailing up the Yenisey River, Tara docked in the harbor of Dudinka, Russia. Despite the early hour of our arrival, around 2 o’clock in the morning, the Russian authorities were there to greet us in their uniforms and military caps. The formalities went fast, and since Wednesday morning we’ve been strolling around the peaceful streets of the capital of the Taimyr region of northern Russia.

From the first moments in Dudinka, we felt the warmth and hospitality of the “people of the north.” Probably the best way to deal with the long and harsh winters. As soon as the schooner was docked, the captain of the pilot boat that had accompanied us the last nautical miles, invited us aboard his boat. A glass of vodka and a piece of raw fish were waiting for us. Our “Niet spassiba” were in vain: we had to honor the Russian custom.

A glass of the local alcohol encouraged me to bite into the fish – still bleeding. Lee followed without much enthusiasm. After the tasting, our polite smiles provoked the laughter of our hosts, and revealed the captain’s few gold teeth. An unusual experience that we’re happy to have lived! Then a girl appeared on the quay near Tara to present a gift to the crew –  a wolf’s head made of beads, surrounded by fur. The wolf came aboard, and was given a place of honor in the main cabin.

After a few hours of rest, we went exploring Dudinka. We visited the church of Svyato-Vvedenskaya, and walked around the inevitable statue of Lenin. Then we strolled along the wide avenues of the city, all overhung with steel pipes containing heating ducts that give an ugly appearance to the city. But  because of permafrost* there’s really no other option.

As if to compensate for this unattractive element, city planners and painters focus on the color of facades. Fuchsia pink, lemon yellow, olive green – the colors compete in brightness, only to fade away after a few years. To liven up the city, luminous plastic trees are planted in the middle of sidewalks. Dudinka must have a festive appearance during the winter, with a coat of snow added to the palette of colorful t-shirts and other fluorescent clothes worn by young women. But this is another story, or simply proof that fashion does not stop at the doors of Siberia.

We ventured between blocks of buildings, discovering at every corner a greengrocer, a children’s park or an old abandoned car that would delight collectors. But these are only appearances. Dudinka is secretive – you must dare to open doors to discover another world. Who could have imagined we would find a banya* in a run-down neighborhood? How could we guess there would be a cyber-cafe on the first floor of an apartment building? To open other doors we would have to know the language; this was the only obstacle in our Siberian immersion. And who knows if the Russian language would be sufficient, because Dudinka is also a crossroads of communities and cultures.

 

Anna Garcia Deniaud

* Niet Passiba: No thank you in Russian.

* Permafrost: layer of permanently frozen soil.

* Bania: Russian Sauna.

News of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition

Pursuing scientific and educational objectives, Tara is currently undertaking a 7-month, 25,000 km voyage across the Arctic via the Northeast and Northwest passages, The boat and its crew entered the heart of the Arctic this week. Scientific sampling is now in full swing at the edge of the ice pack. Daylight is constant, temperatures are negative, and polar animals have made their appearance.

79° 29.0′ N / 66° 10.8′ E

Since departure from Lorient on May 19th, the first part of the expedition has been very successful, with all sampling systems working smoothly, including the devices added since the last Tara Oceans expedition.

After leaving Brittany, Tara zigzagged voluntarily in the Atlantic Ocean, making short stopovers in Tromsø (Norway) and Murmansk (Russia). These past 2 months the weather has been incredibly mild. The team even had 30°C in Murmansk! These conditions have enabled us to accomplish about 20 short and long sampling stations of high quality.

Since the last stopover in Murmansk at the end of June, Tara has sailed straight northeast. In 24 hours of navigation, the team of 14 sailors and scientists currently on board went from Atlantic waters to polar waters, and therefore from summer to winter!

Earlier this week, the first scientific station at the edge of the ice pack took place for more than 24 hours. The crew collected extremely abundant plankton in the midst of an ice field. On this occasion a polar bear and a seal made their appearance! The content of the marine ecosystem is very different from one scientific station to another, which makes the work particularly interesting.

But at the poles, nothing is ever predictable. The rest of the sampling will depend on the weather, and the melting of the ice.  “’The real work has begun!” says Etienne Bourgois, President of Tara Expeditions. The next major step in the expedition will happen when Tara passes Cheliuskin Cape (Russia). This is the place the farthest north on the Eurasian continent – most often blocked by ice in the Northeast Passage.

“In any case, the scientific sampling we are doing, and we will continue to do in this part of the world, is truly innovative and will contribute to the knowledge of this ocean at a crucial time! The Arctic is a direct indicator of climate change on our planet,” says Etienne Bourgois.

The position of the boat and ice from day to day can be followed on Google Earth. The main objective of Tara Oceans Polar Circle is to better understand the Arctic ecosystem, starting with little-known plankton species, and trying to decipher their interactions with the environment.

To follow the expedition, in addition to the website:

-For educational material

-Social networks

-twitter/taraexpeditions

See Tara Arctic Live with France TV Nouvelles Ecritures: every day 4 videos of the expedition sent by Anna Deniaud, correspondant aboard: www.francetv.fr/tara

Partners

Endowment agnès b., Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, City of Lorient , CNRS, EMBL, CEA, Genoscope, ENS, KAUST,  Takuvik (LAVAL & CNRS), Shirshov, NASA, OCEAN consortium of laboratories, etc.

All partners

Scientific station at the ice pack’s edge

Scientific station at the ice pack’s edge

With sea ice knocking against Tara’s hull, the scientists meticulously assemble on deck their usual collection of vials, pipettes and other accessories required for sampling stations. For more than 12 hours, the crew will be taking samples in this ice field. Fortunately, on this summer day, temperatures are mild and the thermometer has stabilized at around -3 ° C. The sampling station will be long, but the Arctic is being generous to the brave.

The beginning was chaotic, or maybe it just took time to warm-up. Was it the cold or new programming for a 50-meter descent? The seabed is shallow at this latitude. In any case, the rosette made 2 unsuccessful dives – stopping midway. The third attempt succeeded and the wealth of the area’s biomass surfaced, revealing a significant amount of phytoplankton from 35 to 50 meters. The number of net launchings had to be changed because the heavy concentrations of plankton made the filtrations very slow. In the samples were jostling chains of diatoms – the unicellular micro-algae that produce a significant amount of oxygen, and also a large variety of copepods –  small marine crustaceans,  and bryozoans – marine invertebrates with individual exoskeletons living in colonies. While some scientists patiently transferred this little world into bar-coded bottles, others continued to immerse sampling instruments among the floating sea ice.

Only the Manta net, which (among other things) samples the surface for plastic particles, escaped the ice bath. To avoid getting the net damaged by ice chunks, Marc Picheral, oceanographic engineer decided against an immersion. Although the main reason for this station in Arctic waters is the ice, its presence certainly added complexity to the operation. We were constantly looking for ice-free spaces where we could drift safely with the instruments.

During one of these drifts, we met the Master of the region
In the early afternoon, with a prevailing fog, a polar bear appeared in the middle of a block of ice. Sergey, the Russian scientist first spotted him. The polar bear licked the air, obviously sensing our presence from a distance, and wanting to learn more about this unexpected visitor. He let us observe him, and even made an athletic jump between two ice floes to impress us. A good swimmer, he then plunged into the water to reclaim his profound solitude.

Everyone resumed their work satisfied with this unexpected encounter. A few hours later, 3 sea angels aroused the crew’s curiosity. They had landed in the 180 micron net and were quickly transferred to the aquarium on board to be observed and photographed. These reddish, transparent animals with small wings have a very appropriate name: Their graceful movements in seawater clearly evoke angels in heaven. To close the show, a seal appeared in the distance. But unlike sea angels, the marine mammal did not make the least effort to give us a performance. Indolently sprawled on the ice, he barely deigned to raise his head and look at us. But no matter, we were feeling totally gratified.

Then Tara resumed her course amidst all this glittering white.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

The Kingdom of Ice

The horizon has changed color. A white border covers the vast blue. Is the Novaya Zemlya effect playing tricks on us again ? “Ice in sight!” calls the sailor on watch. Euphoria spreads among the crew. Since our departure from Murmansk, we’ve been dreaming of the intoxicating whiteness of ice. Neither the chilling cold nor the constant daylight managed to convince us that we were sailing in the Arctic. Now, here we are! Without hesitation Tara moves at a brisk pace towards the white wall that rises on the horizon. The schooner seems eager to see this old friend who welcomed her for several months during the Arctic drift.

For 3 days the temperature had already dropped below zero. Snowflakes showed up at the last sampling stations, obliging people and instruments to protect themselves against the cold. The scientists decided that we should we go further east, beyond the island of Novaya Zemlya, hoping to collect samples at the edge of the ice pack. Like children, we were eager to play with the ice. But the first alert ended in a big disappointment: Two unfortunate ice cubes battling on the horizon. They looked ridiculous. Global warming couldn’t be this bad! Despite the ice charts we’ve been receiving everyday attesting to the presence of the icepack only a few nautical miles from our position, we had almost lost hope of entering the white realm. And then on Saturday night, while our minds were distracted by Claudie’s birthday party, a new world opened up to us.

It’s 11 o’clock at night, but we’re not sleepy. On the deck of the schooner, we can’t stop admiring the panorama unfolding before our eyes. Total silence and a jumble of ice blocks floating on a smooth sea. It looks like a post-apocalyptic setting. For some people, it’s their first time here, for others it’s a reunion. In any case, we are all overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. “It’s nice to find the ice!”exclaims Samuel the captain, with a wide grin. “It’s beautiful …” whispers Joannie with emotion. This cold beauty knows how to play its colors and forms to seduce us. In the intense blue of the Kara Sea, spots of pure white contrast with the turquoise blue of the submerged part of the ice. The geometric shapes of certain plaques mingle with the curves of worn-down ice, subtly decorated with rows of transparent stalactites. Slowly, Tara zigzags between these natural sculptures. At the helm, we must be very vigilant.

After a night spent listening to the crackle of ice breaking under Tara’s hull, we’re in the white kingdom. It was not a dream, or even a mirage! And then reality takes over. We’ll have to sample here, plunge nets into the icy water, endure the cold for hours and hours. Tomorrow a long station will begin at the edge of the sea ice. Is life in the deep sea more animated than on the surface? What microorganisms are crazy enough to take up residence in the polar region? Thanks to scientific sampling, the kingdom of ice will gradually become familiar to us.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

The Barents Sea

Sampling stations continue in the Barents Sea to explore the depths between the Norwegian and Russian coasts, the Svalbard, and the archipelagos of Franz Joseph and Novaya Zemlya. In this shallow region of the ocean, the continental shelf is situated about 230 meters below the surface. Tara scientists are doing a series of samplings to better understand the organisms that live where Atlantic and Arctic water masses mix. A thorough investigation is necessary in this sea favored by explorers and investors.

“The Barents Sea is one of the best-studied seas in the world! Between 1801 and 2001, Russia, Norway and other countries have done a total of over 220,000 scientific stations in this area,” says Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist aboard. Since the 1870s, Russian military ships and Norwegian fishing boats have been carrying out regular observations in the Barents Sea.

Then, in 1899 the Russian government launched a research program aboard the icebreaker Yermak. As part of the first “International Polar Year” (1882-83), weather stations were set up around the Barents Sea, including Malie Karmakuli on the island of Novaya Zemlya. More than a century later, their data provide a basis for studying climate change in the Arctic. “We must not forget that 130 years is not a very long time on the scale of natural climate variations,” says Sergey during his presentation for the Tara crew.

But to understand the history of the Barents Sea, we must go back 3 centuries more. In 1594, the Dutch navigator and explorer Willem Barentsz departed from Amsterdam with 2 ships in search of a north passage to reach eastern Asia. He eventually turned back at the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya, the island that now belongs to Russia. Willem Barents tried again twice in the following years to cross the Northeast Passage – in vain. He died during his third mission, leaving his name to this sea in the Arctic Circle.

Besides its position on the northern sea route, and the free access it provides throughout the year to the southern edge of the icepack, the Barents Sea is also coveted for its natural resources. The area has long been known as an immense reserve of fish, and since the 1970s, as an area rich in gas and oil. Tara scientists are studying the plankton and the physical and chemical properties of these waters to complete their data base about the world’s oceans.

But other research missions in the Barents Sea aim to define fishing zones, or identify potential sites for the extraction of oil or gas. Because of these economic interests, the Barents Sea was the center of a recent political dispute between Norway and Russia. Each country wanted to get exclusive rights in the economic ‘gray zone’, the maritime areas where ownership was not clearly defined. Finally, an agreement was signed by the 2 countries,  dividing the territory equally – 50% for Norway, 50% for Russia.

Without doubt the future of the Barents Sea will be agitated – by researchers seeking knowledge,  especially a better understanding of global warming in the Arctic; by others obliged to clean up nuclear waste; and by all those dreams of exploiting natural resources.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Etienne Bourgois: “SERIOUS WORK IS BEGINNING NOW IN THE ARCTIC”

This is the first interview with Etienne Bourgois, President of Tara Expeditions since the launch of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition.

- Naturally it’s too soon to talk about assessments, but how was the first month and a half for the expedition?

The whole team is very satisfied with this first stage of the expedition. The experience acquired during Tara Oceans 2009-2012 paid off because everything came together as planned, including some new protocols. The scientific equipment is working well as are the automatic and continuous sampling instruments, thanks to the involvement of the CNRS engineer Marc Picheral.

The choice of sampling stations by the team Tara and the laboratories on land (a total of 9 stations so far) has been optimal because the weather conditions were favorable. The weather has been very calm during these past weeks. We were able to do an important station at the centre of a plankton bloom*.

But make no mistake, serious work in the Arctic will be starting now.

- What are your concerns for the coming months?

The schedule is tight. Having been to the Arctic several times, I know that nothing is ever certain in the polar environment. Everything will depend on the weather and the state of the ice. What matters most to me is the safety of the men and women aboard Tara, and also the safety of the boat. But we have experts on board, including Russian scientist Sergey Pisarev who participated in the previous Tara Arctic expedition and will contribute his enormous expertise. The current captain, Samuel Audrain spent 9 months aboard Tara during the ice drift in 2007 – 2008. Samuel is an excellent sailor who has been on other polar expeditions. It’s very motivating for the team to have him as captain since he has held all the posts on Tara before taking command.

- What is the present state of the Arctic ice?

It’s exciting to follow the daily evolution of the ice on the site. What’s indicated on the maps is not necessarily the reality on the terrain, and it is not always easy to calibrate between the real situation and the maps received on board.

During Tara’s stopover in Murmansk (Russia) last week, they had record temperatures of 30° C. But the melting of Arctic sea ice is actually a week later than last year. All this can and will change very quickly. We can make bets but it is still too early.

What is also interesting this year is the IPCC’s publication of the first part of a new report just as we cross the Northwest Passage. This report will update the forecasts of melting ice and we will be there to observe it.

- What are your hopes for this expedition?

What we’re doing and will do scientifically in this part of the world is truly innovative and will contribute to the knowledge of the ocean at a crucial time! The Arctic is a direct indicator of climate change on our planet. It registers changes much more rapidly than elsewhere, and all of us are concerned – Arctic inhabitants as well as the world’s population.

- You signed a partnership with UNESCO last week. What meaning does this have?

This is the result of our work with the United Nations since the Rio+20 conference and with informal collaborations that we’ve carried on for some time with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. We are proud that Tara carries the UNESCO banner.

Education, science and culture are at the heart of our two institutions and for me, it’s a partnership that has real meaning.

- Tara Expeditions launched the Paris Appeal for the High Seas in April. Can you tell us something about it?

As an avid sailor, of course I cherish freedom. But freedom should not lead to excesses on the High Seas. We need to defend a status for the High Seas and this is the reason for the Paris Appeal. As citizens people can send messages to our leaders and change political choices. Signing this Appeal is a simple and easy gesture to try to save the ocean. Everyone is affected by the ocean, because the Earth is a single ecosystem.

These issues must be discussed at the UN by the end of 2014 and not be postponed indefinitely. We are currently mobilizing to bring together at the UN those countries that share our view.

Read and sign the Appeal on www.highseascall.org

* Area of ​​high concentration of planktonic microorganisms.

SCIENCE, from MURMANSK to DUDINKA (RUSSIA)

72 ° 32 North and 44 ° 06 East.

This is the spot where the scientists on the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition decided to shut down the engines, and begin the first long sampling station of the Murmansk-Dudinka leg. Here water masses coming from the Atlantic enter the Barents Sea from the south, and meet masses of polar water. In this area defined as a ‘polar front’, scientists and sailors plan to perform 22 samplings in 2 consecutive days. A scientific marathon which will be repeated 3 more times during the month of navigation between the two Russian ports.

7:30 Monday morning on Tara’s deck – the crew is ready to begin the first long station since leaving Murmansk.The sun is shining as if to encourage the troops, and a stowaway – a Guillemot – cousin of the small Arctic penguin, has joined the group. As usual, the rosette equipped with its CTD, is the first to take the plunge. Its 10 Niskin bottles descend into the 7.5° C water to bring back the first samples that will define the profile of the water column.

“We found a DCM, a Deep Chlorophyll Max -– the depth where there’s the most chlorophyll, therefore phytoplankton, about 40 meters below the surface. We expected to find a deeper, less-pronounced DCM because of the Atlantic water masses and the late summer season, but I think we’re still seeing the influence of coastal waters,” says Stéphane Pesant, co-chief scientist on this leg.

“The samples quickly reveal that the environment is not very productive here, at least at this time of year. “There aren’t many diatoms*, but I saw a lot of dinoflagellates** and they’re really beautiful!” says Joannie, emerging from the dry lab. Dinoflagellates are mixotrophic microorganisms that can survive with or without light. Diatoms, in contrast, can not live without light or nitrates.

Maneuvers continue on deck. The rosette, several nets including the manta (a special net for collecting plastic) and also the high-flow pump, all take turns exploring the ocean depths, providing constant work for the scientific team. Each sample must be filtered and put into a vial labeled with a bar code, then stored in the refrigerator or freezer.

The scientific marathon continues. The advantage of sampling in the Arctic at this time of year is that we don’t have to do night watch! The sun constantly illuminates the sea, and plankton doesn’t make daily vertical migrations. It’s 7:30 p.m. Monday night on Tara’s deck, and sampling is still in full swing. This long station will be followed by daily short stations. By comparing the different sampling stations, the scientists can determine to what degree the first long station was representative of Atlantic waters.

The objective of this leg between Murmansk and Dudinka is to collect samples in the different water masses characteristic of the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea. Having sampled the water masses from the Atlantic, south of the polar front, the scientists will conduct a second long station, north of the polar front, plunging their instruments in the Arctic waters free of ice.

“This second station will allow us to compare the planktonic ecosystems to the south and north of the polar front,” says Stéphane Pesant. Then Tara will reach the edge of the ice pack, hoping to arrive before the ice retreats. In these high latitudes, the scientists want to study the ecosystems associated with sea ice. The fourth and final station before arriving at Dudinka will be influenced by the fresh waters of the Enisej, nearly 12 nautical miles from the coast.

A vast program awaits us, with increasingly difficult conditions. For now only the presence of the Guillemot tells the Tara team that we’re really in the Arctic.

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia & Stéphane Pesant

* Unicellular micro-algae surrounded by a single shell made of silicon.

** Unicellular micro-algae with 2 flagella, a cellulose casing, and chloroplasts enabling them to carry out photosynthesis.

The charm of Murmansk

Not many tourists wander the streets of Murmansk. Only a few adventurous Russians come to visit – the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. Behind its apparent austerity, young Murmansk, born in 1916, reveals a certain charm to those who know how to look.

At first glance, you see heaps of coal invading the harbor, and concrete blocks on the horizon – towering memories of the Soviet era. With a cloud-cover over the landscape, not uncommon at this time of the year (from June to September the weather is rainy), we have to admit that Murmansk doesn’t look great. Yet the city can be proud – proud of its title, “City of Heroes”, received for its tenacity against the Germans during World War II. At the time, the Luftwaffe attacked Murmansk, dropping a total of over 185,000 bombs on the buildings and people. This city is young, but has suffered enormously. Today the soldier Alexei, more than 35 feet tall, perched on the hill, perpetually scans the Kola Gulf, watching over his protégée.

Despite these dark passages of the past, the Russian city has rediscovered color. Scanning the horizon, it’s a surprise to see the many colorful facades and roofs around the big red and white lighthouse overlooking the city. Some are a bit faded, but they’re colorful nonetheless! This may be the charm of Murmansk – a touch of old-fashioned coquetry in the midst of so much sobriety.

Added to this palette of colors is a green band encircling the port city and its 350,000 inhabitants. The forest dominates the area, offering hikers a good supply of fresh air. Nature here doesn’t stop at the city gates. “I find it a relatively airy town. You don’t feel like you’re suffocating in a concrete space. Avenues are lined with trees, and there are lots of parks in the center,” says Vincent Pennec, the first mate, who took advantage of a few moments of respite to walk around the city. So, when the polar day shows up, when the snow disappears from driveways, Murmansk residents know how to enjoy these green spots. Old folks sit on benches in public parks and watch the passers-by. Young people get out their bicycles and ride around the wide streets of the city center.

Some crew members appreciate the charm of nature, “the bucolic landscapes contrasting with the austerity of the port,” as described by Céline Blanchard the cook. Others are seduced by the industrial aspect of the Russian port city. “I love this black dust, the rusty, dented railway cars mixed in with flamboyant cranes and colorful locomotives. Under the midnight sun, it’s really beautiful. In fact, when I walk around the port of Murmansk, it’s like being in a movie!” says Nicolas de la Brosse, deck officer. T

he contrast between the blackness and the color, between softness and hardness, with a dash of anachronism mixed in – That’s what creates the charm of Murmansk, for those who take the time to contemplate it.

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Passing the North Cape

After celebrating the “Fête de la Musique” with accordion melodies, on Saturday afternoon we passed  the North Cape under a rippled sky. Pampered by the Gulf Stream,* with mild temperatures around 15°C., from Tara’s deck we admired the legendary cliffs. Only 180 more nautical miles and we’ll raise a new flag – Russia’s colors will take the place of Norway’s.

The port of Tromsø has long since disappeared in our wake, but will be remembered as a beautiful stopover for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. In bright sunshine, Tara sailed between the fjords of Norway, to reach (the day after the summer solstice) the dream and ultimate goal of many travelers: the North Cape. 71° 09 North and 25° 47 East. As its name implies, this cape marks the northernmost point of Europe. Like Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope (though less dangerous), passing this cape is legendary for sailors. So we took out our cameras and wrote on a small sheet of paper the date and place, to capture this moment forever.

Curious, we ventured into the entrance of the bay for a closer look at these rocky cliffs, where pristine white snowfields compete with the green vegetation trying to take over after the long months of winter. Our little escapade was delightful, but duty calls, so we head off in the direction of Murmansk. As if to console us for this wise decision, the sun disappears for a moment, making way for a downpour. We collected the laundry drying on the back deck of the schooner, and sat down to a good meal. Satisfied with this beautiful day, we were far from imagining that another surprise awaited us a few nautical miles away.

While we were eating, Nicolas de la Brosse, Tara’s first mate had started his night shift alone in the wheelhouse. Night shift – the term doesn’t mean much during these endless days, but the task remains essential. So, Nicolas was on night shift, when he observed a strange phenomenon on the horizon. “From the start of my shift I had trouble judging distances – the horizon line was blurred. And suddenly, I saw the red cargo ship that was sailing at a distance of 3 nautical miles from us, triple in size then disappear in 30 seconds.” To get rid of his hallucinations, Nicolas invites us to join him on deck. In front of our watchful eyes and cameras, the phenomenon happens again. Certainly a mirage, probably the Novaya Zemlya effect!

The Novaya Zemlya effect (Nouvelle Zemble in French) was observed for the first time in 1596 by the shipwrecked crew of William Barents, famous Dutch navigator and explorer. It is in fact a polar atmospheric mirage. In special circumstances, the atmosphere becomes a vector for waves. It guides the rays of sunlight in an unusual trajectory. Due to this phenomenon, Gerrit de Veer, a crew member of the Barents expedition (which remained blocked in the ice during the polar winter) observed the sun rise two weeks before the normal date. No doubt, our Arctic expedition will continue to surprise us!

Anna Deniaud Garcia

*Gulf Stream: warm current in the Atlantic Ocean which warms the climate along the coasts of Northwest Europe.

Sam, Captain of icy waters

Farewell Tromsø (Norway)! We’re now heading towards Murmansk (Russia). Tara and Samuel Audrain are very familiar with the passage amongst the fjords. In 2006, before starting the Arctic drift, the boat and the sailor had taken the same route. At that time Samuel was a sailor but today, he’s the captain!

From Tromsø to Dudinka, Samuel Audrain will be at the helm of the research sailboat. Like his predecessor Loïc Vallette, Samuel knew how to trim a sail almost before he learned to walk! For him, the sea is like a close relative. In the Audrain family, the uncle restored old rigs; the great-grand-father was a sea captain at the time when steamships began to seriously cast their shadow over sailboats. The aunt is an ocean photographer, and the grandfather spends his free time sailing on “Jacaré”, a 10-meter Melody.

On the waves of the Loire, a few kilometers from Nantes, Samuel began sailing very early on a Hobie Cat 16, and also windsurfing. “I was just ten years old when my uncle introduced me to windsurfing. I wasn’t heavy enough to raise the sail, so he gave me a backpack full of water bottles.” At sixteen, the “landlubber” escorted his first boat from Greece to the south of France with his grandfather. After such a great adventure, it was difficult to stop. Samuel became an instructor at the Glénans sailing school and then passed a sailing certificate, before earning a BPPV, a certificate for sailboat skippers. In Brittany and the West Indies, the young man spent his time on or underwater!

Thanks to his diving skills, Samuel experienced for the first time the world of exploration. On Clipperton Island, he embarked on an expedition led by Jean-Louis Etienne, the famous French explorer and former owner of Antarctica before the schooner became Tara. The Clipperton expedition was taking an inventory of the atoll’s flora and fauna, and Sam joined the diving logistics team. “That’s when I realized I was diving without really knowing the ropes.” To remedy this, on his return he enrolled in a professional diver’s training course. With his dual qualifications, Sam approached Etienne Bourgois, President of Tara Expeditions. Jean-Louis Etienne had given him the contact.

Samuel succeeded again! In 2005, he embarked on the polar sailboat. After a stopover in Cape Verde, he went to South Georgia to take part in a scientific mission involving the retreat of glaciers, observation of petrels and counting sea lions. Following a second mission to South Georgia and a shipyard stint in Lorient, Samuel sailed aboard Tara until the last Siberian stop before the pack ice. “We passed through the same places: Tromsø, Murmansk … It’s nice to return here, people recognize us!” During this period, the sailor began to think seriously about machines. “I quickly realized that the engines on Tara are very important!.” Hoping to re-embark, Samuel went back to school to learn mechanics.

After obtaining a Mechanics 750kW diploma, his wish was granted. He re-joined Tara during the Arctic drift, and remained on board eleven months as a mechanic. A few days before embarking, using his skills as a diver, Samuel discovered a dangerous new element: the ice. He became completely enamoured! Even the sounds of creaking sea ice did not discourage him. In 2010, in between two legs of the Tara Oceans expedition, Sam embarked on the expedition “Under the Pole.” The objective of that mission: filming beneath the Arctic ice. In the Canadian aircraft that flew them to the North Pole, Samuel noticed a Tara sticker. “This was the same pilot who had dropped us for the Arctic drift !” Clearly the world of exploration is not very big.

Insatiable adventurer and student, in 2011 Samuel passed the Captain 500 certificate. He now had the qualifications and especially the experience necessary to command Tara. So when Roman Troublé proposed that he embark on the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition as Captain, the professional navigator and passionate “ice-man” just couldn’t say no! The rest of the story will unfold in the coming days.

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Teenagers in Tromsø


Summer holidays have begun. In the city streets, high school students are enjoying their first few days of rest. Daniel and John, both seventeen years old, are on their way to the public library. They’ll have to occupy themselves until the end of August. A few steps away on the market square there’s Wictoria, but she’s not bored. She’s helping Ole sell souvenirs to tourists. Encounter with these teenagers from the Arctic Circle:

“I like to go fishing with my brothers. Either we fish from the dock, or borrow my grandfather’s small boat to go out to sea. We bring back salmon and trout.” Daniel was born and raised in Tromsø in a large family with six children. Like many kids in Norway, he loves fishing, but also mountain trekking and of course skiing. Outdoor activities are not lacking here. But for everything else, it’s a different story. “Life is boring here – it’s a small town and not much happens,” says John with a resigned voice common to adolescents. He dreams of going to the capital, Oslo, and becoming a lawyer. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy the summer, although according to these young people, the winter here is not so bad. “There are lots of lights in the city, and also the aurora borealis. It’s a different atmosphere, really nice.

Today it’s barely 13°C and raining. But two weeks ago the temperatures soared to 30°C, a record for the city, which made headlines in the local newspapers. “What do we think about global warming? Who cares? People here don’t care. The melting ice will most likely provide economic opportunities,” declared the two young men.

Wictoria is far from sharing this opinion. “It’s raining more than ever before, and the land is often flooded. I am really worried because I wonder what’s going to happen.” For the girl and her family, nature is paramount. They own a herd of reindeer. “How many reindeer? I don’t know. It’s like asking someone how much money he has in his wallet. It changes all the time, but we have more than a thousand.” Here in Norway reindeer meat is sold for consumption as a snack, Wictoria nibbles pieces of smoked meat. In addition, reindeer skins are used to make rugs, like the ones sold in the market. And Ole, the artisan with whom she works, carves the antlers as souvenirs for tourists. When she’s not at the market or at school learning to be a mechanic, Wictoria goes around with friends. “In the winter, I love to take long rides on the snowmobile, and I also do ice fishing.

Unlike John, Wictoria does not intend to someday leave her homeland. In fact, she’s never even been to Oslo.

Anna Deniaud Garcia 

Listening to Tara

Despite Tara’s relatively small size, the explorer-schooner offers passengers various  spaces with very different ambiances familiar to permanent residents only. These settings are alive and above all, are experienced. But a few words, a well-placed microphone and a little imagination can give us a glimpse of life aboard Tara.



The rear deck

Recording 1 – Rear deck

Normally the rear deck is nothing more than an obligatory passage to get into Tara’s belly. But during a sampling station, these few square meters become the nerve center of the boat. Scientists and sailors intersect in a well-rehearsed ballet, their hands full of tubes, canisters or nets. This ongoing agitation culminates in the launching of the rosette. The team’s demeanor is intense, focused on the difficult task ahead. Is it fatigue and cold which hardens their features, or the weight of the responsibility that rests on the team? Nobody forgets that these samples are the raison d’être of the expedition. At the end of the steel cable, expensive equipment sways over the waves crashing at the workers’ feet. Between the clanking of restraining poles thrown on the metal deck, orders are given, short and precise. Finally, the rosette disappears beneath the surface. During these two days, the same scene will be replayed over and over again, about a dozen times.




The main salon
Recording 2 – Main living area

As a dining area, living room, office or conference room, the main cabin is the best place to be, so it’s rare to find it empty. One particular evening, the atmosphere is even more lively than usual. It’s the end of a station and a birthday celebration, two good opportunities to unwind. To mark the occasion, a white tablecloth and some home-made pastries put smiles on all faces. The atmosphere is even more playful since the day was arduous. Between the bursts of laughter and clinking glasses we debrief the day’s work, but just a little bit. We especially talk about everything else. Tales of the sea and navigators, more or less embellished as the evening advances. There’s teasing and and cheerful banter as people get to know each other and our 14 different backgrounds. The muffled music gradually gives way to more unbridled rhythms, attracting some adventurous dancers ready to rock with the ship’s roll. This sunny night will be long.




The workshop
Recording 3 – Workshop
For many Taranautes, the workshop is nothing more than a passage to the rear hold, an uncomfortable area with incessant engine noise, and a pervasive smell of diesel oil. Passengers only come through here for the shortest possible time, to access the clothes washing machine. They may run into a mechanic all dressed in blue, wearing goggles and headphones. But for anyone who wants to repair a propeller, pump or motor, the workshop is a handyman’s treasure trove. In an apparent jumble, pliers, screwdrivers, drills and tools of all kinds cover the floor and walls around the small workbench. Continuing the exploration – you bend low to pass through a narrow opening, and enter another world – the engine room. Stifling heat, deafening noise, and a constant smell. Welcome to Tara’s bowels.




The foredeck
Recording 4 – The front deck
With 14 Jonahs aboard Tara the whale, constantly crowded into a limited space, the desire to escape momentarily from the agitation can arise. Tara’s foredeck regularly hosts a passenger looking for solitude, silence and calm. Wearing a warm jacket and a life vest, you move towards the schooner’s bow, carefully stepping around ropes and winches, as the sounds of engines finally fade into the background. On Tara’s prow, faced with the immensity of the ocean, your ears begin to pick up previously inaudible sounds. Here, the lapping of waves on the hull, the wind in the sails, and in the distance, the monotonous tapping of rigging on the mast. This perpetual concert is disturbed only by the passage of a seabird or with luck, a few dolphins. No doubt about it –  out here time runs at a different pace from Tara’s center. 



Text: Yann Chavance

Sound: Agnès Rougier

Beneath the midnight sun

The sun has been hidden by fog for a few days, but we can still tell it’s no longer setting over Tara’s deck. Rather, it slowly descends towards the horizon, then immediately rises again in the sky. This permanent daylight, called polar day or midnight sun, is due to the complex motions of the Earth around the sun.

To understand the phenomenon, imagine a light bulb attached to the ground representing the sun. Now take a spinning-top transpierced by a metal rod from top (north pole) to bottom (south pole). This represents the Earth, revolving around the light bulb in an almost perfect circle. It will take 365 days to go around the sun, and at the same time turns on itself every 24 hours. At every moment, only half of the top receives light, while the other half remains in darkness.

The length of day can be explained by another analogy using the top. The metal rod, which corresponds to the Earth’s axis of rotation, is not perfectly perpendicular to the ground. In other words, the top is slightly tilted – at an angle of about twenty degrees.

At a certain moment during the rotation around the bulb (at the summer solstice), the upper part of the top is pointed towards the light: it’s summer for the northern hemisphere and the days lengthen. Six months later (during the winter solstice) the lower part of the top points toward the sun: winter days get shorter in the northern hemisphere, but south of the equator it’s summertime.

Finally, during the summer solstice, when the northern hemisphere is pointing toward the light, let’s observe the area around the metal rod emerging from the top (the North Pole). Because its rotation axis is slightly tilted, we see that this area is constantly in the light, even when the top turns on itself: this is what we call “polar day”, when the North Pole never gets dark. At the same moment, the area around the metal rod at the bottom of the spinning-top (the South Pole) is constantly plunged in darkness – “polar night”.

At the two poles, the polar day lasts six months, while the night extends the other six months of the year. The farther we move away from these extreme latitudes, the less time the phenomenon lasts. The Arctic Circle is defined as the lowest latitude where the sun doesn’t set for at least 24 hours (the day of summer solstice), and doesn’t rise on the day of winter solstice. In the other extreme case – at the equator – each day has the same length throughout the year. During most of this expedition, Tara will be navigating inside the Arctic Circle, and the polar day will be chasing the night for many weeks.

 

Yann Chavance

First Sampling Station and a Polar Depression

When planning a tour of the Arctic in just over six months, the Tara teams expected to encounter many difficult circumstances, especially when it comes to handling an armada of measuring and sampling instruments on deck. However, no one thought that weather obstacles would occur so early. 

The first sampling station, scheduled well-ahead of time, should have taken place around the 26-27th of May, at the border of Icelandic waters. But no one reckoned with a large depression coming from the west, the center of which would touch exactly this area at exactly the same time. ” If we had continued as planned, we would have confronted 40 or 45 knot winds during the station” says Loïc Vallette, the captain. Under these conditions, the safety of the instruments, but also that of the scientists on deck would have been compromised. In other words, we had to change plans, and advance the date of the sampling station to avoid the  depression. 

“We didn’t have a lot of choice”, explains Lionel Guidi, chief scientist on board for this leg of the expedition. “We juggled with several parameters: the presence of territorial waters, the depth of the area (because we need at least 1000 meters for sampling), and of course with the time remaining before the depression arrives.” Finally, the first station will be much further south-east than expected, and the sampling will start early on Friday morning. “We’re still waiting for the latest satellite data to determine the best place,” continues the oceanographer. “There’s a shallow shelf in this area which should be rich in plankton. We have to find exactly the right place — the most productive area where there’s still sufficient depth for our instruments.”

Since this first station starts earlier than expected, the whole team had to work extra hard these last few days to prepare: calibrating instruments, checking the software and preparing all the bottles that store samples — with a barcode indicating type of sample collected, station, depth, etc. “Everything must be ready before the station, because afterwards we won’t have the time!” warns Lionel. It must be said that the program for the first station will be full, occupying the entire scientific team this Friday from dawn to dusk. An additional half-day on Saturday is even planned — if the depression allows. “In any case, we’ll know when it passes!” exclaims Loïc. “After the station, we’ll take advantage of the wind generated by the depression to advance as much as possible under sail. Then before reaching the Faroe Islands, we should have milder weather.” We’re hoping above all to have accommodating weather… during the station.

Yann Chavance

Tara Oceans Polar Circle is launched!

Over a year has passed since the previous Tara Oceans expedition ended, and Tara is finally heading out to the open ocean. Sunday afternoon May 19 the schooner cast off from Lorient to begin a nearly seven-month voyage around the Arctic. The Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition has begun.



All the sailors and scientists aboard had been anticipating this moment for weeks, or even  months. At 3pm, before a crowd of onlookers and friends from all over France, Tara left her home port of Lorient, and will return here only in December. Meanwhile, Tara and her crew will have traveled 25,000 kilometers around the North Pole, first along Russian and then North American coasts.



But Tara did not begin this journey alone. All around the schooner, dozens of boats, from the smallest dinghy to the largest sailboats, symbolically escorted Tara on this new scientific adventure. Over twenty people were on deck: journalists, Tara’s land team, and even the next crew. As the sea became rougher, the number of escorting boats decreased. 

At Groix Island, off Lorient’s coast, Tara followed tradition and the boat was blessed by the island’s priest. Then a second departure began: one after another the accompanying people  piled into dinghies, until only fourteen remained on board. Fourteen people who will share two weeks of life at sea before the Faroe Islands, our first stop.



Yann Chavance

Which scientific equipment will come on board for the next expedition?

Interview with Marc Picheral and Céline Dimier, scientific engineers.

Based at the Laboratory of Oceanography, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Marc Picheral coordinates the installation of some scientific equipment aboard Tara, including everything for the “Dry Lab”. Engineer at the Roscoff Biological Station, Céline Dimier is managing the equipment destined for the “Wet Lab”. We asked them about the material that will accompany the boat for the “Tara Oceans Polar Circle” expedition.

Besides the equipment already present during the Tara Oceans expedition, what will be added ?

Marc Picheral: For the equipment on deck, we’ve modified the Rosette – an instrument that collects underwater samples and measures oceanographic data. We’ve added an underwater sensor that measures illumination, important for photosynthesis. We’ve also added an acoustic sensor (AQUAscat) that can count in a volume slightly larger than optical systems, small objects such as plankton or certain particles suspended in water.

Céline Dimier: In the Wet Lab, the material is basically the same and consists mainly of pumps of different sizes and types (air pump, water, peristaltic, etc.) and filtration units of all kinds (25 mm, 47 mm, 142 mm, tripods, ramp filtering, etc.). With Steffi Kandels-Lewis (logistics engineer) we also calculated, based on the sampling plan, the numbers of tubes, flasks, filters, and boxes needed for a 6-month assignment. And then we also calculated the volume required to store the samples according to their required temperature: RT (room temperature), 4°C (refrigerator), -20°C (freezer), -196°C (liquid nitrogen). All this equipment is used to collect and store the samples of bacteria, viruses and protists destined for genomic analysis or microscopy.

Will other instruments be added to this list ?

Marc Picheral: We’ll be using a continuous plankton recorder from Murmansk to St-Pierre-et-Miquelon. This instrument has been in use for decades, mainly in the North Atlantic. It is towed by merchant ships and continuously collects plankton on rolls of silk. 

In addition to this, our surface optical sensor used to characterize solar irradiance during stations, will be replaced by the C-OPS (Compact-Optical Profiling System), a similar sensor, but which can take profiles down to 100 -150 meters. We’ll be able to characterize illumination on the descent and ascent.

Will you also make some additions to the Dry Lab ?

Marc Picheral: Yes, we’ll be adding more light sensors, connected to instruments in the Dry Lab and the forward hold, that will function 24h per day.

There will be one continuous CDOM (Colored Dissolved Organic Material) sensor, and another (Ultrapath) which determines more precise CDOM levels in samples taken with the Rosette bottles at depth.

We’ll have new sensors placed in the forward hold, but controlled from the Dry Lab, i.e. the ALFA (Aquatic Laser Fluorescence Analyser) optical sensor, and the FlowCytoBot, an imaging sensor for identifying microorganisms. In addition there will be the SeaFet, a pH sensor, because of sea water varies according to the CO2 content.

How will you protect the equipment from the cold ? 

Céline Dimier: We have to adapt the boat for polar conditions. We’ll provide heating for the Wet Lab and insulate pipes to prevent freezing. We’ll also test the containers for cold resistance (this depends on the type of plastic used). The water purifier will be equipped with water cartridges that function with very cold water (5°C). We’ll also ensure that the reagent solutions can withstand low temperatures.

Marc Picheral: Some sensors resist the cold, while others can not tolerate freezing. We’ll therefore use tarpaulins, electric blankets and hot water systems to protect our sensors when they’re out of the water. 

But for equipment maintained inside the boat, the problem is not the cold but condensation. Surface water in the Arctic can be -2°C, and then it passes through our instruments at 20°C. This causes condensation, which will prevent optical imaging. Some instruments will have to be set up in the forward hold, though we’d prefer to put them elsewhere in the boat. This is a question still to be resolved.

Interview by Anne Recoules

Interview with Etienne Bourgois, president of Tara Expeditions

After Tara’s long stopover in Paris, and before the next Arctic adventure, Etienne Bourgois gives us the latest news about Tara Expeditions.

The schooner Tara was in Paris for 4 months this winter. What are your conclusions?

It’s always magical to see Tara at the foot of Pont Alexandre III with the Eiffel Tower in the background. I was especially pleased to present to the general public our exhibition which clearly explains the two previous expeditions, Tara Arctic and Tara Oceans. I also think it’s  very important to welcome young people on board. Almost 5,000 school children came on Tara’s deck and asked questions as diverse as “Why and how does a boat float? “or “Why is it important to discover plankton?”.

During the evenings of screenings and discussions, the many questions raised by the general public added a new perspective to the exhibition.

Finally, I was very honored to receive such personalities as the late Stéphane Hessel, Jasmine and Philippe Starck, Nicolas Hulot, Yann Arthus Bertrand, Elsa and Jean-Louis Etienne. We also welcomed three government ministers, two ambassadors, the President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, and many scientists with whom we collaborated.

I have only one regret — that we underestimated Nature, and were blocked for 15 days by the flooding of the Seine not being able to pass under the bridges. We were really looking forward to sailing in the Mediterranean, but we had to cancel due to lack of time.  Stopovers in Toulon, Marseille, Nice and Monaco will certainly happen sometime in the future. Tara is in Bordeaux for the “Week of Sustainable Development” until April 7th, with a program including the exhibition, projections, and tours for the general public and schools. 

What are the preparations for the upcoming Tara Arctic expedition? What will be the mission of Tara Oceans Polar Circle ?
After the tropics and the high seas during Tara Oceans, we’re returning to the Arctic and I am delighted! This will be the completion of the Tara Oceans Expedition on marine plankton, with highly sophisticated equipment on board, and the experience we have gained with laboratories and institutes involved for several years. 

We will also carry out studies on plastic in the Arctic, and therefore try to provide answers to questions about the pollution occuring in these remote areas.

It is very important to conduct these studies in the current context of major changes in this region. In fact, after the sad record of 2007, the melting of the Arctic ice pack in the summer of 2012 surpassed any of the last few thousand years.

We will also use our local presence to mobilize the political and economic world, and inform the public of the most pressing environmental challenges in the Arctic, as well as issues faced by the 5,000,000 people populating the Arctic Circle. At the same time, the first part of the IPCC report on climate science will be published in September.

Is the budget finalized for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle ?

An important partner finally withdrew because of the major economic crisis that we are experiencing. Today we lack 25% of the total budget, and we’re trying hard to find other sources to fill this lack. If we do not succeed, we will have to drastically reduce the program, which I would enormously regret.

I would like to thank the partners who are with us today despite the difficult economic context — Lorient Agglomeration, the Foundation Albert II of Monaco and of course agnes b.

The environment is an even more serious crisis in the medium and long term. This is why it’s very important for me to lead a program like Tara Expeditions.

Will you embark on the Tara Arctic expedition?

I’m thinking of spending 8-10 days on board for the Northwest Passage. The boat is, however, basically ‘requisitioned’ by the scientists.

How is the boat specifically prepared for this mission?

Tara is in very good condition thanks to the hard work of the crew, captain Loïc Valette, Jean Collet (former captain of Antarctica) who are helping prepare the boat for the Arctic, along with the companies in Lorient with whom we work. Tara is constantly being improved. More specifically we recently completely overhauled the engine cooling systems, the electrical system,, and the dry lab has been totally renovated for science. It was also necessary to provide heating in the wet lab, due to the freezing temperatures we’ll encounter in the Arctic. We removed the rigging while in Paris, tanks were cleaned, a rudder changed, and drop-keels and anchorage were revised.

Has the crew been finalized?

Romain Troublé and Philippe Clais have assembled a full crew, good sailors and polar experts. Loïc Valletta and Samuel Audrain, who participated in the Tara Arctic expedition, will take turns as captain.

When is the scheduled departure?

The weekend of May 18-20 from Lorient. We had a big party a year ago for the return of Tara Oceans. This time, we’re counting on all of Lorient’s spontaneity to accompany us at the beginning of this new adventure.

How is Tara Oceans coming along? What’s happening in the laboratories?

Last week I attended the launch of the OCEANOMICS project. It won first place in the government program “Investments for the Future.” OCEANOMICS will help structure a database from thousands of planktonic samples collected during the Tara Oceans expedition. I’m more and more amazed by the extent of the results and discoveries that lie ahead.

Tara Oceans has collected an immense treasure. Gaby Gorsky, one of the main scientific coordinators of Tara Oceans, said “It takes madness to undertake such projects.” The whole Tara Oceans team was sufficiently “crazy and determined” to carry out this extraordinary expedition.

What motivates me about the OCEANOMICS program is the basic research towards understanding and discovering the ocean, where each day a little more unfolds.

Tara Expeditions news is happening increasingly on land. You are co-organizing a conference on the High Seas at the Economic, Social and Environmental Council on April 11th.

France has a very important responsibility in issues concerning the oceans. We are the second country in the world in terms of the size of our ocean jurisdiction.

The High Seas is a free space but should not be one of lawlessness. In 2013, and at the very latest in 2014, the UN must re-examine the question of the High Seas. This issue is extremely important, which is why we wanted Tara Expeditions to be involved. 

Where are you finding the energy for your commitment?

Each person involved in our expeditions, with his resources and expertise, is committed to a  better world. Dealing with environmental issues today prevents humanitarian risks and conflicts of tomorrow.

I feel that this preoccupation is far from that of the generation of 15-30 year olds. I would like Tara to make her mark, by encouraging them to mobilize and take control of their destiny.

Return of a summer crew member on land

With the end of the summer, rotations have started once again between Longyearbeyen and Tara.

This to renew supplies and change the crew before the polar night. The polar night is expected on the 6th of october. A first rotation took place on Wednesday. A second one is planned for Friday. Interview of a returning summer crew member.
 
He is Charles Terrin, is 23 years old from Monaco. With the spirit that characterizes his young age, he is at first sight a jolly fellow. Gone on Tara last April, he has come back five months later with very precise first sensations of this polar odyssey. A total discovery.
 
“The pack ice?” Magnificient, colourful. One often says that there are no colours in the Arctic. That is not true. They are many but all very subtle. Shades of blue, pink and white. Each time different”.
Charles thinks again “But I also discovered new sensations. For instance, silence. I believe it is the first time that I heard silence several times. Looking toward the outdoors from the room where we are talking, he adds “silence is back there” refering to Tara.
 
Charles then talks about the human aspect. It will also be for him an unforgettable memory. Despite the squabbles, difficult moments, he speaks with pride about how he has succeeded in building relations with the other nine persons with whom he shared daily life on Tara. But also of what was accomplished as a team. What has struck him also is the combination of skills on board. “A quantity of skills, experience and passion out of the ordinary” ” It is people who make this expedition, at sea and on land” he insists.
 
Off course, there is the cold. For a Monegasque who is not sensitive to the cold, it does require a certain adaptation. “Pack ice, ice, I discovered a hostile environment, but Tara is like a cosy home. We did not lack of anything. And the Mediterranean adds “I was not cold, the temperature never went beyond minus 20°… I had never thought that one day  I would be saying these words!”
Another polar expedition? “I have to take in this adventure and after I must decide if I am really a man of the cold!”

On Friday, the second rotation should take place with Tara. Two new crew members will return from the boat with other memories in their luggage.

Directions on how to land on Pack ice

Directions on how to land on Pack ice

New record: we have crossed this Wednesday the 88°degree latitude north. We are getting closer to the Pole (less than 300 km away) and it is quite possible that Tara may make Nansen’s dream come true: to drift on pack ice on the earths’ highest geographic point. For the moment however, one has to accomplish the planned observation missions for April and to do so, it was necessary to bring men and equipment with the DC3. To land a plane on pack ice is never an easy deed, especially when visibility is restricted. Today, everything was white on Tara. Off course, one could see a little. But all the perspectives, the landscapes were merged: sky, horizon, ground, everything was white!

For Brian Crocker and Louis-Eric Bellanger, the DC3 pilots, the job was not simple. It is hard to measure at eyesight the ground distance (if one can see the ground), it is hard to estimate the lateral wind speed during the landing, it is even hard to spot the boat sunk deeply into the snow or even to distinguish the runway, barely marked out with little red flags and empty kerosene barrels. It is in fact the Twin Otter crew that took in charge the DC3 landing, playing the role of a control tower.

Jim Hattew and Mathew Colistro are the pilots of this little plane that usually accomplishes the scientific missions pour the Damocles team. For instance, they have just finished the air-dropping of 16 weather buoys for Michael Offermann of the Hamburg University, that will transmit for a year the atmospheric pressure and temperature over a square of 500 km per side. In the past three days, the Twin Otter and his crew camp on the Tara base.

To help their colleagues land, the Twin pilots have had to first size up the vertical visibility ie the ceiling “At least 1000 feet” has estimated Jim Hattew, the head pilot at the beginning of the afternoon. This was confirmed by the weather balloon that Timo Palo has let go in the polar atmosphere for the Geography institute of the Tartu University (Estonia). The modern Zeppelin, that measures 4,5 meters long and 2 meters wide is bright orange and perfectly visible. One can spot it clearly up to 400 meters high which indicates the ceiling. From the runway that is located 800 meters from there, on can still see it. This gives us a good estimate of the ground visibility: 900 meters. The DC3 can land.

This information is communicated to Brian Crocker who is still 25 minutes away from Tara. From the cockpit of the Twin Otter, Jim informs his colleague that the balloon will be lowered to 30 meters at his approach and that a distress rocket will be lit at the beginning of the runway where the Twin Otter will position itself.

Matching his actions to his words, Jim is moving the throttle and makes the plane spin on its skis. The Twin Otter as well as the DC3 are not equipped with directional landing gear; To move these planes on the ground, the engines need to be activated to anticipate exactly the resulting sideslip. Precise manoeuvring, delicate but accomplished with mastery by the head pilot who drives his throttles to the tip of his fingers makes the plane slide to its spot. It is most probably visible from the sky because of its colour orange. On the ground, one does not have the impression that visibility exceeds 100 meters. Everything is still so white.

In front of us, the runway is marked out with barrels and some flags.
The strip is in fact just made of snow that has been packed down, slightly more flat than the surrounding pack ice. From the sky anyway, the lack of relief prevents one from distinguishing it from the rest of the landscape. Some meters behind the plane, Guillaume, Taras’ mechanic is about to light the distress rocket that is used as a signal buoy. The DC3 is now tree minutes away from his first approach: he must fist pretend to land, by flying as close to the ground as possible to identify the runway before turning around and land at his second passage. The landing without being dangerous is nevertheless perilous.

It is at this particular moment that Brian Hattew and Mathew Colistro his co-pilot in the Twin notice two fluorescent figures, right in front of them on the runway. Two members of the Tara expedition (we will not disclose their names) were heading right where the DC3 is supposed to touch down the ice. It is likely that they were convinced that the plane would land in the other direction and that they found themselves at the end of the runway…
Mathew then opens the door of the Twin, sets foot on the snow and runs to warn the two reckless persons not to remain there. The figures scatter off to the sides.

With engines roaring, the oblong shape of the DC3 passes over the Twin, flies over the runway a few meters above the ground in a cotton cloud. The plane turns on his left wing, rises up again to turn around and aligns itself with the Twin. Brian Crocker informs his colleague Jim that the runway is well visible and that he is ready to land. In a renewed white roar, the DC3 flies closely over the Twin, maybe 10 meters over, goes down slowly… stable on his landing strip and touches down. In his seat, the Twin co-pilot, Mathew approves the performance by applauding: “great landing”.