Sirius: Patrolling the far north

Tobias Kolhorn is a Sirius patrolman. For 2 years he has been criss-crossing the Greenland National Park for the Danish navy.

For 24 months he has not returned home nor seen his relatives. No telephone network, not even an Internet connection, Sirius patrolmen have no communication with the outside world. During this time, Tobias left the Arctic Circle only once: to have a mandatory dental check-up in Reykjavik, Iceland. When we were docked near the military base of Ella, the Taranautes were able to get acquainted with this young sergeant.

Base militaire danoise d'Ella, côte est du Groenland.

Danish military base Ella, east coast of Greenland 

Tobias is part of an elite unit of the Danish navy – the Sirius Patrol. A group of carefully selected young men who must meet very high physical and psychological requirement. There were between 50 and 100 candidates, but only 7 were selected to integrate an intense training program in Greenland. Like a  “Survivor” program without cameras. For 7 months, Tobias and his colleagues were introduced to survival skills in the Arctic and the handling of dogsleds. They now know how to deal with a pack, and can take care of the animals in case of injury. And of course they have mastered the use of guns  to confront a bear or other threat. The mission of Sirius is well defined: they must perform  reconnaissance patrols with sleds  over long distances, and enforce Danish sovereignty over this immense Arctic region.

Tobias Kolhorn was selected to join the elite unit of the Navy: the Sirius Patrol. Cut off from the outside world, he has been traversing Greenland by dogsled for 24 months

Tobias Kolhorn was selected to join the elite unit of the Navy: the Sirius Patrol. Cut off from the outside world, he has been traversing Greenland by dogsled for 24 months

This unit was established in 1941 during World War II to prevent the Germans from landing along the northeast coast of Greenland. At the time the enemy was seeking to establish secret meteorological bases in the area in order to obtain information necessary to support the U-Boats and predict weather changes in Europe. Today the unit is still operating in the region, from the west coast of Hall Land up to Kap Biot, north of Fleming Fjord. A distance of 2,100 kilometers as the crow flies, but actually spanning 16,000 kilometers of rugged coastline.

The young sergeant leads Taranauts on a tour of the Ella military base. From left to right:  Dominique Limbour, Tobias Kolhorn and Sylvie Duboué.

The young sergeant leads Taranauts on a tour of the Ella military base. From left to right: Dominique Limbour, Tobias Kolhorn and Sylvie Duboué.

Tobias is completing a 2-year contract and is about to return to Denmark where he worked as a carpenter before joining the unit. When asked what prompted him to get involved, he replied: “I wanted to live this experience, discover the nature of Greenland, and test my strength in an inhospitable environment.” Here, the young Sirius officer discovered a simple life, punctuated by winter patrols, life with dogs and military discipline. He learned about himself and was able to test his limits: “If you get the right training, you’re ready physically and mentally, you can face anything. Now I know how to discipline myself, manage my stress, and make the right decisions at the right time.”

The region the Sirius patrol crossed by dog sled.

The region the Sirius patrol crossed by dog sled.

In summer, the Sirius patrol sails through the fjords to refuel the bases and huts they will use during the winter. When the sun no longer rises during the long months of ice, Sirius criss-crosses the north of the territory: “We patrol from November 1st to  December 20th , then we spend the Christmas holidays at the Daneborg base. We leave between January 20th  and February 20th.  Two of us work together with  13 dogs, we camp in tents, sometimes in huts. The temperature can drop to -35 ° C.”

When on  a surveillance mission, the days begin at 8 am by a call to the Daneborg station. Then they must harness the dogs and go off for 6 hours. The ritual is always the same: drive the sleds in the cold, pitch the tent, feed the dogs, making sure that each one has its ration and so on.

The Sirius patrol  traverses northern Greenland, a small part of a territory the size of Europe.

The Sirius patrol traverses northern Greenland, a small part of a territory the size of Europe.

When he arrived in Greenland, Tobias was struck by the immensity of the landscape: “At first it was difficult to determine the distances: 5km or 25km, impossible to say. There’s nothing to see on  the horizon.”  He became familiar with the territory, and in summer he travels over it  running rather than walking.  What does he miss the most in Denmark? Tall trees, the smell of spring, his friends and playing soccer. The little things of everyday life that he doesn’t have here.

: During the winter, the sergeant is responsible for a pack of 13 Greenland dogs.

During the winter, the sergeant is responsible for a pack of 13 Greenland dogs.

What will he miss when he returns home? The simple life, with nothing superfluous, and of course the dogs, to whom he has become attached. Tobias doesn’t know yet what he’ll do back home. Probably travel for a while, then settle down, and why not join the police. He wants to work with people and thinks he can make a difference by becoming a policeman.

Noëlie Pansiot

In the wake of the Vikings

While Tara is currently sailing in the northern latitudes, let’s take a look at the history of the Vikings with Thomas Birkett, Professor at the University of Cork, Ireland.

Oxford graduate, this Welsh researcher specializes in medieval culture and the runic alphabet –  the first writing system used in northern Europe. In use between the 1st and 15th centuries in certain regions of Sweden, runes appeared on a wide variety of objects found from Turkey to Greenland: dolmens, coins, small pieces of wood or bone.

It seems that the name “Greenland” originated with the Vikings

Yes, several medieval Icelandic sources attribute this name to the Scandinavian explorer Erik the Red, who established a settlement in the newly discovered land after being exiled from Iceland for murder. The Sagas - a literary form that developed in medieval Iceland during the 12th and  13th centuries, consisting of legends, historical and fictional accounts in prose - tell us that Greenland was discovered accidentally some years earlier when a ship travelling to Iceland was blown off course by a storm. Erik named the country “Greenland” to encourage others to settle there. He believed that a promising name would attract many people.

Erik established his colony in the 980s, before Iceland adopted Christianity. In the following decades, 2 main settlement areas developed, known as the “east” and “west” settlements, but both situated on the west coast of Greenland.The Norse settlers adopted farming practices they had used in Norway and Iceland, rearing cattle and sheep. They supplemented their diet by fishing and hunting. There is some disagreement about the total size of the Norse settlements, but the population was certainly over 2,000 people, and may have been considerably larger. Several churches were built, and a bishopric was established at Garðar in the eastern settlement. The site of the cathedral was one of the first to be excavated in Greenland. The foundations can be seen close to the present town of Igaliku.

Did these settlers have links with other populations in the north?

The  settlers maintained close contacts with the rest of the Norse colonies. They remained dependent on Norway for their supply of merchandise: iron, timber, and most important, beer! In return, they traded in valuable walrus ivory and probably furs. As in Norway, the Greenlanders used runes, and the inscriptions tell us quite a bit about their way of life. Despite being isolated geographically, they reacted to developments elsewhere in the Norse world. The Sagas and archaeological excavations of more than 600 Norse farms shed light on the population. We know for example that the biggest farms had large halls that could serve as welcome centers: feasts were held, stories told, guests entertained, and business carried out.

One of the most famous of the Greenland Vikings was Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, who led an expedition to Newfoundland and was the first European to explore North America (around the year 1000). His adventures in the ‘land of vines’, including encounters with the Native Americans, are recorded in the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. In Greenland itself there seems to have been minimal contact with the Inuit peoples, who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, though some trade probably occurred. In fact, the unwillingness of the Norse to learn from and adopt the practices of the Inuits may have contributed to the demise of their settlements.

thomas birkett credit Anders Jensen

Do we know the reasons for their departure?

It’s one of the big questions in Old Norse-Viking studies, and there’s no consensus on the subject! We know the western settlement was abandoned by 1350, and the eastern one disappeared sometime later, in the 15th century.

Some researchers see this as a direct result of climate change. Temperatures certainly  started to become cooler around the year 1300, leading to the ‘Little Ice-Age’ in Europe. Greenland was always a very difficult land for farming, so the climate change would have increased pressures on the colony. The western settlement farthest to the north was the first to be abandoned, which confirms the theory of climate-induced resettlement. But the cooling climate alone doesn’t account for the abandonment. The effects of human activities on the land may have been an important component, including soil erosion caused by overgrazing, and the destruction of what little vegetation existed. These human impacts on a very fragile landscape would have made the traditional agricultural practices increasingly difficult to sustain. There is also some evidence of a decline in the diet of the Norse settlers. Knife marks on a dog bone have been interpreted as a desperate action during a particularly bad winter.

Other scholars believe that the settlement wasn’t as precarious as previously thought and that it was abandoned for other reasons. The Vikings’ departure may have been precipitated by attacks from the Inuit or European pirates, but there is little evidence to support this theory. An outbreak of the plague or a decrease in trade with Norway may also explain the decline. Another reason may be that the settlers continued to look back to the Norse homelands rather than to their nearest neighbours. The Vikings always refused to adopt Inuit practices – such as harpoon hunting. They stubbornly clung to European customs and traditions of animal husbandry. The decline of their settlement was perhaps not due to their incapacity to deal with an extreme environment – after all, the settlement developed successful strategies that enabled it to endure for around 500 years – but rather was caused by an inability to change their traditional behaviour in response to climate change, as well as their failure to learn from a people who had adapted over a much longer period of time and who were more resilient to change.

In the end, tradition seems to have been more important to the colonists than innovation and adaptation, and this made the collapse of the society inevitable – perhaps another important lesson for us.

Interview by Noëlie Pansiot

Tara-Ecopolaris 2015: Logistics

Member of GREA, logistician of the 2015 Tara-Ecopolaris mission, and scientific assistant, Brigitte Sabard is also involved in the educational component of Tara Expéditions via the organization “Les amis de Tara”. For the first time a mission gives her the opportunity to wear her three hats at once. Brigitte discusses her relationship with Tara, as well as the organization of the mission that has just come to an end.

What is your role within the Tara Expeditions land team?

Ever since the Tara Arctic expedition, my friendship for this adventurous family and for Etienne Bourgeois motivated my involvement in Tara’s educational projects, in cooperation with several institutional and associative partners. This happens to fall within my professional skills (consultant in environmental education, science communication and project management at the University). I’ve been committed to Tara for more than 8 years now,  coordinating educational outreach. I create concepts and look for funding with Xavier Bougeard, who is in charge of implementing actions, developing and animating relations with teachers and researchers.

What criteria is the logistical success of an expedition based on?

Two parameters are essential: stay within budget and optimize the logistics-to-science ratio. This means carrying as many people as possible aboard the aircraft that flies to our study area in Greenland, and conversely, minimizing the weight of the equipment. This ratio must be optimal. Of course we need to know what to take and for how many people, what can be conserved or not. This year, we divided foodstuffs per fortnight and stored them in barrels.

Ecopolaris is supported by sponsors who trust us. The money we don’t spend on food or equipment can be otherwise invested, for example in very costly scientific material. The Paul Emile Victor Polar Institute finances 50% of our expeditions since we’re connected to the University of Burgundy. This year our sponsors have given us a real helping hand with food supply. For instance, Moulins des Moines and Intermarché gave us dry goods for the next 3 years, including the current mission with Tara. There are others: Vitagermine for fruit juices and compotes, les Jardins de Gaia for tea, the delicatessens Salaison Sabatier and Les Roches Blanches for cured meat products, Knorr for dried vegetables, Pomona for fresh produce and Columbia for our personal clothing.

All of Tara’s partners have contributed to making this mission possible. Thank you!

What role has Tara played during this expedition?

Beyond the rich scientific component, 11 years after our first collaborative mission, Tara is still offering us great logistical assistance, in line with her mission of supporting scientific research. Tara’s team knows that every year we have to transport a lot of equipment. All this has a cost, and GREA is a non-profit organization operating on its own funds. Tara has therefore proved to be an economical and environmentally friendly way to ship our material. Let’s consider, for instance, 1 kg of pasta delivered by air to our study area in Hochstetter at 76° North. In the end, it costs about 15 euros per kilogram. In France, we loaded nearly a ton of equipment on board, including fuel for camping stoves and boats, and batteries for solar collectors. Thanks to Tara’s logistical support, we’ve been able to send a 3-year supply of dry goods. Along our route we made 2 deposits of equipment -one for a future expedition aboard a dinghy, and the other for the next annual GREA expedition, the “Karupelv Valley Project”. It’s very important for us, because this will enable us to travel lighter aboard our dinghy next year, save fuel and cover a great distance from the Zackenberg scientific base in the north to Mesters Vig in the south, where we’ll be able to supplement the data we’ve collected with Tara this summer.

We had also planned to pick up Eric Büchel and Vadim Heuacker, two GREA ornithologists who worked this summer at Hochstetter and have finally joined us at Mestersvig to return to Iceland aboard the schooner.

To sum up, the assistance provided by Tara has 3 impacts: ecological, economic and scientific. When we charter an aircraft from Iceland to our study area, we are limited by the maximum weight allowed on the plane, which amounts to one ton. The less equipment we carry, the more scientists can come aboard. In general, a person is counted as 100 kg on board a small plane. Thanks to the drop-off we’ve just made with Tara’s logistical support, we’ll be able to bring more researchers on site to collect more data.

The ice conditions we encountered this summer are unique: patches of multi-year ice coming from the Arctic were very dense, and lasted late in the season. They prevented us from sailing up to Hochstetter. However, we did manage to drop-off a ton of equipment at the Mesters Vig military base, which is already a great accomplishment! Next year, we’ll have to find a way to transport our barrels further north, hopefully with the logistical support of the Danish military base at Mesters Vig.

Interview by Noëlie Pansiot

Internet links:

Tara Expeditions website: Educational outreach,

GREA website (Research Group in Arctic Ecology)

 

Kitchen Confidences

Aboard Tara, the cook plays a key role. It’s an established fact, recognized by all – in short,   common knowledge. Guarantor of troop morale, Dominique Limbour, nicknamed “Do”, looks after what some call “our second brain”: our stomach. For this professional nurse, caring for others is second nature.

N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

“Do” is also a full-fledged sailor who doesn’t hesitate to put on her sailing jacket and lend a hand during maneuvers. Her connection to the sea is obvious. The sea is a vital element for this Pisces who needs to see it, swim in it whenever she can – even in high northern latitudes – or let herself be carried by its movement aboard a ship.

When she isn’t wearing her apron aboard Tara, she works at the infirmary of the Brittany Ferries. “Do is a nurse with a huge heart” says Mathieu Oriot, sailor and diver, accustomed to traveling with her. “She takes care of us with food, medicine and psychology.” Aboard the schooner, she’ll end up fixing up sores and injuries if need be, although the responsibility of care remains with the Captain. On board, she leaves behind the pharmacopoeia in favor of quality produce. Delicacies she carefully selects at the markets, in sufficient quantity for the duration of the expeditions.

Her dishes win unanimous support, whether they come out of a cookbook or her imagination. She knows the culinary preferences of everyone. Daniel Cron, Chief Engineer, knows it: “She’ll think of me when there’s a pot of hot chocolate to finish…” But the cook not only makes sure that our bellies are satisfied, she also manages the provisions so the delights of the palate last over time. Here, in the polar region, fresh produce is scarce.

Sweet and calm, even in her tone of voice, the lady cheerfully lends an ear to the Taranauts and gladly becomes their confidante. During morning exchanges with Martin, Tara’s captain, they often converse near the stove, while preparing tea and coffee in the long and narrow kitchen located just below the mess room. While everyone’s still asleep, these two are already accomplices.

From time to time, a sailor offers his help in the kitchen. Do, who doesn’t like her kitchen being invaded, accepts the helping hand of the improvised assistant. Surrounded by the tinkling of pots and utensil noises, people lower their voices, exchanges become more personal. The protagonists of the discussion naturally isolate themselves by their postures: standing in front of the workbench, turning their back on the other crew members. The time is ideal to discuss family issues, romantic woes, long journeys…

The crew’s queen of hearts develops bonds of a different nature with everyone, at their own pace, as conversations and circumstances allow. Louis Wilmotte, the youngest crew member, never misses an opportunity to tease her. It’s not uncommon that he addresses her starting sentences with “Mum”. Dominique’s reaction is often the same: she replies grumpily but always shows the smile of someone who can’t resist humor. According to Louis who loves to banter with his fellow sailors, “when a matter of importance arises, I turn to Dominique”.

Interview by Noëlie Pansiot

 

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.

IMG_1253

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.

IMG_1072

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.”

IMG_4069

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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- En route to Paris Climate: destination Greenland

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

Articles associés :

- Greenland ice forces Tara to be patient

- Library : check our photos, videos…

- En route to Paris Climate: destination Greenland

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

 

Greenland ice forces Tara to be patient

At this season in the Arctic’s high latitudes, the great white continent has not yet freed its coasts of ice. Patience and prudence are the golden rule in navigation. Tara’s voyage to Greenland will take a little more time than anticipated.

The schooner, engaged in the Tara Ecopolaris mission with members of the Arctic Ecology Research Group (GREA), will facilitate the study of birds living in this very isolated polar region.

D.Dimeo/Tara Expéditions

D.Dimeo/Tara Expéditions

Just as they did 11 years ago, Etienne Bourgois and Jean Collet (first captain of Jean Louis Etienne’s boat in 1989) arranged to meet aboard Tara in Iceland. In 2004, the gray schooner had just become the property of Etienne Bourgois and agnès b. This was the beginning of a series of expeditions on the east coast of Greenland in the company of Olivier Gilg and Brigitte Sabard, French experts on Arctic ecosystems.

This time around the 2 ornithologists left their belongings on the boat, docked at Akureyri, and flew last Wednesday to Constable Pynt, one of the only places on the remote east coast that has a small airstrip. The next day, Tara left the port of Iceland’s second biggest city and made her way north to retrieve the two GREA scientists. But the Scoresbysund Fjord, which according to satellite maps provided by NASA still seemed accessible, was completely blocked. Strong north winds have pushed the ice towards land, closing the passage.

After a very rough crossing, Tara had to slalom among the first pieces of ice that showed up 80 miles offshore. The boat then traversed a second ice barrier, but the third one proved to be more resistant. The battle with the giant blocks turned to the advantage of the elements. Winds 35 to 40 knots northeast were predicted.

For obvious security reasons, the decision was made to head back to Iceland. Friday, July 10 at 7 pm, after hours of zigzagging in the freezing cold among numerous blocks of ice, Tara managed to get to safety, a little further out to sea.

With binoculars in hand and a lookout perched at the top of the mast, the crew turned the boat back south. “We were hoping for a change, but the weather reports don’t foresee one before 3 or 4 days,” said Captain Martin Hertau. Nothing dramatic in the polar situation this year. The dominance of north winds for weeks has pushed the ice to the south, and even the west coast of the continent is still in the grip of ice.

Sunday July 12 around 10 pm, after a downwind crossing, Tara arrived in Akureyri. Moored in a small fishing port, Tara must await the green light of the ice maps before doing the crossing again in the other direction.

Dino Di Meo, correspondent aboard Tara

A new age of discovery

A new age of discovery

The large-scale expeditions Tara Arctic (2006-2008) and Tara Oceans (2009-2012) were received with great acclaim by the scientific community.

In the science world, data collection is only the tip of the iceberg. Before a scientific article can be written the data is subjected to a long period of analysis, comparison and supplementary research. Much time is required between starting the research and finally making the findings « official » by publishing them. According to Éric Karsenti, research director at the CNRS (France’s National Centre for Research) and at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), this can take several years even for projects with a limited data collection phase. However for such large-scale projects as the Tara expeditions « operations take place on a completely scale », he says.

Tara Oceans gradually unveiling the secrets of plankton

It has been four years since the launch of this last expedition, involving the CNRS, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission and the EMBL, and already eight scientific articles have been published. This gives an idea of the huge amount of knowledge that it will be possible to draw from Tara Oceans. One of these articles, for example, reveals the relationship between certain viruses and other planktonic organisms. Éric Karsenti is particularly pleased with this work: « It’s the first publication to show how data from the Tara can be employed to explain interactions between different organisms. One of the aspects we were really keen to understand was what interacts with what in the ocean. » These initial results are exciting and concern just one of the many fields of research covered by the Tara Oceans project. Moreover this particular study only focused on seventeen of the samples collected during the expedition. In all, Tara Oceans brought back some 28,000 samples, which provides an indication of the wealth of findings to come. Other publications released in recent months include the explanation of a new method for analysing bacterial diversity in samples and the description of a new species of coral discovered in the Gambier Islands (Pacific Ocean). There is still an enormous amount of data analysis to be done, which explains why such articles have so far been limited to a few highly-specific topics. The sequencing of all of the samples alone is expected to take two to three years. « We are currently working on a publication on global and local diversity in eukaryotes*, how they differ from one region to another » says Éric Karsenti. « Another study due to be published comprises a global catalogue of bacterial genes ».

For the time being though people will have to settle for the preliminary results. Thanks to the Tara Oceans expedition there are now thought to be over a million species of protists**, whereas previous estimates considered there to be around 100,000. Sequencing performed on protist samples from twenty-eight of the 153 sampling stations revealed that eight-five per cent of them had previously unknown DNA sequences. In addition to the studies carried out by the Tara Oceans project teams, a whole host of further research may be started in coming years. One such project called Oceanomics*** is already underway. This project consists of structuring the thousands of samples and data collected during the Tara Oceans expedition to understand the nature and functioning of world the wide planktonic biodiversity and eventually extract certain bioactive planktonic compounds that show promise for, for example, biofuels and pharmaceutical applications.

The first data sets will be made available online to the scientific community by the end of the year. Éric Karsenti says: « It is without doubt the most signif icant achievement of an expedition like this. It is similar to a library where researchers the world over will be able to work on the Tara Oceans samples, and who knows what might be the result. »

Tara Arctic improving understanding for better forecasting

The Tara Arctic Drift of 2006 to 2008 has already led to the publication of over two dozen scientific publications. A substantial quantity of information has already been analysed, according to Jean-Claude Gascard, research director at the CNRS who was in charge of the scientific programme for Tara Arctic and of the DAMOCLES research programme: « The data collected during the expedition will serve as a reference on an Arctic system undergoing profound transformation and I wouldn’t be surprised if people are still publishing works based on this data ten years from now. » The first major result to come out of Tara Arctic concerned the drift process itself and this has led to several publications. The expedition was originally planned to take a thousand days, as the Fram had done over a century before. However the Tara completed the drift in just 500 days, demonstrating the increase in Arctic ice drift speed. Following this initial major finding, several works were published on the interactions of the three Arctic system components: ice, atmosphere and ocean. « The Tara has helped to highlight the formation of ice crystals, called Frazil ice, which rise to the surface », explains Jean-Claude Gascard. « The existence of this phenomenon in Antarctica was already well known, but we managed to show that it is a major phenomenon in the formation of Arctic ice too ». As regards atmosphere, research conducted aboard the polar schooner has helped to achieve a better definition of the lower Arctic atmosphere which is in contact with the ice and which is essential to air-ice interactions. « We had very little information on these lower levels which are difficult to study with satellites and automatic stations » Gascard says. « Indeed, the advantage of Tara Arctic is having people on board to operate instruments that we don’t yet know how to automate ». Finally, several publications have investigated ice sheet movements through the application of seismological techniques. All of the findings from the data collected during the Tara Arctic Drift will help achieve a better understanding of the complex Arctic system, and thus improve forecasting models. These it systems simulate the behaviour of the atmosphere, oceans and ice to provide short-term scenarios, ice charts and weather forecasts, as well as more long-term simulations which are crucial to research on climate change. Within the next few years conclusions drawn from Tara Arctic, in addition to other research, will be integrated into the various digital models to improve forecasting capacity. We are therefore already on track towards the first concrete applications of research conducted aboard the Tara.

Yann Chavance

Read this article on Tara’s 10 years journal

* : Single-celled or multicellular organisms that are characterized by the presence
of a nucleus.
** : Unicellular organisms with nuclei that are the ancestors of all forms of life.
Certain types are photosynthetic, such as diatoms.
*** : The Oceanomics project – wOrld oCEAN biOresources, biotechnology,
and earth-systeM servICeS – won the French government’s ‘Investments

Observation of polar bears during the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition

Observation of polar bears during the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition

During the 7-month Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition in the Arctic (May to December 2013) sailors and scientists aboard Tara repeatedly sighted polar bears – a total of 14 individual animals. Their observations were recorded on special data sheets designed by the association “Pôles Actions,” a group that retrieves data for a study of the polar bear population throughout the Arctic basin. At the request of Pôles Actions, we added this modest mission of observation to our primary objective of studying planktonic ecosystems.

This technique of participatory science is currently booming. It consists of organizing the collection of scientific data by volunteers. The data entry sheets are easy to complete, and greatly increase the number of observations available to scientists who can not be everywhere, thus broadening their field of study. And the volunteer has the pleasure of making a small contribution to knowledge of our planet.

During this expedition, 12 data sheets corresponding to 12 separate sightings (one bear was reported on two different data sheets) and a total of 14 bears were noted by our cooks, Celine Blanchard and Dominique Limbour, who volunteered for the job.

For 2 sightings, sailors observed a female with her young. In the first case, on August 17, 2013, there were 2 cubs less than one year old. The sighting took place in exceptional circumstances since the animals were observed for 40 minutes. The mother bears were lying on a piece of drifting ice. The cubs suckled, swam and played around – an unforgettable spectacle! In the second case, on August 20th, the mother bear had only one cub. They were too far from the boat for us to observe specific behavior.

Of these 12 sightings, 5 were made ​​in the Russian archipelago Franz Josef at 80° North. This place is difficult to access because of climatic, geographical and political obstacles. Tara had the chance to sail there for a few days. The data is of particular value. Some of these islands are home to very large colonies of seabirds, and also walruses and seals. Marine life is very rich here, and provides a wide variety of prey for polar bears.

Five sightings concern bears on the ice pack, or on pieces of floating ice. During the Arctic summer,  bears have to travel great distances at sea or on the ice pack to hunt seals. This favorite prey is difficult to capture during the summer. In other sightings, bears were walking around on land close to the sea. In fact, the polar bear’s Latin name – Ursus maritimus – means ‘sea bear,’ and it is indeed a remarkable swimmer with great endurance. In these icy regions, most elements of the food chain are of marine origin. The bear gets most of its food from the sea.

The multiplication of sightings will allow scientists to assess the state of bear populations in the period of climate change we are currently experiencing, particularly in the Arctic. The polar bear’s  environment is undergoing very profound and rapid changes. In summer, the ice pack’s surface area and overall volume decrease. The water gets warmer. Will the bears be able to adapt? We do not know yet, and all the information collected will help us learn more.

Xavier Bougeard

Head of educational programs

To learn more, join us at  the conference “What future for the polar bear?” organized by the Association Pôles Actions, March 28th and 29th in Paris. Lectures will take place at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. Programmed at the Geode: an afternoon for young people, and Les Nuits Boréales, with film projections at both events. Roman Troublé, secretary general of Tara Expeditions, will give a presentation about the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition on Friday, March 28, at 8pm.

Conference program and registration: More information

Reservations for Les Nuits Boréales at the Géode: More information

The best of focus of Tara Oceans Polar Circle

While Tara is at the boatyard in Lorient and waiting for her new departure in May in the Mediterranean, we invite you to relive the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition in a best of focus, from May to December 2013. Have a good trip…

May 21st 2013
ENVIRONMENTAL AND GEOPOLITICAL ISSUES IN THE ARCTIC
After three centuries of development based on the use of fossil fuels, mankind is undoubtedly entering a transitional phase. Today even the greatest skeptics can no longer deny that climate change is a reality that we need to understand in order to adapt. The warming of the atmosphere, disruptions in the world’s climate and rising sea levels have a global impact that are especially evident in the Arctic ecosystem. We can currently observe the accelerated melting of the polar ice pack, a phenomenon that in turn impacts the global climate, oceans, coastlines and the entire biodiversity of the region. The observation of what happens in this fragile and unique ecosystem is important, not only to help preserve it, but also to understand the causes and effects of climate change at a global level. Today certain important climate issues are particularly linked to the Arctic environment :

June 26th 2013
TARA ARCTIC LIVE, A SPECIAL LINK
A daily breath of fresh air! Follow the Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition live on the internet. During this scientific and human adventure, 25,000 kilometers around the Arctic Ocean, you can view videos and photos sent daily by the team on board, including sequences from 4 video cameras installed in various places on the sailboat.

July 7th 2013
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.

August 7th 2013
BETWEEN DUDINKA AND PEVEK: INTERVIEW WITH THE NEW CHIEF SCIENTIST ON BOARD
Pascal Hingamp embarked in Dudinka (Russia), replacing Lee Karp Boss as chief scientist.
The first daily sampling station of the leg between Dudinka and Pevek will start in 2 days. But before maneuvers start on deck, Pascal takes a moment to explain the scientific program for the coming months.

La ville de Pevek en Russie

A.Deniaud/Tara Expéditions

September 9th 2013
INTERVIEW: JEAN CLAUDE GASCARD
“In the future, the Northeast and Northwest passages will tend to open up earlier and close in later, except for a seasonal anomaly related to natural variability, as we saw this year.”?

October 12th 2013
LOOKING BACK ON 2 PASSAGES
As part of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition, Tara crossed the Northeast (Russian) and Northwest (Canadian) Passages in just 3 months. It was one of the major challenges of this expedition around the Arctic Ocean, which included a complete sampling of marine organisms at the edge of the ice pack. Captain Loïc Vallette, and Romain Troublé, Secretary General of Tara Expeditions (who embarked at Pond Inlet, Canada) look back on the 2 most critical points of this adventure.

November 14th 2013
TARA: 10 YEARS OF COMMITMENT, AND RETURNING FROM THE ARCTIC EXPEDITION
After the 7-month Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition around the North Pole, Tara will  be coming back to France on December 7.
The return will be celebrated on Saturday, December 7, in Lorient, Tara’s home port, and on Sunday, December 8, at the Salon Nautique in Paris. These events will also be an opportunity to recapitulate the commitments of Tara Expeditions, and to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

November 11th 2013
WHY TARA STOPPED AT ST PIERRE ET MIQUELON
This overseas territory is often overlooked on lists of France’s “old” DOM-TOM, yet it’s of major importance in more ways than one.

Saint Pierre et Miquelon

Y.Chavance/Tara Expéditions

December 12th 2013
MEMORIES OF THE EXPEDITION
On Saturday the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition ended where it started – in the port of Lorient. Crew members came back full of memories of their icy voyage. Choice morsels

Oceans and carbon

As the Tara Oceans Arctic Circle expedition comes to an end, with thousands of plankton samples collected and stored in Tara’s freezers, one question is constantly asked by journalists and the general public who come to visit the boat.  What about  climate change? Although we’re not studying this issue directly, we have indeed been focusing on the organisms at the heart of the climate machine. To understand, we must first dissect the links between oceans and carbon.

We know that the global warming occurring on Earth for the last century is largely due to the release of carbon into the atmosphere. But we need to know what carbon we are talking about. Basically, carbon is an atom (denoted as C) which may be present in different molecules, each having very different properties. In the form of CO2 (a carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms), for example, this is a powerful greenhouse gas that traps infrared radiation in the atmosphere, pushing up the thermometer. This is the same carbon dioxide that comes out of our lungs every time we exhale, like all  animals on our planet. When we breathe, our body transforms oxygen (in reality, di-oxygen (or O2) into CO2. At the same time many organisms on Earth do exactly the reverse: with water and light, photosynthesis can provide oxygen while consuming CO2. This is the case for plants on land, but also of phytoplankton in the ocean, not to mention the many photosynthetic bacteria. But in this chemical exchange, the carbon atom does not disappear, but is incorporated into many glucose molecules, which provide energy to the body. Plankton is at the base of food chains, so carbon produced through  photosynthesis gradually finds its way into all surrounding organisms. It is important to understand that the Earth is in some ways a closed circuit. In the words of Lavoisier: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” The amount of carbon present on our planet is thus irrelevant. The question is to know what form it is in, and where. A delicate balance has been upset by human activities: carbon stored for millions of years in the form of fossil fuels such as oil is extracted in a few decades from the deep layers of the Earth, and eventually released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. The same applies to the problems of deforestation, where the carbon in trees is released into the air once they are cut and burned. Thus, we are in the process of emptying these famous “carbon sinks”.

Oceans at the heart of climate

While the Amazon rainforest is often referred to as the “green lung”, scientists now realize that the oceans play an equally important role as carbon sinks and source of oxygen. This is what is called the “carbon pump”. First, from a purely mechanical point of view, carbon dioxide is naturally dissolved in the oceans. As we have seen, phytoplankton transforms CO2 into O2 via photosynthesis. Finally, many planktonic organisms are also able to transform CO2, not into glucose molecules, but into carbonates (commonly known as chalk). Some small unicellular protists inhabiting the oceans produce a calcareous shell that sinks to the bottom of the seas after death. The same applies to all marine organisms (miniature carbon sinks), skeletons, and waste being deposited on the ocean floor that eventually form a sediment, thus keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Corals, too, are also carbonaceous secretions and are part of the carbon reservoir. Thus, the oceans and their inhabitants, while taking up a majority of the heat due to global warming and providing oxygen to our atmosphere, have already absorbed a third of CO2 emissions related to human activities, in the form of dissolved carbon or minerals.

A fragile equilibrium

This massive carbon sink could turn against us if the system’s equilibrium is destroyed. Many scientists fear this may happen. Global warming is beginning to show the limits of the oceanic carbon pump: higher temperatures decrease the dissolution of CO2 in water, and the oceans’ storage capacity  (which is not infinite and could reach saturation) could be dramatically reduced. Worse, the sink could turn into a carbon source, becoming a real time bomb. Another consequence of the rise in temperature is shown by the migration of some planktonic species to colder areas, disrupting a fine balance which has existed for millions of years. Finally, the lastest disturbing discovery: ocean acidification. Due to the increased CO2 concentration, the oceans are becoming more acidic, with still unclear impacts on plankton and corals, but surely impairing the healthy development of a large number of species. To investigate such impacts and attempt to find solutions, we must first of all understand the mechanisms of the carbon pump: which organisms are involved, how they participate, what are the consequences of temperature increases, acidity, concentration of CO2, etc. It is quite possible that some of the answers are now in Tara’s freezers.

Yann Chavance

Lorient, the day before Tara’s arrival

Sailboats in the port of Lorient have donned their festive lights. All around the city, posters announce the return of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. As if to herald this event, a “polar” cold has invaded the area. Despite this, Tara and her crew will receive an extremely warm welcome.

For over a month, the Tara Expeditions team has been working with Lorient Agglomeration on preparations. For Myriam Thomas, head of events, each return to Britanny is a special moment for Tara and her public: “As Taranautes, on land and at sea, we live a very strong adventure during the months of expedition, and even more so when the mission takes place in a polar environment. For us, the goal of the festive events in Lorient organized for Tara’s return, is to communicate this emotion with the public – to keep the link between Tara and all the people who follow the scientific adventures of the schooner.”
Since there’s no party without lights and music, festive illuminations appropriate for the holiday season will scintillate Saturday night, starting at 17:30. La Pétarade de Brest will be on the dock,  joining in the celebration of Tara’s 10th anniversary. Mulled wine will be served to all, and the people of Lorient can raise their glasses in honor of this return from the North Pole, before going to l’Espace Courbet to relive Tara’s expeditions on the big screen.

Seats are still available for the film screenings. Don’t hesitate to sign up.

Anna Deniaud

Answers to our readers’ questions

Last week, we suggested that you ask us questions. We posted your questions in the main cabin, amidst the many messages of friendship you sent us. Thank you everyone! Now it’s time to answer:

Mare Nostrum Project – How has the return trip been going? Are weather conditions good?

We expected a difficult voyage – taking such a northerly route at a time of year when stormy weather is usual. In fact we’re experiencing a rather unusual transatlantic crossing. We will have accomplished the entire voyage from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Lorient between two anticyclones, which means  rather calm seas and some beautiful sunshine, despite a little rain these last few days. So, we’re finishing an unusually comfortable crossing!

Christophe Michaud – Do you take measurements with a Geiger counter at certain depths during your travels and stopovers ?

The measurement of radioactivity might have brought  us some surprises, but it was not among the objectives of our mission. Besides the fact that the Rosette was already overloaded with sensors of all kinds! However, we regularly took measurements not directly related to plankton, for example the presence of mercury in the atmosphere or plastic in the water.

Pascale Piron – How can we remain positive, confronted with climate change, pollution, overfishing? What can an ordinary person do to try and reverse this “trend”?

Although the answer is necessarily subjective, we can at least say that these upheavals are now  inevitable. We must become aware of them in order to reduce the impact on our planet: it’s the first step towards changing our lifestyles. We can’t continue to consume as if we were still only 3 billion people on Earth, when in fact this figure has doubled. Aboard Tara, we’re already making the small efforts that should become the norm: buying responsibly, sorting our waste, reducing consumption of water and electricity, etc. A drop in the ocean, but…

Guy Loi – What’s your first feeling returning to port: proud of the work, or joy at finding your  family after so long?

Surely a perfect mix of both! Once we’re docked in Lorient on Saturday, we’ll all at least be relieved that this risky adventure was successful. We’ll be arriving on time, without major incidents, and in addition there’s a priceless treasure of samples on board. From a more personal point of view, it’s obvious that everyone will be  happy to see his family on the pier after several months of absence for some. Returning to land – especially after a 2-week transatlantic crossing – is always a high point, and the occasion to regain ground that’s no longer moving under our feet!

Yann Chavance… With the participation of the entire Tara crew!

Night Watch Story

It’s almost 4 in the morning. While I’m sound asleep, lulled by Tara’s movements, a hand taps me on the shoulder. Jerome has finished his shift and is waking the next watch. I get up with difficulty, ready for the next 2 hours.

Now it’s 4 o’clock. The ship’s roll that was rocking me a few minutes ago is now trying to make me fall down. I’m holding on to the walls in the corridor as I struggle to reach the cockpit. There I find Baptiste, also awakened recently. Words exchanged at the end of a short night are few and cursory. I refrain from complaining about this unwelcome wake-up call because at 6 o’clock, my watch will be over. Baptiste, however, like all sailors will be on his shift for 4 hours.

10 minutes have just gone by. Casting a sleepy glance through a window, I’m immersed in another world: the night is dark and so black that sea and sky are one. Tara seems plunged into a timeless space, without dimension, floating in darkness. In the cockpit, my computer screen casts a dim light in the middle of an army of buttons, radars, screens and levers dimly lit in red and green.

It’s 4:30 and Tara is still sleeping. The bustling anthill atmosphere during the day has stopped, replaced by silence with some clicking sounds on deck, and a line rhythmically clacking in the wind. The peaceful atmosphere is conducive to writing. A few emails to family and friends   to try and share some of our daily life — out of the ordinary, and at the same time so routine.

At 5 o’clock, as a crescent moon becomes dimly visible on the horizon, Baptiste leaves to make his round. While he passes meticulously through the bowels of the whale, ensuring that engines and machines are operating normally, I’m left alone on the bridge. As the moon begins its ascent, timidly lighting the crests of waves, I regularly survey the radar and horizon. Nothing. We are really alone in the midst of the ocean.

Quarter past 5 and Baptiste is back. We exchange roles. It’s my turn to don a headlamp for my round. No machine room for me, but a dry lab that never sleeps, with its slew of screens constantly projecting curves and statistics of all kinds. In the flickering of my light, I follow the protocol that details items to be checked. No cogitation necessary. The button is lit green, the curve is displayed correctly, lines of calculations appear on the screen with regularity. Everything is normal. I return to the bridge.

A last half hour to kill. Nothing on the horizon. Tara is surfing the waves with billowing sails. Conversation begins with my watch companion. We both know that this is a privileged moment  to talk, share our experiences, our previous expeditions, or our “other life” on land. The period of watch and its special atmosphere have inspired music lessons, introductions to foreign languages, and even heated discussions to remake the world. This time we are interrupted by Nadège, who frees me from my obligations.

It’s 6 o’clock and the end of my shift. The first light of dawn erases the moon’s path and announces a glorious sunrise. I could stay a few more minutes for the first rays illuminating the ocean, facing the waves on Tara’s bow, but I resist Neptune’s call preferring the arms of Morpheus. A few hours more sleep before the whale completely wakes up. The day ahead will be long. The next night too, with 2 hours shared with another sailor, for another story of quarter watch.

Yann Chavance

Last week of the expedition

Just a few more days! Next Saturday in the early evening, we’ll make our entry into Lorient, Tara’s home port from which she set sail for the Arctic on May 19. We already have the feeling of home-coming as we cover the 1,000 miles still separating us from our destination.

During the night between Saturday and Sunday, we were literally in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, exactly halfway there. On the navigation map, a small virtual flag had been planted at the exact point where for the first time we would be closer to Lorient than to Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon. It’s difficult to imagine that we’re actually here – a tiny dot in the middle of the vast blue area on the map.

On the bridge, it’s a desert of water stretching to the horizon – a monotony hardly disturbed by a battalion of seagulls, and some cargo ships appearing on our radar. Yet going beyond this small flag on the map makes us fully aware that the home port of Tara is quickly approaching. It’s an opportunity for the sailors to make an initial assessment,  after several months aboard for this scientific tour of the Arctic.

Even if we’re not there yet, we can already say that the expedition is a success” says Martin, the captain during this last part of the voyage. So far we’ve been pretty lucky, without any major incidents. Despite difficult conditions, we were able to do almost all the sampling stations planned.” For the captain, this success also reflects the experience of the crew: “Sailors and scientists were all well-adapted, thanks to the experience accumulated during Tara Oceans (2009-2012).”

For Daniel, chief engineer, the end point is coming at exactly the right time. “We’re beginning to feel tired. Since Ilulissat (Greenland), we’ve been sailing outside the Arctic. No more bears, northern lights, ice…Even though we’ve had two excellent stopovers since then, including a fabulous welcome in St. Pierre, we’re now back to something more classic, so we’re all the more anxious to arrive. And of course we’re impatient be reunited with our families!”

Baptiste had already sailed in Antarctica, but thanks to this expedition, he was able to discover the Great North. “I had never sailed further north than Cherbourg!”  he says with humor.  “I’m really  happy to have lived this experience.” For Nico, who has spent more than 4 months on board during the recent expedition, it’s hard to realize that arrival time is near. “It’s really strange to think that in a few days the circle will be closed. But I’ll be happy to arrive, to see people again. Also, we know the boat will leave again; it’s good to know that Tara has other projects.” And in conclusion the deck officer adds:  “But before that, we still have half an ocean to cross!

Yann Chavance

Science non-stop

Since sampling station number 211 ​​in the Labrador Sea, the rosette and nets have remained neatly stored on the rear deck. Does this mean no more scientific work will be done aboard Tara during the rest of the voyage, before our arrival in Lorient ? Explanation below:

The reason for ceasing the sampling stations is simple: a year and a half ago, the previous Tara Oceans expedition ended with a transatlantic crossing similar to this one, just a little further south. So there’s no reason to collect more samples in an area that we’ve already explored. But this doesn’t mean no science is being done aboard,” explained Fabien, oceanographic engineer. We’re still doing surface sampling — a whole range of sensors are constantly taking measurements on board.”

Specifically, a pump located under the hull of  Tara collects seawater which is then analyzed by a multitude of sensors that measure the levels of CO2, quantity of suspended solids, pH, temperature, and salinity. Every day, the CNRS engineer sends a portion of this data to the international Coriolis program which collects all the physico-chemical data of water bodies sent by research vessels worldwide.

The continuous surface data is also automatically saved on several hard drives on board, to be sure that   none of this valuable information is lost. “Every hour, I check the computers and instruments to make sure everything is functioning correctly,” says Fabien. At night, the people on watch do the same thing. It’s also the occasion to check the refrigerators where all the plankton samples have been stored since the beginning of the Arctic expedition – a very precious bounty.

Finally, Fabien takes 3 samples each day from water pumped beneath the hull: a milliliter of water is  immediately stored in liquid nitrogen, 2 liters are filtered to collect plankton and other particles, and  100 milliliters feed the FlowCam. This device continuously photographs the water flowing through it  and counts all the particles in suspension. The FlowCam can then classify them by size, and get a set of statistics. Thus, even without sampling stations, Tara continues adding to the huge data base accumulated during the nearly 7-month expedition.

Yann Chavance

Two scientific coordinators on board


In Quebec, Tara was fortunate to embark 2 scientific coordinators from the Tara Oceans and Tara Oceans Polar Circle expeditions. Christian Sardet, research director at the CNRS and author of “Plankton Chronicles” is particularly interested in imaging and is responsible for the expedition’s scientific mediation. Patrick Wincker is in charge of the sequencing platform of Génoscope-CEA and coordinates the genomics part of Tara’s research.  



What is the scientific coordinator’s job ?


Patrick Wincker:
Each coordinator is in charge of a domain, but there is some overlapping. A coordinator can be in charge of a scientific aspect, or a purely operational one, organizing scientific analyses from a certain perspective, for example, bacteria in general.



Christian Sardet: It was Eric Karsenti’s idea not to compartmentalize things. There was some overlapping, but after awhile each coordinator gradually found his domain. 



Where did the idea for this new expedition come from ?



CS: We had originally planned to sample in the Arctic during Tara Oceans, but the trip had to be shortened. It was also a good opportunity to combine the last 2 expeditions (Tara Arctic 2006-2008 and Tara Oceans 2009-2012), with atmospheric and ice thickness measurements from the Arctic drift and the sampling during Tara Oceans. This was a good approach, much more exhaustive than if it had been in the framework of Tara Oceans, because we had more time to reflect, and there was more equipment on board.



PW: There is also the fact that the question underlying Tara Oceans was climate change. So it was almost mandatory to pass through the Arctic, where climate change is most visible and where the phenomena are most important. And of course we were more experienced: with Tara Oceans, protocols required some time to set up, and they improved with use. For Tara Oceans Polar Circle, everything was already functioning. And personally, this meant that I could finally get on board!



One of the peculiarities of Tara expeditions is to bring together a large number of disciplines. Why is this interesting?



CS: It was very important to be multidisciplinary, and also very ambitious. Before we began, we spent several days together in one place, and each person presented to the others his views on how to proceed. It’s extremely rare to find a geneticist talking with an oceanographer. This was an extraordinary opportunity to become familiar with the language of different scientific fields.



PW: I think this expedition asked the right questions about each person’s limitations,   about the limitations of each method and specialization, about what each person could contribute to the others in trying to understand such a complex phenomenon. We’ll see how far we can go, but in any case, a method of working together definitely emerged.


Can this new way of doing science inspire other projects ?



PW: It’s a trend today, and other projects are beginning to adopt this approach, mixing ecologists, climatologists and in addition, genetics. We sense an emerging orientation.



CS: This is the flip-side to hyper-specialized research. There are things to be gained from hyper-specialization, but we also lose a lot. The interdisciplinary approach is a way to compensate for the limitations of hyper-specialization. 


What are the first results from these past 2 expeditions ?



CS: We already know that we have amassed an amazing collection. Obviously, we’ll try to reach some scientific conclusions, but the whole scientific community will be involved with that.



PW: In exploratory sciences, it’s not necessarily those who produced the initial data who will discover the most interesting things, and this has to be accepted. But I think our consortium is multidisciplinary enough to arrive at a number of original viewpoints concerning the results.


Interview by Yann Chavance

Approaching the finish line


At 7:30 am Monday morning in the small port of Saint-Pierre, Tara cast off her mooring lines one last time, having completed her 25,000 km journey around the North Pole. To finish the expedition, we have only the Atlantic Ocean to cross.  


We almost didn’t reach Saint Pierre and Miquelon because of a storm last Thursday. Then problems continued at departure time. Baggage containing an anemometer for the boat got lost in the maze of airports. Originally, we had planned to leave the archipelago Sunday at noon, but the expected luggage did not arrive until that evening, forcing us to postpone our departure until Monday morning. So, at night in the midst of a snowstorm, the sailors had to climb to the top of the 27 meter mast to attach the precious instrument.



This delay was unfortunate, since time is short before our scheduled arrival at Lorient — 2,200 miles away on the other side of the ocean. We have only 13 days to do the transatlantic crossing. For everyone on board, this voyage is not a trivial matter. Especially for Jerome Coindat, who embarked at Saint-Pierre, after the departure of Patrick Wincker, Christian and Noé Sardet. “My origins are in Brittany, and my great-grandparents came from Newfoundland, at a time when fishing in that part of the world was a real adventure.”


The adventure may have faded gradually with technical progress, but excitement is still present for those preparing a first transatlantic crossing. “This is a legendary voyage and it’s really great to be able to experience it from the inside.” said Marc. His enthusiasm is shared by Dino: “A transatlantic crossing still remains a challenge. For years I’ve been talking with sailors, and now  it will be an experience I can share directly.”



As for the sailors, this “crossing the river” (as they call it) will not be their first. Baptiste will be doing his 4th ‘transat’: “It’s always the first time that counts the most. All sailors dream of doing it at least once in their lives.”  “It’s very symbolic for a sailor,” continues Daniel, “it’s like rounding the 3 capes, or crossing the equator.” A vision shared by Martin, the captain, who has done 7 transats. “It’s even more important for us Europeans. For a long time we didn’t know what came after the ocean. A transat means going from one continent to another!” 



For Nadège, this voyage is a challenge: “It’s rare to do the crossing so far North, in a very stormy region, and especially this late in the season. Few boats attempt it.” A challenge that we are all ready to meet, since the goal so is close.  As Nico says: “We really feel that we’re approaching the finish line. This is a good way to complete the expedition.” Our next mooring will be at the docks of Lorient, the port we left seven months ago.



Yann Chavance

A little piece of France with a very big heart

A few days ago Saint Pierre and Miquelon meant hardly anything to us – just a tiny French territory lost at sea, somewhere near Newfoundland. But now Tara’s deck resounds with all sorts of stories about the archipelago, warmly recounted by residents happy to share their secluded life.



Upon our arrival we didn’t know much about St. Pierre’s inhabitants, but they were already well informed about us. At our very first encounters with people, we were greeted with a warm  “So you’re the Mailloux from Tara!” (= metropolitans). For 10 days, the archipelago had already been aware of our stopover via newspapers, local television and radio. Visits to the archipelago are rare, so our arrival was anticipated with great curiosity.

This interest in Tara was confirmed during visits on board: school children and students of all ages were welcomed aboard, and public tours of the boat were so successful that we had to schedule an extra half-day.

 Between each official presentation of the schooner were individual visits for those locals met by chance during the week who had shown us the archipelago’s legendary hospitality. The first contact was always spontaneous, simple and sincere, quickly followed by engaging conversation about our expedition, life on Saint-Pierre, its history and the origin of its inhabitants. Among these descendants of people from the Basque country, Brittany or Normandy, we had the pleasant feeling of already being back home, a little ahead of time.


Friendly exchanges often extended far beyond a simple conversation. An ornithologist invited us to wander the island to discover the local wildlife, and a photographer drove us around,  passionately explaining the rich history of the archipelago. Aboard Tara, gifts piled up in the main room: picture books, CDs by local artists, fish offered by a fisherman, deer meat from a hunter–to eat raw as an appetizer.

Receiving so much kindness and attention, it was sometimes difficult to show the full extent of our appreciation. Besides expressing our thanks, one thing is certain: back in France, the entire crew will be praising for a long time the warmth of this very cold land.



Yann Chavance

Stormy weather

It takes only 5 days to sail between Quebec and Saint-Pierre – about 700 miles. This could have been a calm voyage, but – since we left the estuary of the St. Lawrence River, the elements seem to be assaulting the schooner and her crew.

On Saturday morning, we left the port of Quebec to descend the St. Lawrence River. Water smooth as a mirror transported us for 2 days, and we enjoyed stunning sunsets as we passed through the estuary, the largest in the world. But soon the first bad news began to come in: a big storm was approaching, force 8 on the Beaufort scale, which ranges from 1 to 12. To protect the boat and its contents, the captain decided to make a 12-hour halt.

So, on the night of Sunday to Monday, Tara was anchored a short distance from the coast. In the morning, the crew woke up facing a tiny village of the Gaspésie region. The atmosphere here was very peaceful, while the storm was raging off shore. Early in the afternoon we finally hoisted anchor to traverse the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Though the wind had dropped to 25 knots (about 45 km/h), it was enough to shake up the schooner.

All night Tara pitched from port to starboard, rising above the waves then crashing down again, rhythming the night with incessant pounding. The first 2 days in the quiet of the river had spoiled us. Our tired faces in the early morning attested to the harsh reality of navigation in this part of the world, famous for violent storms from November to March.

Barely recovered from the epidemic of seasickness that hit the crew, we heard that another storm was coming up, even more violent than the first. Force 9, with winds of 45 knots, and gusts up to 60 knots – over 110 km/h. Hour after hour the crew waited for the latest weather maps. Scenarios of all kinds began to unfold: drop anchor near the coast until the storm passed, before continuing on to port the next day.

On Wednesday, the dreaded day, the latest news gave us some hope: the storm would happen at Saint-Pierre 5 hours later. This gave us a chance of arriving at port just in time. After a day of racing against the clock, many doubts remained: would we manage to arrive in time? Would the storm catch up with us? Would the pilot at Saint-Pierre agree to guide us safely to port, at night and in this heavy weather? On board, everyone wanted to believe in our good luck.

The big blue sky of this afternoon gave way to some ominous clouds. Night-time took over the deck, plunging Tara in total darkness, barely illuminated by a few lights on the nearby archipelago. After supper, the wheelhouse was filled with tense sailors, exchanging the latest news.

About 10 o’clock in the evening, an army of sailing jackets and headlamps spilled onto the deck, to haul down the remaining sails, before glimpsing the pilot’s boat. Once aboard Tara, the pilot (thanks to an acrobatic move from one vessel to another) guided us through the channel leading to the port. It was 11 pm, local time, when Tara was finally able to shut down her engines, moored along the quay with dozens of people braving the cold, waiting for our arrival. So, here we are in Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon – finally.

Yann Chavance

New departure, new team

After a short week in the Port of Quebec, Tara is heading for Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Four days of navigation ahead, including 2 days sailing down the immense St. Lawrence River: enough time for the new team to get acquainted.

The Quebec stopover ended Saturday morning, when we departed at dawn to take advantage of the St. Lawrence river’s powerful tide. After 6 days in Quebec, the boat suddenly found some peace and quiet again. Between the many visits of journalists, school kids and scientists, Tara was immersed in an almost constant tumult, and newcomers on board sometimes got a bit lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, as soon as we departed, everybody could calmly discover the boat and their traveling companions.

Of the present team, only Martin (the captain), Daniel (chief engineer), and Baptiste (first mate) were already on board when Tara arrived in Quebec waters. The 11 other passengers coming from Greenland, disembarked in Quebec. So, this Saturday morning, Tara counted many new faces among her guests. This is a first embarkment for Patrick (one of the expedition’s coordinators) and for Marc – 2 researchers at the Genoscope-CEA. Also for the first time on board, Fabien, the oceanographic engineer from Brittany.

Another scientist, Christian Sardet is aboard Tara again. His name may be familiar to people who have followed the schooner’s adventures in recent years. A coordinator of the expedition, Christian is the author of the documentary series “Chronicles of Plankton.” A series co-produced by his son Noé, who also embarked in Quebec. He will be doing watercolors and video.

Other artists on board are Rui An, and Alex from the collective 89+. They will recount their experiences aboard Tara via photos, videos, and other media. Needless to say, when we cast off, the deck was covered with various cameras and video recorders, including those of Dino Di Meo, another well-known name aboard Tara. He is co-author of “Tara Oceans: Chroniques d’une expédition scientifique”. As a journalist, he knows Tara intimately, but this is the first time he is voyaging aboard.

As for the sailors, Nico has been a regular on the schooner for nearly 10 years. He will be aboard until Lorient as deck officer. Finally, Dominique handed over the cook’s apron to Nadège who is ready to fill the bellies of all these people. The new crew has had very little time to get to know each other, but we expect that during the next 4 days at sea, until our stopover at Saint Pierre and Miquelon, bonds will quickly be established between the boat and the newcomers on board.

Yann Chavance

Entering the St. Lawrence River

After leaving our last anchorage at St. Barbe, Newfoundland, we’re on our way to the entrance of the St. Lawrence River. Conditions are good — north and west winds are less than 50 km/hour. The sun’s been with us so far, even if it’s cloudy at the moment. Quebec is only 400 nautical miles ahead of us.

After St. Barbe, the crew quickly hoisted the sails and we progressed at a quick pace for 24 hours with transverse northerly winds. But as predicted from the weather forecasts, the wind eased up and changed to the west, and we had to start the 2 engines to move forward facing the wind.

At the moment we are still under motor and have entered the Jacques Cartier Strait, between Anticosti Island and Quebec Province. As we continue along these coasts, many names are French: le Havre-Saint Pierre, la Pointe Paradis, la Rivière St. Jean, Sept-Îles (another nod to Brittany).

Only when we’ve passed Anticosti Island will we have truly entered the great river. Following in the footsteps of Jacques Cartier, who first named this great watercourse during his second trip (believing it to be the mouth of a gulf) is quite exhilarating. A dive into our past.

But let’s render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: it was Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec City in 1604, who finally — after “Rivière de Canadas” and then “Grande Rivière de Saint Laurent” — chose the definitive name, “fleuve St. Laurent.” By then the exact topography of the region was known.

Once we’re at the entrance of the river, which leads to the Great Lakes region, we’ll be in a tidal system among the world’s most active, with the Bay of Fundy further south. The tides can exceed 6 meters, the currents are strong and multi-directional, and there are many high sea beds. In winter, there’s even ice mixed into this cocktail.
Navigation is therefore not a simple excursion along the coast. Martin Hertau, our captain, will be accompanied by an obligatory pilot starting next Saturday for the journey to Quebec. 

In the coming hours we’ll perhaps anchor in Saint Pancras Cove, a last stop before our destination. On the way, we’ll be following other aspects of our history, such as Tadoussac ; Jacques Cartier first anchored there in 1535, followed by Champlain in 1603, who briefly dreamed ; of establishing the first colony in “New France”, before finally opting for Quebec. Tadoussac, known as the oldest town in Quebec Province, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2001.

Vincent Hilaire

Anchored at Sainte Barbe (Island of Newfoundland)

Anchored at Sainte Barbe (island of Newfoundland)

For 48 hours, we’ve been anchored at St. Barbe, a small hamlet on the island of Newfoundland. Providential shelter for Tara and her 14 occupants from the storm that’s raging right now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Since Saturday, we’ve been confronting westerly winds of 50 knots. Newfoundland is true to its reputation.

How did they do it, the Vikings, Jacques Cartier, and all the great sailors who first ventured into the region of the St. Lawrence River? They had no maps. They’re the ones who made the maps. They were under sail, without engines, and therefore didn’t have any leeway to make mistakes. Often the sails  allowed them to advance only with a tailwind.
But with all the storms coming from the west, they often had a headwind. Finally, besides having highly developed skills of seamanship that assured survival, they also knew how to react and maneuver at every moment, without the help of weather forecasts.  If not, the perils of the sea were lying in wait along the coasts of Canadian pine forests.

This is exactly what we  experienced yesterday in the early evening.  As per the weather forecast, the storm came gradually into our cove. Sailors and the captain, Martin Hertau were on their guard, and followed the gradual arrival of this low pressure system. We lost 31 millibars in 24 hours. The sky was going to be angry.

Around 11pm, suddenly the anchor became unhooked, and Tara began to move quickly towards the nearby coast to the south. It took all the reactivity of the crew to avoid running aground. Martin Hertau kept the boat running on the motor as the wind blew increasingly strongly. Daniel Cron (Dan), chief engineer, called into service the electric windlass* whose fuses blew regularly due to tension on the anchor. But finally, with the professionalism of Dan, extremely attentive to the electrical circuit fuses, the windlass raised the anchor out of the water.

Thanks to this, the battle happily turned in our favor, and the expedition did not finish up stranded on a heap of stones. It was only by sailing backwards for long minutes that Martin was able to bring Tara into safe waters for a new anchorage.
After a night when only the sailors took turns on watch just in case Aeolus launched a new offensive, this morning the anemometer showed gusting winds of 50 knots. Everyone is on their guard, and motors are on stand-by, just in case.

We leave St. Barbe and Newfoundland tomorrow morning to enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence, before going up the great river. There will still be wind, but the tricky part of this low pressure system is over.

Vincent Hilaire

windlass*: device for raising the anchor.

Wind at 40 knots, and a huge wave

About 300 miles from the Belle Isle Strait, northern entry to the St. Lawrence River, we’re confronting a constant wind of 40 knots. The boat’s taking it, and inside Tara the meal is very animated. We have only a vague idea of the wind’s force.

Of course from time to time a wave crashes onto the curved windows of the schooner and a brusk movement obliges you to hold onto your glass, but overall everything is relatively calm inside the boat. However, as soon as you step up the gangway, you discover a raging white-capped sea whipped by winds at 40 knots.

The sea is very regular which facilitates the passage of the slightly rocking boat, slipping between the waves and only jostled occasionally by big, mischievous waves. Everything seems easy for this ship built for extremes. She seems indestructible, and we’re doing more than 10 knots with very little rolling on the port side. The boat is under 2 main sails with one reef and a staysail. We are at the limit of taking up a second reef with occasional winds up to 45 knots. If you want to go on deck, the full force of the elements makes for an acrobatic stroll.

Nevertheless, the engineer Marc Picheral decides to change the silk of the CPR, the Continuous Plankton Recorder that’s being towed behind the boat since leaving Nuuk (Greenland). Outside it’s like war: the sailors shout to be heard, the spray is flying, and the sea is smoking in the wake.

The first challenge is to enter the St. Lawrence before the arrival of a gale from the southwest, predicted for November 1st. So, the more miles heading southwards the better, and at this speed, we’re sure to get there. Some believe that there’s nothing to do at sea, but in fact the days fly by. The mind is alert all the time, trying to identify the sounds and movements of the boat. Looking at the sea, you try to sense if it’s easing up or getting stronger, if the sails are set correctly, if the speed corresponds to the trim of the sails. Of course we’re helped by many electronic devices, including weather reports that give wind strength and direction every 3 hours. The captain, Martin Hertau, is totally attentive to the boat and crew. He never stops moving, all senses on alert.

Suddenly, well after dinner, when everyone is asleep except for those on watch and Martin, a huge crash shakes the whole boat and jolts us out of sleep. Everyone arrives at the gangway. François Aurat, Vincent Hilaire and Baptiste Regnier go check out the deck, while Martin turns on the floodlights. We change direction to calm down the boat’s movements, so that the men are not at risk. The shock was very violent port side, and I thought we’d hit something, or that the staysail exploded. Everyone’s a bit stunned by this sudden blow.

A huge wave had swept the deck, twisting the plate covering the winch, exploding the support of the port side dinghy, bending safety rails supports, unsoldering a jerrycan holder and unwinding the yankee whose edge appears to have suffered. It’s amazing, the power of the sea. How could a wave have twisted this re-enforced sheet-metal to a 30-degree angle? How could a wave have detached the end of the furler wound around a cleat ?

No, the expedition is certainly not over yet — the sea can still surprise us between here and Lorient. 

 

Jean Collet*

Jean Collet* was the first captain of the former Antarctica, today known as Tara. More recently, he was in charge of preparing the boat for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. During this leg between Greenland and Canada, he gives us his impressions.

Heading to Quebec

Since the end of sampling station No. 210 on Sunday night, Tara has been sailing under engine power to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. We will arrive in 3 days at best, depending on wind and sea. The scientific part of the expedition will be reduced, without deployment of instruments at sampling stations, but the adventure continues as we head for Quebec, St-Pierre-et-Miquelon and finally Lorient.

The scientific team led by Eric Karsenti was happy to finish the job early Sunday evening in the snow and cold. Both the surface and the mesopelagic layer (around 350 meters deep) were thoroughly examined. “This is an important station”, said Marc Picheral, one of the oceanographic engineers involved in the project since the beginning of  Tara Oceans, “because we’ve never sampled this area before. We can’t let up the pressure, even if it’s the last station of this type before arrival.” Each of the 6 members of the scientific team has kept to the principles outlined by Marc.

This Monday we’ve begun a new stage in the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. We’re heading south rather rapidly under engine power, to catch winds of a low-pressure system that should carry us (if it doesn’t let up too quickly) close to the St. Lawrence River. The coming 24 hours are very important, given our low reserve of fuel. If weather reports prove correct, we can just manage to reach the great river leading to Quebec, before there’s a change of flux towards the south. We would then have to confront a headwind. But Martin Hertau, our captain since Ilulissat, is keeping watch and closely monitoring the situation.

The voyage up the St Lawrence to Quebec city is 700 miles long, with currents among the strongest in the world, and the added bonus of heavy maritime traffic. The ports of Quebec and Montreal handle cargo weighing a total of 22 and 24 million tons per year, respectively. The St. Lawrence is one of the 25 largest rivers in the world, passing through the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Connecting the Great Lakes region with the Atlantic Ocean, the giant river measures 1,140 kilometers in total length.

At Tadoussac, the first big city we’ll meet as we journey through Quebec, the St Lawrence is already the largest estuary in the world. French explorer Jacques Cartier was the first European to describe and map the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. He took possession of the region in 1534 for King Francis I, naming it on the feast day of St Lawrence of Rome. The indigenous inhabitants of this region called it ‘Hochelaga’ which means ‘the road that walks.’

Vincent Hilaire

A rendez-vous between Greenland and Canada

A rendez-vous between Greenland and Canada

Jean Collet was the first captain of the former Antarctica, today known as Tara. He was also in charge of preparing the boat for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. During this leg between Greenland and Canada, he gives us his impressions.

“After 24 hours spent in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, we’re off again for new adventures. This time we’re leaving for good, Greenland’s white mountains and blue ice. We have a rendez-vous with a point somewhere between Greenland and Canada, where the warm waters of the Atlantic mix with the cold Labrador current descending from the Arctic. Scientists love mixtures. This is where it happens.

Meanwhile, the engine is running because there’s no wind, and we’re towing a measuring device before arriving at destination. It’s a CPR for the initiated, a Continuous Plankton Recorder. Water passes over a silk mesh which retains micro-organisms and is wound onto a drum. This gives a continuous record of the organisms in the water we traverse.
We’ll be at the scheduled area on Sunday in the middle of the Labrador Sea with a long station lasting from sunrise to past sunset.

What strikes me most about this boat is the good ambiance and the pleasure to be here which everybody shows. The work we’re doing is important, everyone is focused on his job, and everything functions. A boat is only a tool. No matter how extraordinary this tool may be, it’s the men and women aboard who are making history with it. This boat has been carrying on since her baptism 25 years ago!
Jean-Louis Etienne, Peter Blake, and now Agnes Troublé and Etienne Bourgois. What wonderful people with high ambitions.

People ask me: “How does the boat look to you now? You’ve known it since its construction?” Overall nothing has changed. It’s still the “space ship” of the beginnings, with its unmistakable look, narrow water-tight doors opening into the vast bright dining room — a center of life and work. At sea, it’s the same, you don’t feel excess weight due to the age and exigencies of scientists.There’s always the same lively roll. The material, dating from the time of construction like the rigging, fittings and motors — is well-maintained and works properly.

Overall nothing has changed, except for the work carried out over the last 10 years, since the day we went to see her with Etienne Bourgois in Newport. Since then, the boat has gone through a lot, and preparing for all these expeditions has improved everything that could be. The last tour of the Arctic benefited from all the earlier work. For a well-maintained boat, work means good health.

25 knots of headwind. We continue towards station 210, the last of Tara Oceans Polar Circle. The sea is agitated and life aboard is complicated by the pitch and roll. It’s difficult to concentrate on writing, reading, or working. But despite it all, the cook has made us a good meal, the sailors are advancing the boat, and  the scientists are preparing tomorrow’s station. The wind has turned abruptly from southwest to northwest. This is good, but on Sunday it will have to calm down –  not a given.

The night stretches on and the wind has calmed down a bit. At the moment, everyone is resting, except of course the two men on watch.”

Jean Collet

Leaving Greenland

Tara and her 14 crew members left Nuuk this morning, and at the same time Greenland. We had spent 20 days on the west coast of this frozen white island, between Uummannaq, Ilulissat, and then 24 hours in the capital city, Nuuk. We are now leaving the land of the Inuits, a culture undergoing rapid transformation.

I will always remember the shock of those few hours spent in Nuuk. First, because we were back in a city. Since boarding Tara in Pevek (Chukotka region of Russia) nearly 2 months ago, we had stopped only in tiny villages. The Northwest Passage is a vast region with only a few inhabitants per square kilometer!

Each village has its history, a small population including Inuits of diverse origins, and one point in common: an airfield, post office and town hall. In Nuuk I was dizzy: tall buildings and shopping malls with huge glass surfaces that seemed much colder than the wind of Boreas himself. The activity of a city with traffic, pedestrians, cafes and shops. We were back in today’s globalized Western civilization.

At present, Tara is heading southwest towards the center of the Labrador Sea where we will accomplish what will probably be the last long sampling station of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. As Eric Karsenti, our chief scientist and the man who inspired this crazy project (started in September 2009) said with humor: “It’s about time this is over!” A biologist’s remark, as always said with a laugh!

Vincent Hilaire

Headed for Nuuk (Greenland)

Headed for Nuuk (Greenland)
 
Thursday morning we’ll arrive in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. All day Wednesday the scientific team conducted a long sampling station that lasted more than 24 hours – a challenging day that ended mid-evening with a snowfall and level of humidity we’d almost forgotten.

 
Begun at 8 o’clock on Wednesday morning, this station will be remembered. This is the first one accomplished outside the Arctic Circle for several months. Certainly one of the “softer” in terms of temperature, but with wind, waves and humidity. It proved harder than the most recent stations in a colder environment.
 
All day, I watched the gladiators of science led by Eric Karsenti, scientific director of the expedition and currently chief scientist aboard between Greenland and Canada. You really need to be passionate about this mission, and master everything to sustain such a pace. After a hot meal, with only a brief  three-quarters of an hour of respite, several pillars of the team are napping on benches in the main cabin.
 
To probe the surface, and a 350-meter depth where currents from the Atlantic underly the cold polar waters, Tara’s scientific team has deployed the rosette 8 times, and also dozens of nets. Once again we found plenty of living things, but mostly at depth.
 
That night we used engine power to head for Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. Population 15,000 – that’s a big city for this region. We ‘ll arrive there tomorrow mid-morning, just 130 km southeast of our present position.
We will remain at anchor one day before passing once again through the Davis Strait, then rapidly heading for the middle of the Labrador Sea. This will be our last scientific station before Quebec.
 
The crossing has been closely monitored for several days by Martin Hertau, our captain. Two low pressure systems are taking turns sweeping over this zone. We’ll try to pass between the drops while respecting the schedule:  Arrival on November 10th in Quebec!
 
Vincent Hilaire

Tara has entered the Davis Strait

Since our departure from Ilulissat, we carried out a first sampling station in Disko Bay. We are now heading south. Tara will cross tonight the Arctic Circle at 66° 33′ North. We’ll have turned a page after a 5-month expedition which took place mainly to the north of this line.

A glassy sea, bright sun, no wind and slightly positive temperatures, the journey south along Greenland’s west coast is taking place in good conditions. Our next “stop” at sea is scheduled for Wednesday with a long scientific station, lasting more than 24 hours. Today the scientific team was occupied with equipment maintenance and conducted a station while underway. This is possible because seawater is pumped through Tara’s hull and allows sampling without needing to stop.

Just after leaving Disko Bay, on the first night we entered the Davis Strait which connects the Arctic with the Labrador Sea. This sea is an extension of the Atlantic Ocean between Labrador and Greenland.

Fairly strong winds are expected by the end of this week. Martin Hertau, our captain who took over from Loïc Vallette, plans to take shelter near Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in case of heavy weather. It’s the island’s most populous city — 16,181 inhabitants (in 2012) of Greenland’s 56,749 total. Nuuk is located approximately 240 kilometers from the Arctic Circle, and its port is the largest in the whole country. Nuuk means “headland” in Greenlandic, and has been so-named only since 1979. Before it was called Godthab which means “good hope” in Danish. In November 2008, the citizens of Nuuk voted overwhelmingly in favor of greater independence from the Kingdom of Denmark.

Three major ocean currents traverse the Labrador Sea: a cold current that follows Greenland’s coast, one that descends Labrador’s length, and a third, warmer one originating from the Atlantic. This is what the new team, led by chief scientist Eric Karsenti, the man who conceived the Tara Oceans expeditions, intends to characterize.

Vincent Hilaire

Tara heads out again to the Baffin Sea

Tara heads out again to the Baffin Sea

Early Saturday afternoon we left the pretty harbor of Ilulissat (Greenland) after a 4-day stopover. We’re still 14 team members, but there are 5 replacements. Our upcoming scientific program will consist of 4 sampling stations on the way to Quebec in the Baffin Sea, and the Labrador Sea.

After 4 days of meetings, hikes around the great glacier and ‘icefjord’ of Ilulissat, and having our meals ashore, it was time to head out to sea again. Each of us – newcomers and those continuing the voyage–were recharged by the stopover, and left with lots of memories and images.

This morning before leaving Ilulissat port, as we walked towards the city’s glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we chanced upon Nils. For a good half hour, this Inuit was preparing his team of Greenland dogs right before our eyes. Excited by the preparations for the trip, they barked until the musher* harnessed them, eager for a run in the snow. I had the feeling I was turning the pages of a Jack London novel. Finally, in a flash Nils flew off on his sled behind his super-charged dog team. Within a few seconds they became a black dot on the snowy hill in front of us, where tourists were waiting for a ride. The hike around the glacier was also fabulous, despite the fact that it’s been receding since 1989 due to global warming.

Today, when we left the harbor, bathed by sunrays glancing off the water’s surface, we had a rendez-vous with a new series of dream moments. In this golden light, among thousands of small icebergs, the sailors hoisted Tara’s sails. We were aboard 1 of the 2 dinghies with François Aurat, capturing these moments of grace. Buoyed by the main and foresails, Tara glided between these ice chunks, sometimes blue, sometimes gray, with the most varied shapes. A dream image for photography buffs like us.

Tonight, apart from the sailors on watch, everyone is snug in their berths, and Tara is adrift without sails. A first surface sampling station is planned in Disko Bay tomorrow morning with fairly chilly temperatures.

Vincent Hilaire
* Musher: a dogsled driver

Looking Back on the Arctic Experience

Tara is docked in the port of Ilulissat (Greenland) until Sunday. The expedition will then sail to Quebec, leaving the Arctic Circle. From Pond Inlet to Ilulissat, secretary general of Tara Expeditions, Romain Troublé was on board. We reviewed with him these past months of sailing on both sides of the icy Arctic Ocean.

- Vincent Hilaire : Before heading south and leaving the Arctic Circle in a few days, what is your impression of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition after these first 5 months?

- Romain Troublé: “We realized that there’s a great difference in ice conditions from year to year, even though the general trend is towards increased melting. Variations in climate can be significant from one year to another. We encountered many other boats on our route, with a lot of local and international traffic, but very few fishing boats.”

 

- VH: In terms of maritime traffic, do you think the Arctic is ready to become the maritime highway often evoked in the media? 

- RT: “2013 is the year of  ‘firsts’ in terms of maritime traffic. For the first time, a container ship crossed the Bering Strait and traveled to northern Russia. A Chinese merchant ship did this too. And a ship carrying coal from the mines of Canada – the Arctic Orion – made its way to Europe via the Northwest Passage. A huge ship crossed the Northwest Passage! As a matter of fact, it passed through Prince Regent Inlet just a few hours before us.

Ship owners are clearly testing these 2 Arctic routes, but we’re still far from having a clearly marked highway secured by ice breakers. The Arctic passages are far from being able to compete with the conventional routes via the Panama or Suez canals.”

 

- VH: Along the route taken by Tara, what did you notice about the local populations?

- RT: “There is a great disparity among the local populations living near the Arctic ice pack. Some of the people are indigenous while others are settlers from outside.

On the economic front, Greenland (where we are now) is a very important center for fishing – organized, structured and competitive. In Canada, the maritime centers supported through subsidies are not yet ‘westernized’.

Hamlets like Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet are still deeply rooted in the Inuit culture. The situation here in Greenland is at a different stage, though the population is also Inuit. Things vary, depending on where one is in the Arctic. In Russia, it’s somewhat like Canada, but with still other differences. There are large, well-developed infrastructures, but at the same time they seem to be abandoned by the central government in Moscow.

This is typically what we felt in the far north of Russia, for example in Pevek (Chukotka region). But during our other stopovers, in Murmansk and Dudinka, we sensed that things were changing. Nickel mines are breaking records of productivity.”

 

- VH: Do you feel that the Russians will take over this emerging maritime traffic in the Arctic?

- RT: “Yes, in northern Russia there are docks for cargo ships, and above all they have a fleet of high-performance icebreakers in the Northwest passage that can keep a route open in the ice for 10 months of the year. The Russians’ weak point is that the East Siberian Sea, near Bering, is not deep enough for these huge ships with sizable drafts. The giant tankers might not be able to pass through. In comparison, Canada has deeper passages, but their infrastructures are not as effective as the Russian ones.”

 

- VH: There now exists a structure to manage the Arctic. What role might it play?

- RT: “The Arctic Council was established in 1996 by 8 countries: Canada, Norway, Russia, USA, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark (representing also the dependencies of Greenland and the Faroe Islands). The purpose of this entity is to promote sustainable development in the Arctic – social, economic and environmental. The immediate issues are the development of new fisheries, management of fishing and mineral resources, the establishment of regulations for maritime traffic, and the imposition of new standards for the Arctic. ”

 

- VH: A Canadian Inuit was recently appointed president of the Arctic Council. Do you think this might bring about a change, and in what way?

- RT: “Indeed, this is the first time a woman from the northern lands, an Inuit, has taken on this responsibility. I think her appointment will mean that the rights and demands of the indigenous people in these areas will be better taken into account, within the perspective of sustainable development.”

 

- VH: We always come back to this fundamental question in the Arctic, as elsewhere:  Will the environment and economic development be compatible with all these opportunities?

- RT: “Yes, there are great opportunities, but also a great challenge. The Arctic region is nearly virgin territory at the moment. With the technology available today, our impact is fairly accurately known. Will we be able to make the Arctic a laboratory of sustainable development from the start? I certainly hope so. This is the challenge of our work studying plankton. It will allow us to understand the functioning of the Arctic’s planktonic ecosystems and how they are changing. ”
Interview by Vincent Hilaire

Moving on to Ilulissat

Tuesday morning after leaving our anchorage at Disko Island’s Fortune Bay, we headed for Ilulissat (Greenland) . The scientific team is preparing to make a final sampling station before the new stopover and renewal of part of the team. The weather conditions are still optimal with plenty of sunshine and slightly positive temperatures. The west coast of Greenland has provided not only scientific riches but also aesthetic ones.
Exiting the Uummannaq fjord was a bit hectic with a strong headwind of 50 knots in some gales. The air reflected blue and green hued sea-spray. On each side of the fjord, snow-capped mountains appeared to play a guardian role in this angry paradise.

On watch at the helm was Loïc Vallette, our captain until Ilulissat. Loïc was particularly focussed in this passage where, between the wind and the icebergs, an engine breakdown would have quickly compromised our situation. To make things worse, the lack of very detailed charts for this area obliged our captain to stay on his guard.
This concentration paid off because at some point, one of the depth sensors* suddenly indicated an abrupt rise in the seabed from over 100 to 10 meters. High land.

Loïc quickly took over from the autopilot while starting the second engine to change course. An iceberg about 50 meters away was clearly stranded there, confirming the “info from the sonar*.” A brief moment of stress while the whole crew continued having a carefree lunch in the dining room. After this somewhat challenging exit from the Uummannaq fjord, we’re now on our way to Ilulissat. We’ve spent the past 2 nights at anchor in extraordinary fjords, to avoid navigating at night through fields of icebergs.
This morning we were able to enjoy a bit more of Fortune Bay’s beauty before sailing on to Ilulissat. It is the third largest city of Greenland – this frozen island covered by a sheet of ice. The inhabitants tallied 4,621 last year. Ilulissat is a major tourist destination because of the famous Sermeq Kujalleq glacier that flows directly into the sea at a rate of 20-35 meters per day. This generates annually 20 billion tons of ice, or the equivalent of the amount of fresh water consumed in France per year. This fjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.
Vincent Hilaire

*Sonar device measuring depth under the ship

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)

Heading for Greenland

Heading for Greenland

Since Wednesday morning, Tara has been under sail for Greenland. With this Northwest wind at 60 km/hr, we’re making eight knots and will arrive in a little over 24 hours near the coast of this giant island, about 95% of which is covered with ice. Romian Troublé, General Secretary of Tara Expeditions has joined us for this leg between Canada and Greenland.

After the sampling station on Tuesday along the Baffin Island coast, the sailors raised the sails this morning: the staysail at the front, the foresail and a reefed main sail due to the wind. A typical maneuver which takes about 3/4 of an hour, and with the wind and the cold was especially invigorating and intricate. The deck was covered with a layer of partially melted snow which made it more difficult to move. “You have to have your sea legs and a skater’s feet this morning,” remarked a jovial Loïc Vallette, our captain, at the beginning of the manoeuvre.

Yesterday, the scientific team experienced ​​an extraordinary sampling station. Almost all the nets brought up rich and varied plankton. Plentiful copepods, diatoms, and krill, but also a showstopper — ctenophores of a size rarely seen since the beginning of Tara Oceans. The carbon pump must function here at full speed with such a quantity of micro-organisms. This long station was designed to sample the cold Arctic waters at different depths, and the warmer ones from the Atlantic which overlap here.

Today, we are heading towards Greenland, with beautiful light and occasionally a large iceberg that first we identify by radar before admiring the real thing. But at this rate, crossing the sea will be rapid.

The Baffin Sea (or Bay) is a vast gulf open to the Atlantic through the Labrador Sea and nestled between eastern Greenland and Baffin Island to the west. The Baffin Sea, named in honor of the British explorer William Baffin, measures 1500 km in length and 550 km in width. It is covered with ice most of the year, so we must make the crossing before this layer reforms.

Once we’ve reached the other side, each of the 14 people on board will be able to explore the west coast of this white country, with glaciers amongst the largest in the world. This also explains why there are only 56,370 inhabitants on Kalaallit Nunaat*. The harsh climate and the preponderance of the ice cap make it the least densely-populated country in the world.

Vincent Hilaire

* Kalaallit Nunaat: The name given to their land by the Greenlanders

Last stopover in Canada’s North

Tara has been anchored in Pond Inlet (Nunavut, Canada) since early Sunday afternoon. This town of about 3,000 inhabitants is the largest of the 4 Canadian hamlets north of the 72nd parallel. The majority here are Inuit, and it’s one of the few hamlets that has gained in population in recent years. Located on Eclipse Sound, it offers a breathtaking view of this majestic fjord.

Any approach by sea into Pond Inlet is a wonder to behold. Glaciers drain into the Navy Board Inlet, snow covered mountain peaks with various forms, sculptured icebergs and in the middle of all this, large ochre and brown expanses of Arctic tundra. For the last 10 days aboard Tara, we’ve basked in the lovely Canadian countryside of this Nunavut region.

Just after landing on the shores of “Pond” in Tara’s dinghy, we witnessed a scene from another era. On a hill overlooking the beach where we landed, an Inuit was slicing ​​meat from a frozen narwhal for his dogs who were not barking but howling with excitement. It was feeding time. The man’s 3 children were playing a little further away and also watched this familiar scene. A little puppy carousing behind its mother (who firmly but gently calmed him down from time to time) was receiving his ration of caresses from the childrens’ hands.

On Sundays at Pond Inlet, narwhal meat is portioned for the dogs while children play. There aren’t many farms in France where a pig is still butchered by the family on the weekend, although I know of some in the Massif Central.

Actually, at Pond people still have to fend for themselves to survive. But for how much longer? Supermarkets are appearing on a regular basis even in these remote areas where bananas only grow on shelves!

What was also striking was the calm in this village. Sure, it’s Sunday, but this town is more extensive and populated than Tuk and Arctic Bay. There’s only one main street and encounters are somewhat limited. But when they occur, they are spontaneous and warm, despite the cold where you wouldn’t even put a caribou outside!

With an airport, a large supermarket, a cooperative, a cultural center and a hotel, Pond Inlet is rapidly developing and is already a tourist destination in its own right. It’s a sign of the times that gradually subsistence-level hunting and fishing is being replaced by other jobs that can pay for televisions and frozen foods, while the local narwhale steak will be saved for parties! Fishing for narwhal will become an activity reserved for tourists.

Following decades of survival, most Inuits also want to have a little ease, comfort, and  be  able to take a steak out of the freezer after “fishing” in the supermarket.

After Pond Inlet — only 2,500 kilometers from Montreal — we’ll take the fjord with the same name to reach Baffin Sea, and then sail across to Greenland. Tara is slowly regaining southern latitudes and the most northern part of Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition is now behind us.

Vincent Hilaire

Stopover in Arctic Bay (Nunavut)

Since late Tuesday afternoon, Tara has been anchored across the bay from the Inuit hamlet of Nunavut. The atmosphere is completely different from our previous stop in Tuktoyaktuk (North West Territories, Canada). The 800 inhabitants of “the pocket” – as this town is called in Inuit – are much more distant and reserved than their brothers in the North West, close to the Bering Strait.

After a day-and-a-half stop, we departed Thursday morning with the aim of making 3 more scientific stations between here and Pond Inlet (also in the Nunavut region), the place of our next stop, 200 nautical miles from here.

After watching a beautiful aurora borealis Tuesday night shortly after our arrival – locals say they haven’t seen one of this magnitude for 14 years – today we visited Arctic Bay. A small village of wooden houses aligned and well-protected by a beautiful mountain ridge rising above a wide bay.

From our first steps on the main street, the welcome was warm with regular small hand signs, but the ambiance was nothing like Tuktoyaktuk. We had the impression of being in a place even more timeless, more isolated. We certainly didn’t arouse the same curiosity. The few Inuits who approached us on Quad or on foot, were trying to sell us something – fish or walrus ivory, among other things.

Everywhere the same reserve. Our goals and questions rapidly seemed to perturb our interlocutors. Then gradually, after visiting Hamlet Office,** the Inuit people of Arctic Bay realized that we were not here for tourism, nor the usual bear hunting.

Apart from walks to stretch our legs, the visit to the school of Arctic Bay –  including a scientific presentation of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition – was certainly the highlight of this stopover.  For an audience of local teenagers, and under the eye of their teachers, Emmanuel Boss, optical engineer aboard Tara, explained the purpose of our voyage, and the reason for Tara’s presence in Arctic Bay.

In the daily quiet of this Inuit bay, where seals and bears are still hunted, some people discovered the existence of plankton at the origin of our lives.

Vincent Hilaire

* Northern lights are caused by interaction between charged particles from solar wind and the upper atmosphere. Solar activity on Tuesday night was extremely important.

**Hamlet Office: town hall of the village.

On the way to Arctic Bay

After the scientific station that ended in Lancaster Sound early yesterday evening, Tara resumed her voyage Monday night through Tuesday to Arctic Bay, a Canadian Inuit hamlet. Before this new stopover, the research team today will conduct new immersions in the fjord leading to the village of 700 inhabitants.

The well established anti-cyclone in this area is giving us very pleasant weather for the beginning of October, but the nights are cold. Vigilance is therefore required to avoid being trapped by ice in the coming days as we sail through these fjords.

Despite abundant sunshine, the sampling station in the sumptuous Lancaster Sound started badly. First, some pumps froze overnight and the biologists, Céline Dimier-Hugueney and Julie Poulain thawed them out with hot water before proceeding to pump and filter seawater.

Then, during the pulling in of the Regent*, bad luck continued. The boat lurched and the sailor controlling the winch slipped and could not stop the net in its ascent. With a dull and heavy clank, the cable connecting to the Regent broke. The damage assessment of this incident: loss of the net and the Scanmar.**

On the rear deck, faces looked worried. But as always aboard Tara, positive action took over. This is where we recognize the best teams. In this difficult moment fortunately there was only material loss, and everybody gave moral support to the sailor who was at the winch.

By early morning, the incident was already far in the past, after a very windy night where the main highlight was meeting up with a craggy tabular iceberg. All 15 team members were on deck, and Tara’s sailors assured a safe approach to this freshwater giant.

After Lancaster Sound, Admiralty Inlet Bay enraptures us with its landscape of snowy mountains rising up in the form of tables. To either side of the wheelhouse, they appear like the passing scenes of a film.

This evening we’ll be in Arctic Bay, “the pocket” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language. The name ‘Arctic’ came only after 1872, when a whaler with that name one day docked here. This was long after the first Inuits made their way here from Asia via the Bering Strait which  at that time could be crossed on foot.

Vincent Hilaire

*Regent: large plankton.

**Scanmar: oceanographic depth sensor.

Tara has crossed the Northwest Passage (Arctic)



A little over one month after traversing the Northeast Passage (Russia), Tara crossed the Canadian Northwest Passage on Saturday, September 28th. The Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition continues its goal to better understand the Arctic ecosystem by exploring the rarely studied planktonic species near the pole.



On Saturday, an extremely stable anti-cyclone presided over the northern Canadian Nunavut region, allowing Tara to sail in perfect weather conditions. At dawn, Tara entered the Prince Regent Inlet, scattered with new ice typical at this time of year as the ice pack begins to reform.  



In the morning, Tara’s captain, Loïc Vallette received a radio message from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent inviting Tara to be escorted. This enabled Tara to cross a barrier of 100 km in half a day, through ice 15 cm thick covering 95% of the surface. Without help from the Canadians, the schooner would have taken a lot more time, including a crucial slalom in the dark between new and old ice floes.



This time saved was put to use on Sunday. The purpose of this expedition is not to realize an exploit, but to bring back a maximum of good quality samples. The scientific team went back to work and enjoyed exceptional weather conditions while conducting a 48-hour scientific station in Lancaster Sound.



The next expedition stopovers are planned in Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet in Canadian Nunavut on October 4th and 6th. Then follow Ilulissat in Greenland, Quebec, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and finally the return to Lorient (France) in early December.



Despite the presence of more ice compared to the past 4 years, the Northeast and Northwest Passages were traversed in the planned time, including the scheduled sampling stations, thereby dispelling any possibility of having to spend the winter in the Arctic. According to Jean-Claude Gascard, Emeritus CNRS Research Director of LOCEAN at the University Pierre and Marie Curie, “In general, the Northeast and Northwest Passages will tend to open up earlier and close in later, except for seasonal anomalies related to natural variability, as seen this year.”

Read Tara Expeditions statement for the Arctic

The Northwest Passage is behind us

Since 15h (local time) this Saturday, Tara is sailing again on ice-free open water. Early in the morning, the weather was good as expected thanks to a stable anti-cyclone, and we were navigating along the Brodeur Peninsula through scattered ice floes.

Two hours later, we received a radio message from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Louis S. St-Laurent inviting us to follow in her wake. This escort helped us negociate this 60-mile barrier in half a day, which would have taken us perhaps more than a day with a crucial night-slalom between new and old ice floes.

While standing on the bridge at 5:30 am, with Baptiste Regnier, the sailor on watch, we shared one of these sunrises that reminds you how nature and life are sometimes beautiful on this earth. As the minutes passed, the blue sky turned pink, then orange and finally golden yellow with hues that only the palette of a master could render. Tara was slowly advancing between “pancake ice”, * which gradually took on the same colors.

Daniel Cron, chief mechanic with his legendary good humor and conversation, Céline Dimier-Hugueney, biologist and Lars Stemmann, chief scientist for the mission and myself were like children, amazed by so much beauty. Lars told me that he had not seen anything like it for eighteen years. That was when he had participated in a mission to Spitsbergen aboard Antarctica, Tara’s first christened name.

It was in this atmosphere, floating between magic and wonder, that the Canadian Coast Guard’s Louis S. St-Laurent contacted us by radio. It was a short formal exchange in English and we learned that the icebreaker had received orders to guide us. Our captain, Loïc Vallette complied and Tara navigated into the wake of the red-hulled giant with a maple leaf on its white funnel.

At a safe distance of eight hundred yards we progressed behind our guide. For fifty miles on the starboard side we had the Brodeur Peninsula and snowy mountains. We made our way through a water channel opened up by the Coast Guard. Mile after mile and we found ourselves easily crossing the Northwest Passage behind this protective escort. Without this help, we would have been at the limit of energy and fatigue, and perhaps more if we had made our own way between these plaques which made a thick white line on the horizon.

Just after the Coast Guard took leave to continue its mission of securing the area for maritime traffic, we were already involved in the next stage. On this late afternoon in Tara’s mess hall, the scientific team was preparing a long station for the next two days in Lancaster Sound.

Tara now continues with a jib-sail and a motor and there shouldn’t be any icy obstacle floating in her way. The Northeast and Northwest Passages have now been crossed in the given time for this expedition around the icy Arctic Ocean and we’ve dispersed the hypothesis of over-wintering or retracing our path.

Vincent Hilaire

“pancake ice” *: ice plaques up to a few meters in diameter.

Crossing the Nunavut

Our sprint to the Bellot Strait continues. Tara is still making eight knots to arrive in the shortest possible time at this first key point of the Northwest Passage. As for the ice, the situation is quite stable this Wednesday, encouraging us to try and reach the strait as soon as we can, before skirting the western flank of the Brodeur Peninsula.

The days and nights are rhythmed by the motor, running nonstop without pausing to sample plankton. This does not prevent the team led by Lars Stemmann, the current chief scientist, to carry out mini stations in the dry lab (inside the boat) where seawater is pumped continuously from under Tara’s hull. This completes all of the data — biological, physico-chemical, oceanographic and imaging — recorded throughout our voyage by the onboard instruments.

This morning in the mess room, our Captain, Loïc Vallette, gave us the latest news on the meteorology for the up-coming days. The news is good and leaves much more room for hope compared to a few days ago.

Temperatures remain rather mild for now, slowing the formation of additional new ice. On the other hand, there will be no gales in the days to come, but rather fairly calm conditions. An anti-cyclone seems well-established over this area. This means that we will navigate through the narrow corridor along the Brodeur Peninsula with no waves amidst the sea ice, facilitating radar surveillance.

This is, of course, the theory for the moment, because changes in the Arctic can be quick and sometimes violent. So caution, but especially patience, is one of the major virtues that the Arctic teaches us with each trip to these remote and wild regions.

During our night watch with the sailor François Aurat, we passed a ship sailing in the opposite direction towards “Tuk” (Canada). We had a Canadian-accented exchange with the watchman on the cargo, loaded to supply several of the few small Canadian hamlets on the Northwest Passage. After some practical information on the ice conditions, the conversation ended with a “Take care of yourselves !”

After the Northwest Territories, we made our way into another Canadian region — Nunavut. Nunavut means “our land” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language spoken here besides French, English and “Franglais”. The population of this region, whose capital is Iqaluit ,was 31,556 inhabitants in 2009, or 0.02 inhabitants per square kilometer.

We’re crossing a huge “desert” and the rare tundra landscapes that we see from time to time confirm that there are not many people in the neighborhood!

Vincent Hilaire

Moving fast towards the Bellot Strait

Since our departure from Tuktoyaktuk (Canada), leaving behind Amundsen Gulf, Tara has been advancing by motor power at 8 knots in the direction of the Bellot Strait – a strategic point of the Northwest Passage. The scientific aspect of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition continues: the schooner’s hull is equipped with sensors that continuously record a variety of physico-chemical, climatic, oceanographic and biological data.

At this speed, unless we encounter ice along the way, Tara should reach the Bellot Strait next Friday evening. Since leaving “Tuk”, we’re racing against the clock, before this part of the sea closes up. It’s our only chance to reach Lancaster Sound and then Baffin Sea and Greenland.

With no stopovers at sea for sampling stations, everybody on board is busy with repairs, maintenance – getting ready. We must not miss the rare chance to accomplish our scientific mission and add this western part of the Arctic Ocean to the inventory of planktonic species established during the Tara Oceans expedition.

The latest ice charts confirm the abundance of floes* this year, much more prolific than last year. This is relatively ‘young’ ice, only 15 cm. thick, but in certain places it already covers 9/10ths of the water’s surface. Another aggravating factor in the area of ​​Bellot Strait – temperatures are already negative, therefore the ice is fixed and necessarily thickening, since seawater freezes at -1.8°C.

Difficult to say what will happen 5 days from now. The 15 people on board are optimistic, but in the end, only nature will decide. This suspense is well-accepted because everyone understands the limits of our capacity to change the course of things. In any case, no one can say what our next stop will be. Arctic Bay, or turn back to Tuktoyaktuk, or another place? It’s the passage that makes the rules, and determines our route.

Tonight, we will definitively leave Amundsen Gulf, without having glimpsed even a tiny part of its coast. After bright sunshine the day after our departure, we are often sailing in thick fog and snow. For now the sea is beautiful, as we enter Coronation Gulf.

This may be our last chance to admire a bit of the mythical Northwest Passage because this evening we will be only 4 miles from the south coast.

Vincent Hilaire

*floe: a plaque of the ice pack

Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk !

Since Wednesday evening Tara has been anchored near this Inuit village in the Northwest Territory of Canada. Canada, the second largest country in the world in area, gets its name from the Huron word “Kanata” which means village. The 870 inhabitants of this peaceful hamlet at the end of the world are extremely kind and welcoming. Our entry into the land of the Inuits is full of promise.

The night-time arrival in “Tuk,” as they say here, was full of poetry and delighted the entire crew. Not only because after 10 days at sea any stopover would be welcome, but also because certain parents of crew members were very eager to see their children.

Little by little the village of wooden houses appeared before us, well after nightfall. I don’t know if it was psychological or real, but we got whiffs of delicious cooking that were not coming from our kitchen. A few metal hulls of fishing boats were washed up on the beach, and there was a general impression of gentle calm.

The day dawned with the same sensation. Amid colorful houses, the villagers who were walking or driving their pick-up trucks were smiling and friendly. They often gave us a friendly wave of the hand when they didn’t have time to stop.

Whether doing formalities for entry into Canada, shopping at the supermarket for supplies, or simple exchanges in everyday life – everything was easy. Most of the Inuit we met were very curious and intrigued by Tara. Most of the 800 residents are Inuit, and the few Canadians who work here are in the royal Gendarmerie, business or education.

Tuktoyaktuk (in the Inuit language “the place of caribou”) is a haven of peace, and we’re enjoying relatively mild conditions at this end of summer, with temperatures around 4°C.

The only way to get to Tuk during this season is by plane or boat, just like Pevek, its Russian neighbor on the other side of the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea. Only in winter can one get to Tuk (formerly called Port Brabant) by car, when the Mackenzie River is frozen. Our new crew of sailors and scientists arrived by plane, after 2 days of flight for some, according to where they were coming from. We will leave Tuk this Friday night, still 6 hours behind Paris time.

Before us stands the Northwest Passage and its maze of canals. The big question is: Will the exit door of the expedition’s second passage – towards Baffin Bay and Greenland – remain open long enough for us? The ice leaves us little time and space, and we must not miss this brief opening.

Vincent Hilaire

Neither Eldorado nor sanctuary: Towards sustainable management of the Arctic

Neither Eldorado nor sanctuary: Towards sustainable management of the Arctic
By Tara Expeditions

Tara is now circumnavigating the Arctic Ocean in a scientific endeavor. The schooner crossed the Northeast Passage at the end of August and is now going to traverse the Northwest Passage. This year, the Arctic ice chart indicates that the ice melt is not as extensive as the record melt observed during the summer of 2012. This, however, does not in any way, detract from the warming trend observed in recent years. In fact, the seven largest minima in Arctic ice have occurred over the past seven years. After three months in high latitudes, this is the opportunity for Tara Expeditions to make a plea for the Arctic.

What is the purpose of Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition?

Tara is a “polar” schooner and Tara Expeditions has rare expertise in this region. But beyond a passion for adventure and the Arctic, Tara Oceans Polar Circle is a scientific expedition which will complete the sampling of marine ecosystems carried out between 2009 and 2012 during the Tara Oceans expedition. Our research in the Arctic, which is important to carry out now, will also help to understand the specific adaptation of this ecosystem, essential in a rapidly changing region, which is considered an “exotic” tourist paradise, a necessary cargo route, and a new Eldorado for oil. Tara is not only sailing for the sake of scientific knowledge, but is also motivated by the passion of those who want to change how the Arctic is viewed.

The more it melts, the faster things happen…

The Arctic is one of the last great natural areas of the world, a unique and fragile ecosystem harboring rich and unknown biodiversity. With industrial development, economic growth and pressure of human activities, climate change is altering the region at breakneck speed. Among these changes, there is the rapid melting of summer ice, acidification of the Arctic Ocean, thawing permafrost in Siberia, and threats to endemic species such as Siberian polar bears. These phenomena affect not only the lives of 5 million people living in the Arctic Circle, but also the whole world, and require a comprehensive and urgent response. We can move forward by balancing preservation, innovation and development.

Despite the progress of science and polar navigation, the logistics costs for research in the far North remain very high. The research effort is therefore extremely limited compared to the appetite of the actors involved in exploiting reserves of oil and gas in the region.

Biological resources are still largely unexplored

It is vital to remember the importance of Arctic biodiversity in the global carbon pump, and the great need for research to provide a maximum of data for future decisions. Beyond the mirage of a new oil Eldorado, the Arctic ecosystem is unknown, and may contain new biological resources to meet the challenges of a world undergoing profound change. The biodiversity of polar plankton could help in producing energy and finding applications in medicine and industry. Diatoms (plankton) for example, produce their glass skeletons in very cold waters, but we are unable to do the same without high energy-consuming furnaces.

The Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition is part of the international research effort to better understand the region and use its resources in a sustainable manner. The project brings together civilians and scientists from several countries, who believe in a shared and rational management of these resources. During the course of this journey, Tara Oceans Polar Circle will have crossed 12 of the 13 Arctic regions of high ecological and biological significance defined by criteria established by the UN. The plankton data will complete ongoing studies to define areas of rich biodiversity, using plankton as an indicator of overall health of the oceans.

The Arctic’s hidden costs

Analysis of the hidden costs of climate change in the Arctic shows that no investment will be sustainable if it doesn’t take into account environmental factors. Thawing permafrost in Siberia, for example, can release so much methane that the “cost” of this is estimated at 60 trillion USD (1). This huge reservoir of methane can have unpredictable consequences for global climate. This gas contributes to the greenhouse effect and is 22 times more potent than C02.

Research by French institutions on the issue of ocean acidification (2) shows that the Arctic, where cold waters absorb more CO2 than tropical and temperate regions, is particularly affected by the phenomenon.

This year, the Arctic ice chart indicates that the ice melt will not be as extensive as the record melt observed during the summer of 2012. This is certainly “good” news, but does not, in any way, detract from the warming trend observed since 1981. New scientific predictions are expected at the end of September, when the IPCC (3) publishes the first part of a new report.

Establishing policies for sustainable management of mineral and biological resources in the Arctic is a challenge to preserve the region. Compared to the Antarctic, the Arctic does not have international status managed within the UN. Created with the aim to protect its own interests in the region, the Arctic Council (4) – formed by 8 bordering states – is slowly advancing the issues of sustainable management and conservation, and opposes demands for totally protected sanctuaries proposed by environmental organizations. So there is need for cooperation to achieve a rational management of resources through negotiated agreements, and the establishment of protected areas (Marine Protected Areas) to safeguard a minimum of zones seen as especially sensitive in terms of biological and ecological perspectives.

Tara Expeditions calls leaders and civil society for action in different areas, such as respecting the rules of environmental protection in the context of the exploitation of natural resources; facilitated access to research programs in the Arctic; establishing new international standards for shipping in the Arctic; setting up regulations for Arctic fisheries (currently expanding rapidly); stricter regulation of tourism in the Arctic; the establishment of a Marine Protected Areas network for ecologically important regions; expanding the Arctic Council.

How long will it take for these measures to arrive at the negotiation table? The only certainty is that, given the rapid changes taking place, environmental urgency must go hand in hand with economic pressure.

(1) Nature – Gail Whiteman, Erasmus University, Netherlands, and Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams, University of Cambridge
(2) Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences (LSCE / IPSL: CEA – CNRS), Laboratory of Oceanography and Climate: experiments and numerical analyses (LOCEAN / IPSL: CNRS – IRD – MNHN – University of Paris VI)
(3) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(4) The Arctic Council was created in 1996 and has 8 permanent members: the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden.

Click here to discover the new Tara application for iPad

Meeting with the Lord of the Arctic

Today, during a sampling station in the ice between Pevek (Russia) and Tuktoyaktuk (Canada), we crossed paths again. A lone white polar bear joined us on an ice floe near our sampling station in the Beaufort Sea at 71° North.

The rosette had just been immersed for a dive to a thousand meters. Suddenly François Aurat, one of the sailors on board passionate about photography, exclaimed after checking several times with binoculars, “A swimming bear is coming towards us.”

Those not occupied with the instrument immersion were able to admire the aquatic advance of the largest land predator on our planet. Known for its speed of movement on the ice, the bear is nonetheless a very good swimmer, which most of us could see firsthand.

“He’s been swimming for several miles,” remarked our first mate Martin Hertau, who has experienced several Arctic seasons in Spitsbergen (Norway). “Bears can swim in deep water for two hundred miles sometimes,” Martin continued.

To see the difficulties of this lone male getting out of the icy water, it seemed he had indeed been swimming for a long time. With one last intense effort, the bear strove on with his hundreds of pounds and his fur soaked in water of the Beaufort Sea. An ice patch seemed to offer an advantageous refuge, as he appeared exhausted. Once on all fours and occasionally throwing a glance at Tara, he shook himself for several seconds and then ventured out on his new domain, a haven of rest and a new potential hunting ground as a seal circulated around the ice floes.

But in the end, fatigue seemed to overwhelm everything and after sniffing again in our direction and yawning several times at the crows, he lay on his stomach and then on his back, legs in the air.

It’s difficult under the circumstances to see this mammal other than an adorable teddy in its beautiful sandy-white fur. Yet he is here, like a lion in the African savannah, the perfect predator.

Then almost sheltered from our eyes, the bear dozed off, checking from time to time our position. Given the young male’s leanness, this most probably means he hasn’t fed for several days.

I hadn’t seen a polar bear since my participation in the Tara Arctic 2007-2008. With two more days at sea before arriving in Tuktoyaktuk (Canada), the Beaufort Sea has given us a unique gift just before entering Canadian waters.

Vincent Hilaire

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.

The « date line » off Wrangel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vincent Hilaire

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

Leaving Pevek with 2 surprise guests

As planned in the Tara Oceans Expedition Polar Circle program, we sailed out of the port of Pevek on Saturday morning, after completing administrative formalities for leaving Russian territory.

The scientific team was largely renewed, but most of the sailors from the Dudinka leg are still on board. And 2 unexpected reinforcements joined our crew – Sébastian Roubinet and Vincent Berthet. The 2 adventurers had set out to cross the Arctic Ocean on their carbon-fiber catamaran, capable of gliding over the ice, but they had to give up their incredible challenge.

Sébastian Roubinet and Vincent Berthet embarked 2 months ago from Barrow, Alaska aboard Babouche, a small 6-meter skiff, trying to reach the Svalbard Islands in Norway, that is, crossing the Arctic Ocean diagonally. But almost permanent head-winds and drift, and an earlier-than-expected re-freezing forced them to abandon their venture. A few days ago they triggered their distress beacon and were picked up in the middle of the pack ice, about 800 miles from Pevek, by the Admiral Makarov, the most powerful non-nuclear Russian ice breaker.

Since they had not foreseen this forced stopover in Chukotka (Russia) and didn’t have authorization to enter Russian territory, it was decided that Tara would serve as a refuge for these 2 adventurers. Sébastian and Vincent, with much regret had to leave their Babouche at Pevek, and as of yesterday are part of our crew. In fact Sébastien Roubinet had already been aboard Tara in 2004, sailing for Greenland, just a few months after Etienne Bourgois and agnès b purchased the boat.

As always, the departure was very emotional, between the outgoing-crew on the dock waiting for their return flight, and the people on board, including those from the previous leg between Dudinka and Pevek. They had gone through the difficult Northeast passage together so emotions were running high.
But the weather was smiling on us with lots of sun and mild temperatures for this part of the world.
Slowly, Tara left the large loading dock in the port of Pevek where large multicolored cranes were pirouetting around a Russian freighter. Loïc Vallette, our captain, couldn’t hide his joy at departure, and sounded the fog horn several times to salute those left on the dock. Before taking to the open sea, we passed along the starboard side of the Admiral Makarov, the icebreaker that rescued our two surprise guests.

Tara is now sailing in the maritime corridor 200 miles long and 40 miles wide that we must take to exit Russian waters. A first sampling station could take place Sunday afternoon since we have the possibility until midnight, September 9.
But this depends on the advice of land-based oceanographers who will first inform Emmanuel Boss, our chief scientist on board, that these are indeed Pacific waters entering via the Bering Strait. We have already sampled Russian coastal waters just before arriving at Pevek.

Vincent Hilaire

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 in the Northeast Passage

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.

In a maze of ice

Tara set out for the Vilkinsky Strait, alone and very daring. Advised by the directors of the Russian icebreaker fleet, the research ship tried to get a little closer to the famous Cape Chelyuskin, a strategic point in the Northeast passage. The ice charts encouraged the initiative, but soon the boat and crew found themselves in a real maze of ice.

The day had started off auspiciously. In a pastel decor, a polar bear and her 2 cubs appeared on an iceberg. Sniffing the air cautiously and detecting an unusual human presence, the mother finally let her offspring play freely on the block of ice. From a distance, we watched this wonderful and touching Arctic show, as the female nursed her cubs one by one. She was probably tired of watching over her offspring alone. The males abandon the new-born cubs, and sometimes become real predators of their own offspring. The mother bear tried to rest a little, to no avail. Full of energy and playfulness, the 2 cubs were constantly teasing her. Then 3 balls of white hair began to roll around on the ice, as if to entertain us. Half an hour later, bath time had come. The mother bear showed the way to the icy waters – how to get down from this mound of ice. After a long moment of hesitation, encouraged by the attention of their mother, the 2 cubs took off down the slippery slope. In single file, the 3 polar bears went off to roam the Kara Sea, leaving us with one of the fondest memories of our Arctic adventure.

For Tara, it was time to continue our route, to leave the Kara, and explore the Laptev Sea. Under engine power, we headed for the Vilkitsky Strait, the passage separating the mainland region of Taymyr from the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. We had just received new ice charts. The water still seemed free for several nautical miles. The directors of the Russian icebreaker fleet invited us to get a small lead on the next possible caravan. We were confident. We were excited to continue our journey eastward. But quickly the horizon whitened, and we were heading right into the ice. Uncertainty mingled with joy at finding this peaceful and sublime world. From the crow’s nest of Tara, nature’s artwork was especially striking. A footprint, a skull, a turquoise heart – seen from the top of mast, the ice exhibited highly creative forms. But as we progressed towards the east, the sea blue became rare, giving way to pure white. The sailors took turns at Tara’s helm. It took considerable ingenuity to find a way through, and a lot of patience too. But after long hours in this maze of ice, moving at an average rate of one knot, we had to face the facts: we were stuck. The giant game had no way out. The only option was to turn back, retrace our steps to find open water, and accept defeat. Finally, we lost a battle but not the war! The return trip was not so simple. In just a few hours, the plaques of ice had moved around. Again considerable ingenuity was required. Again we had to be patient. And once more the Arctic gave human beings a lesson in humility.

For 2 days we’ve been drifting in open water, waiting for a Russian icebreaker to come to our aid. The Yamal left port yesterday – at a speed of 17 knots – to free an icebound freighter near Cape Chelyuskin. Patience is the primary quality of the polar explorers, and I look forward to acquiring it!

Anna Deniaud Garcia

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

Birds of Tikhaya

To the portside of Tara, dilapidated wooden shacks dot the shore. To the starboard rises a cliff. From afar it’s just a simple gray brown cliff covered with green and orange lichen, very beautiful indeed, but common in this region. But as the schooner approaches the rock, chirping resounds in the air.

Armed with binoculars, we discover the perpetrators of this cacophony. Thousands of birds are nestled on narrow rocky ledges. Every spring in Tikhaya, penguins and seagulls join their breeding colony. They will remain here throughout the summer, until their offspring can fly with their own wings.

“I’ve spotted six species!” says Vincent Le Pennec, first mate and enthusiastic birdwatcher. On the cliff facing us there are fulmars (Arctic petrels), and also black guillemots and thick-billed murres – 2 species of Alcidae among the 22 that exist. There are also gulls, kittiwakes, ivory gulls, and little auks, (dovekies) – another seabird, like the murres, that belongs to the Alcidae family. To learn more about the little auks – their lifestyle and migration patterns – scientists have come to spend the month of August at the base of Tikhaya: Jerome Fort, marine ecologist, and David Gremillet, marine biologist.

Tikhaya was the first polar meteorological station, established by the Soviets in 1929. For 20 years, scientists took turns manning the station on the shore of Guker Island, before abandoning it. Today there are still vestiges of past years: 2 airplane carcasses, a baby’s cradle, old rolls of film. There are also the wooden huts – some dilapidated, some restored. The 2 French scientists are spending the cool summer nights in one of these renovated houses.

During the day, the 2 men are out in the field, a 20-minute walk from the base, studying the little auk. Their mission has received the support of the IPEV*, the French Polar Institute. Under the supervision of an armed guard (because bears are prowling around), Jerome and David measure chicks, study the food given and taken by parents, collect blood samples and feathers. They also pose geo-locators on the seabirds, with the goal of learning about their winter migration, and blood pressure recorders, which will provide information about their behavior.

A small black and white bird, measuring between 21 and 26 centimeters, the little auk is among the world’s most abundant seabird species. Its global population is estimated at 40 to 80 million individuals. The bird is an excellent diver. “Here Dovekies can dive 600 times per day, to a depth of more than 20 meters. And in Greenland, our colleagues have observed dives down to 50 meters,” says Jerome. This Dovekie study is not only confined to the region of the Franz Josef archipelago. In Greenland and Spitsbergen, Russian and Norwegian scientists are performing the same research protocols done here by the 2 Frenchmen.

When the scientists are not working, they share daily life with the men at the station. Unfortunately, the banya* of Tikhaya is no longer functioning, but sometimes foreign tourists come to visit. “One morning, I woke up because I heard a noise. Our door had been opened, and I glimpsed a group of Chinese tourists who were taking pictures of us in our sleeping bags,” says David. Even on this bit of land so isolated from the rest of the world, men can’t sleep in peace!

To the chagrin of the ornithologists, people are not the only victims of the camera flashes. Birds also suffer from this intrusion. “On a video, we saw an icebreaker approach less than 3 meters from the cliff, just so tourists on board could take pictures,” says David. Every summer, between 3 and 8 icebreakers come to Guker Island, bringing more than 150 tourists for a visit. Until now, the area has been accessible only to the very wealthy. But the guards of Tikhaya are already fixing up paths in anticipation of the development of tourism in the Franz Josef archipelago.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

*IPEV:  Institut Paul Emile Victor

*Bania: Russian sauna

Bibliography: Les animaux des pôles, by Fabrice Genevois  Guide des oiseaux de mer, by Gerald Tuck and Hermann Heinzel.

The Jewel of the Arctic

We had seen almost nothing. The Russian archipelago of Franz Josef had hidden her beauty under a veil of fog when we first met.

The base of Nagurskaya on the island of Alexandra – headquarters of the nature reserve –  gave us an official idea of the value of this gem. But we had to befriend the park rangers in order to have the doors to this stunning world open for us. As if by magic, the sun came out and the jewel of the Arctic shone before us, with breathtaking glaciers, majestic polar bears and sublime skies

It all started with a diabolical device – half 4-wheel-drive, half Zodiac. One of the park rangers from the Nagurskaya base proposed to continue the tour of Alexandra Island by sea. The land tour had not satisfied our thirst for discovery, so we quickly climb into the semi-rigid wheeled vehicle. After following a bumpy dirt road, the vehicle drives into the sea. We go around one iceberg, then another.  Then our eyes focus on a bright point on the horizon. A ray of sunlight pierces the thick clouds and generously floods a glacier-covered cliff. Unable to communicate, we point at this distant target. We hardly have time to put away our cameras and don our gloves and hats – the Russian pilot launches the vehicle at full speed on the waves. The velocity mixed with the cold nearly make us regret our whim, we are feeling so numb. But gradually the bright spot takes form, and a gigantic, steep ice cliff looms in front of us, gleaming in the sun, about 100 meters high. We feel ridiculously small at the foot of this monumental work of nature. How many years did it take to create this ice giant ? Glaciers arise from the accumulation of snow crystals. Then, following contact with sea water, sunlight and the mechanical stresses of ice masses, cracks form, releasing huge blocks of ice into the water: icebergs. The show is grandiose, of almost indescribable beauty.
 
This was only the beginning of a memorable adventure. In the early morning, Tara leaves Alexandra Land to flirt with the neighboring islands. As often in the Arctic, the sun has a hard time coming out. Sailing along the glaciers, we see a polar bear walking on a summit. The very large animal is only a tiny yellowish speck in the middle of this white immensity. (The bear appears to have a yellowish tint  because microscopic algae trapped inside tiny bubbles cling to its fur.)

At midday the sun finally appears, making the pieces of ice floating on the sea look like diamonds. Tara continues her route, playing hide-and-seek among the icebergs. Ephemeral sculptures with varied forms. Cubist or baroque styles – the genres and eras intersect in this maritime exhibition. As if jealous of these marvels of ice, the sky and the land try to compete. The sky shows off lenticular clouds, white ovals dotting the blue background. The land exhibits basalt columns, repetitive vertical crystals formed by the cooling of volcanic lava. But behind the rocks, a bear appears. Peaceful, the master of the Arctic approaches the shore. Polar bears usually live on the ice pack (increasingly farther north because of global warming), but it is not uncommon to find them on land in this region, because the Franz Josef Islands are among their breeding and wintering grounds.  After a long moment standing with his legs in the water, the bear throws himself into the sea, probably in search of a more promising hunting ground.    We too resume our journey, in search of a new territory to explore, as enchanting as this one.

Anna Garcia Deniaud
 
Bibliography:
Les animaux des pôles, by Fabrice Genevois
Les pôles en question, by Remy Marion

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.

A Dolgan chum

Between 2 blocks of buildings in Dudinka, a chum has been set up. The chum is a tent made of reindeer skins and wooden poles, a kind of teepee from the far north of Siberia. Despite the heat, Vaciliy has donned a traditional Dolgan coat. This surreal scene, organized in our honor, brought smiles to our faces. We were both touched and intrigued. What kind of folklore did the cultural center of Dudinka arrange for us? It was enough to cross the threshold of the chum to forget the concrete, and move into another world – the world of the Dolgans, an indigenous people of Siberia.

One by one, we slip inside the chum. Benches arranged in a circle invite us to sit down. Despite the small space, about 20 of us gather inside the tent made of animal skins, with an opening in the top to let in sunlight. Many dishes were set out on the tables: fish, bread, biscuits. With her colorful, flowery dress, Olga starts by serving us tea. With a large ladle, Kseniya stirs the fish soup she had prepared especially for us. As a welcome, Evgeniya sings a Dolgan song, accompanied by Vaciliy on the mouth harp. The first sound is enough to carry us from  Dudinka to the tundra, from the city to the snowy plains. Just close your eyes and you see the hordes of wild reindeer, musk oxen, and all those images of the Siberian far north that make us dream.

The Dolgan are among the “small people of the North,” a name which includes 26 ethnic groups in the northernmost part of the former USSR. Formerly, these natives of Siberia moved constantly across the tundra following the migration of reindeer, hunting and fishing. Nomadism in extreme conditions, with temperatures falling in winter to minus 60 degrees.

But these days, as a result of the settlement policy in place since the 1930s, “the last ice nomads”* are rare. Fewer than 10 percent of the aboriginal population of Russia has resisted the call of the city. Like Vaciliy, children are often obliged to come to the cities to attend school, to learn Russian. “When I first came to school, I couldn’t communicate with others because I didn’t speak Russian. At first it was difficult, and then little by little I learned the language,” says Vaciliy.

Since 1982, dialects are also taught at school. For nearly 9 months, with the exception of the Christmas-New Year holidays, the children of nomads are separated from their families. They return home to the tundra during the long summer vacation and can once again participate in berry picking, mushroom hunting, and ‘fishing’ for wood floating in the rivers.

Songs continue inside the chum, their lyrics evoking Dolgan culture, but also stories of love and   broken hearts. Then it’s our turn to sing and share a bit of our culture. Samuel, the captain takes out his accordion and the melody of “My Love in Saint-Jean” fills the air.  Our lives suddenly seem much less distant from each other than they look! After telling us legends of the Taimyr Peninsula, and showing us the Dolgan language teaching manuals, our hosts introduce us to “games of the tundra.” Wooden sticks that you throw and catch, pebbles also, and numbers you have to recite without breathing. Despite the language barrier, we manage to understand each other, with the help of gestures, mimicry, smiles. And like love, laughter is universal!

 

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Bibliography: Dolgans, Last Nomads of the Ice by Francis Latreille – Indigenous peoples – Siberian issues.

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.

Not far from the Sopochnaya Karga weather station

On the water, instead of drifting ice, there are wood logs. The smell of land mingles with sea air. Tara is going up the Yenisei River, whose mouth is over 150 kms wide. The coast on the horizon appears with partially snow-covered rocky cliffs. We’ll have to wait a few days until the arrival of Russian boat pilots who will accompany us to Dudinka. The anchor has been set. In the distance, the antennas of the Sopochnaya Karga weather station pierce the blue sky and arouse our curiosity.

It’s almost unbelievable that we’re in the Arctic. The sun is a permanent fixture. Day and night, through the boat’s windows, the sunshine constantly warms up Tara’s interior. Shorts and t-shirts have become indispensable. Unhappy are those who had not planned on summer clothing in these high latitudes. The region is undergoing an exceptional heat wave. Yesterday, after a day’s work, Tara’s deck acquired the look of a seaside resort. We put on swimsuits and without hesitation jumped into yellowish 18 degree water. It’s so nice to cool down a bit and enjoy the feeling of summer.

The anchor is set on the river bottom. The arrival of Russian pilots is scheduled in 2 days, so we’ll remain here near the Sopochnaya Karga station. After an initial contact, Sergey Pisarev obtained permission to set foot on land. On board we rush to the zodiacs*! We’re all dreaming of stretching our legs. Lee Karp-Boss and Joannie Ferland even put on their jogging clothes. But our enthusiasm and thirst for adventure quickly abate under the clouds of mosquitoes. Despite inventive outfits that make us look like novice explorers, nobody escapes these greedy insects intent on fresh blood. Visitors are rare here.

The Sopochnaya Karga weather station was built in 1939. For 64 years, men and women have taken turns on this creek, summer and winter, collecting data on salinity, water temperature, strength and direction of wind, waves, etc. Every 3 hours, throughout the day and night, data is recorded. To ensure the weather watch, 4 people live permanently at the station. In the summer, some seasonal help come to lend a hand to the meteorologists, but their support is basically maintenance. It has to be said that the passing years and rugged weather conditions — down to -50º C in the winter — have not spared the station. Sopochnaya Karga is crumbling, and funds are lacking.

Rusty cans and scrap metal litter the flower-covered ground. There’s even an old typewriter, probably abandoned since the advent of the computer. Comfortably surrounded by Arctic cotton, 3 military vehicles seem to have found a peaceful haven here. Near the beach, 2 log cabins have lost their balance. The permafrost ** on which they were built has melted, and the foundations have caved in. Alexei, a young meteorologist who moved here 3 years ago with his wife and son, is hoping that the situation will change very soon. Restoration or relocation, the question remains unanswered. Meanwhile, he diligently continues his work. Between 2 data measurements, he sometimes goes fishing or hunts wild reindeer. The camp is re-supplied only once a year with food. Fortunately, Alexei knows some cargo captains frequenting the river who in passing provide fresh produce. But real visitors are rare. To live here, you have to love solitude.

The Sopochnaya Karga station is now only a speck on the horizon. We said goodbye to Alexei, Oleg and Yulia. The 2 pilots came aboard sooner than expected so we’ve resumed our journey. In 240 nautical miles, we’ll find civilization again, the Russian city of Dudinka.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

* Inflatable boats that can go ashore.
Permafrost **: layer of permanently frozen soil.

A month of scientific adventure in Russia

Thursday in bright sunshine, Tara scientists did the last long station of the Murmansk-Dudinka leg. All measuring instruments are now turned off, because Tara is entering the mouth of the Yenisei River. Lee Karp-Boss, chief scientist of the leg, reviews this month of adventure and sampling, now coming to an end for her and her team.

- Lee, how was the last long scientific station, and what were its characteristics?

The last long sampling station was relatively short, given the site’s shallow waters – only 36 meters. We were interested in sampling in this zone where the Kara Sea is under the influence of water masses from the Yenisei River. Salinity was very low, at level 12, while in the Barents Sea it was 34.8. We collected a lot of fish larvae in the nets. We also observed a high concentration of dissolved organic matter (commonly called CDOM – colored dissolved organic matter) which gave the water a dark green color. But this isn’t surprising in a coastal zone, since the CDOM usually comes from land.

- In general, what was the result of this leg?

From my perspective, this leg was very productive. Exceptional weather conditions facilitated our work, and we were able to accomplish all the planned stations. The experience of the crew – scientists as well as sailors – was a real plus for the smooth running of sampling stations. We did a total of 15 stations, including 5 long ones. Especially interesting is that we sampled in various environments, with different conditions. During these stations, we observed changes in the plankton community. For example, the size and quantities of phytoplankton were greater among the ice than in the ice-free Barents Sea. But this is only simple observation. Genetic and taxonomic studies will tell us if there was actually a great diversity. We also had the opportunity to work twice in the Gorge of Santa Anna, at different positions. Recorded data on physical properties of the water will allow researchers to continue their studies concerning the movement of currents, particularly interesting in this area. And let’s recall that by studying the movement of currents, we can better understand the impacts of climate change.

- Apart from the plankton samples sent to many laboratories, how will the data collected during the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition be used?

We have, among others, a partnership with NASA – the U.S. Agency for aeronautics and space, and also with ESA, the European Space Agency. At the end of the expedition, after checking our numbers, we will send these agencies physical data on the absorption and deflection of light in these waters, and biological data on the type of particles present in the area studied, and their concentration. This information will help readjust the algorithms that make a link between satellite maps showing ocean color, and chlorophyll concentration in the Arctic.

- What’s going to happen next?

I will leave the boat in Dudinka, and Pascal Hingamp will take over as chief scientist. During the second leg in Russia, the boat is supposed to return to an area that we have already studied – between Murmansk and Dudinka. The scientific advisory committee is considering the interest of sampling again in the same zone, a month later, to see the changes. In any case, after the Kara Sea, the team will be sampling in another environment, the Laptev Sea.

Interview by Anna Deniaud Garcia

Tara sailing through the ice

Land in sight! At the beginning of the week, between blue sky and sea we glimpsed a strip of land dotted with white. It was Novaya Zemlya rising timidly on the horizon. Tara skirted the northeastern tip of the archipelago at the legally-required distance of 12 nautical miles.
On board, some of us dreamed of landing and setting foot on the island, just to get a break from the constant movement of the boat. But we had to continue our journey eastward, crossing new meridians and moving always further from the French time zone.

 
Our last long sampling station took place only a day ago, but it already seems like ancient history. Of course we still remember its characteristics: the absence of DCM (deep chlorophyll maximum); phytoplankton evenly distributed throughout the water column; significant presence of copepods* and  appendicular**; and also clusters of dead microorganisms sinking to the sea floor.
 
The immense amount of work accomplished is already part of the past. That night following the fourth station was long: Tara thrashed about in the Kara Sea with gusts of wind at 40 knots. Passengers’ sleep was disturbed. Then came the calm after the storm – a sunny day after a night in the spray. It’s one o’clock in the morning and the sun is still flooding the main cabin where a few insomniacs are still hard at work.
 
The same time zone as India
 
We seem to be losing our sense of time a little more each day. Time is playing tricks on us. We  constantly have to adjust our watches to keep an imaginary link with the mainland. In 2 days, in the blink of an eye, we will go from 14h to 16h, from coffee  to snack time! Out of curiosity, we asked about the countries living at the same rhythm as us, or rather the countries where watches are set to the same time as those of the inhabitants of Dudinka. Following the meridian, we traversed Tibet and arrived in India near the Thai border. We have come a long way!
 
As long as we’re exploring distant lands, let’s dwell on these for moment. Maps teach us that Novaya Zemlya, this strip of land that looks whole,  is actually separated in 2 by the Strait of Matochkin. To the north is Severny Island, and to the south is Yuzhny. The first is covered with glaciers, the other is tundra – spotty vegetation composed primarily of mosses, grasses and lichens. According to the oral tradition of the Nenets, one of the indigenous peoples of Russia, the Sikhirtya or Sirtiya occupied this territory in prehistoric times, hunting walrus and whale with spears. But Russian archaeologists differ on the question of whether this consisted of a sedentary settlement, or just seasonal activities here.
 
One thing is certain: at present Novaya Zemlya is inhabited only seasonally – by an unknown number of soldiers, a handful of meteorologists, and a few Nenets who come here to fish and hunt.
In 1955, the archipelago was officially used for Soviet nuclear testing. Over the years, its shores turned into a graveyard for nuclear waste. Sergey reassures us that the area is checked every 2 years, and so far no radioactive leaks have been detected. But this information gives us the creeps. What’s more, the temperature has gone down 3 degrees in one afternoon. It’s zero.
 
4 AM : thumping on the hull
 
Novaya Zemlya is now behind us. We’ve headed east to avoid the ice. (Not only the time, but the ice is also playing tricks on us!) As maps arrive from Germany or Russia, we change our  course. Some maps show ice-free areas; others invite us to go around it. Who to believe?
4 o’clock in the morning: loud noises of ice hitting the hull awaken us. Tara tries to fight her way through compact ice. At 5 o’clock, the ice becomes sparse. 3 hours later, the engines are rumbling again, struggling against nature. The elements still have many surprises in store for us!
 
Anna Garcia Deniaud
 
*Copepod: crustaceans that look like microscopic shrimp. Adults of the smallest species are about 0.2 mm, and the biggest are about 10 mm.
**Appendicularians are zooplankton that filter organic matter and in so doing, accelerate the transfer of carbonaceous material to the ocean floor.

Bibliography: “Peoples of the North II”. Patrick Plumet

The man who listened to creaking ice

Sergey Pisarev is often introduced as Russia’s official representative but on board he is primarily a scientist, an Arctic specialist! So we can talk about Sergey, emeritus researcher in physical oceanography, or Sergey, the Arctic adventurer without forgetting to mention the man who likes listening to the noisy pack ice.

If we had to paint Sergey’s portrait with a few brush strokes, it would suffice to say that the researcher has to his credit more than twenty Arctic ice drifts and thirty expeditions worldwide. From this you would add the following qualifiers: traveler, fearless, and passionate. But we have time so let’s go back some years to 1958. Sergey Pisarev was born in the city of Kharkov in the Soviet Union, now Ukraine. He barely had time to look around his neighborhood when he left for the East of the USSR, then China and then Latvia. His father was an officer in the army. Setting up house, leaving, starting again and leaving…

In a way, this is what Sergey still does every spring on the ice. But at that time, for a child, it was not so simple. “It’s hard to change schools all the time, but it teaches you to be strong, independent and communicative.” Let’s add these adjectives to the man’s portrait. He was a good student, and dreamt of becoming a sailor. But a few years later, Cousteau’s films transformed his ambitions. At seventeen, the young man began studying geography at the illustrious Moscow State University.

After a year in geography followed by four in oceanography, he graduated. Sergey then enrolled at the “Moscow Institute of Acoustics” and left for a first polar expedition in the Barents Sea. “I studied for a month the dynamics of the polar front at exactly the same position as with Tara!” The following year in 1982, he accomplished his first ice drift above the gorge of Santa Anna — our location a few days ago. Tara Oceans Polar Circle looks surprisingly like a pilgrimage for our polar explorer! During the 10 years that followed, besides becoming a parent, the dedicated scientist took part every spring in 3-month Arctic drifts off the Russian Franz Joseph archipelago. “At the time, I built my own temperature sensor. It was a 50-foot cable that I positioned under the ice to study the large vertical water movements — internal waves.” At 27, the young Russian was promoted to head of the camp and was in charge of the security for the entire team and equipment. In this very dynamic region, movements of the ice are common which obliges constant shifting of tents and instruments. For 10 years scientific data flowed with generous funding. In the space of 3 or 4 months, Sergey could pocket the annual salary of an engineer. But suddenly, like a piece of ice, the Soviet bloc collapsed, resulting in the fall of the economy. Funding for science dried up, and Sergey began a string of odd jobs. “From generation to generation, we always had to adapt in my country, so I also had to react, rather than mope. And a crisis is better than war! “

Fortunately in 1994 things got better. Sergey participated in a trans-Arctic study on the propagation of sound under the sea, which is hailed as the best scientific collaboration of the year between the United States and Russia. For the Russian researcher, international projects blossomed. In 2006, he sailed for the first time on Tara for the scientific Damocles project. He continued studies on the economic and social consequences of global warming in the Arctic by participating in the European ACCESS program. At the same time, he was consultant to a company planning to extract gas in the Barents Sea. When asked about the dangers of such an activity, the scientist replied, “Any industrial activity is harmful to nature but I hope we’ll organize that one as best we can!” Let’s hope that Sergey and his colleagues succeed in protecting this beautiful part of the world, so that other people in the future can enjoy the great pleasure of treading virgin territory and listening to the strange songs of the ice.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

Arctic Wind

An icy wind is blowing in the sails with gusts up to 30 knots. The last samples of the long station of Santa Anna were carefully collected and Tara can resume her journey to the north of Novaya Zemlya. In four days, we should reach the position 77° 11 North and 73 ° 37 East, where the fourth scientific station of the transect Dudinka-Murmansk (Russia) will take place. Until then the scientific and maritime adventure continues in the Arctic.

It’s difficult in the bitter cold to leave the underwater gorge of Santa Anna without a thought for the unfortunate Russian ship which gave its name. After leaving St. Petersburg on July 28, 1912, Santa Anna called at Alexandrovsk, near Murmansk, before embarking on the Northern Sea Route. Under the command of the expedition leader, Brusilov and accompanied by the navigation officer Albanov, the crew trekked the Siberian coast, with the intention of discovering new hunting grounds for whales, polar bears, seals and walruses. But in October 1912 off the Yamal Peninsula, the ship and its crew were caught in the ice.

For over two years, they drifted towards the North Pole, prisoners of the ice, even exceeding the longitude of the Franz Joseph Archipelago without sighting land. In April 1914 with food supplies dwindling, Albanov and thirteen volunteers left the three-master to try to escape fate. Equipped with sleds and kayaks, they carried out a long journey to Cape Flora, south of the Franz Josef Archipelago in the most extreme conditions: cold and starvation. From this trip “In the land of white death *” only Albanov and his companion Konrad survived. No trace of Santa Anna and the crew were ever found.

Amidst an ice-free sea, Tara is under full sail. Occasionally only a small chunk of ice is seen on the horizon. However, a few hundred nautical miles away, a white wall of ice still hinders the access to Dudinka. “The ice conditions have rapidly changed in the past few days and in a week, the area should be accessible,” says a confident Samuel Audrain, the Captain. Our arrival at the mouth of the Yenisei, the river which flows through Dudinka, is scheduled for July 22. Until then, the mission will continue to collect scientific data over the water masses travelled. To ensure a continuous record of measurements on salinity, temperature, etc.., the scientists have set up a “science round.” After a sailor has verified the machinery during his watch, the co-mate will take a tour in the dry lab to check that all instruments are working properly. In total, we’re controlling twenty items ranging from electrical power for machines, freezer temperatures, and correct functioning of software. In case of doubt or failure, Marc Picheral, oceanographic engineer, has earned the right to be woken up. This is also part of the scientific adventure!

Anna Deniaud Garcia

* In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov, Random House, Inc.

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.

Taranauts and Taradogs

On board Tara, there are presently twelve living creatures: ten bipeds and two quadrupeds. Zagrey and Tiksi are two Laïka Yakouts dogs. Hervé Bourmaud, captain of the polar schooner is their master. This is no coincidence.

Outside of Tara, Hervé is a fisherman on the island of Yeu in Vendée. He has been passionate about dogs for ever. He had dogs onboard of his previous boats. He is nostalgic about “his tramp” with who he crossed the Atlantic several times. His tramp, sea companion of many nautical miles was a sea griffon that was capable of tying relations with humans, whether disabled or not, sometimes better than humans themselves.

It is the same spirit that ties Zagrey, Tiksi and Hervé together here on the ice. They are pack ice comrades of long nights and days. “The first job of the dogs is surveillance. A dog is worth a gun when it comes to watching out for bears”. Their attributions are not limited to this. They are also expected to yap if the pack ice moves. Hervé skips the details on the long cuddles and the fuss these two ice dogs regularly make over their “boss” and the crew.

But it took time to come to this. Patience, firmness and attention also. When he set foot on Tara for the first time, Zagrey the oldest of the two dogs was already nine years old. Tiksi was a puppy of two months barely weaned. Once Tara was in high sea, Zagrey had trouble getting accustomed to life on sea. According to Hervé, he was even sick. One has to say that Zagrey is originally a hunter, a toundra dog, tracking polar bears so not really a sailor.

After the sea, the ice also was a new stage in the adventure of the “taradogs”. Zagrey very much at ease did not want to climb back on the deck after having walked on the pack ice. Tiksi on the other hand was very fearful and panicked after his first ocean bath. Temperature: -30°. Little by little, Hervé has defined their personalities. “Zagrey is White Fang, a wolf who follows men. Very independent, tempted by long breakaways. We tamed each other slowly. Tiksi, more of a homebody at first, is becoming a real ice dog. Agile, brave. Standing up now to the bears. He has proven to be a very good draught dog which is not the case for Zagrey. But Tiksi has his pet peeve. Every thing that flies : bird, plane, helicopter”.

With all this accumulated experience, canalized and trained by Hervé, Tiksi and Zagrey are starting their second polar night onboard Tara; Soon, they will let themselves be covered by snow so as to surprise the bear. Hidden in the night. Theirs two eyes glimmering through darkness. “In contrast with expeditions like Nansen, the dogs are insured of their survival except in the case of a major incident. Today with freezers, the dogs are no longer considered as a meat reserve.”

What will the future hold for the two dogs after the drift? Hervé thinks that Zagrey will not be able to adapt himself to other latitudes; he will remain on the Spitzberg islands for reproduction. This race of Yakouts is much sought after. And Tiksi? Hervé cannot bring himself to leave him. “I shall take him with to France” It is sentimental between us. Belle, the bitch that Hervé still has on his island “the widow of tramp” can thus start a new life… of a dog.

Vincent Hilaire

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.

Longyearbyen…first rotation launch

Last wednesday morning, the good news came out. The first rotation with Tara was going to take place.

Since yesterday, the Twin Otter was waiting on the Longyearbyen airport runway. The tanks had been filled and all the refueling, a total of 340 kg, was well distributed in the cabin. But the weather conditions were not statisfactory. Fog, wind, rain, Troy, the pilot had decided to postpone the take-off.
 
That morning, everybody had woken up at seven. Silently, the ten people around the table with their coffee were awaiting the verdict. Romain, the logistics director first called Grant Redvers, the chief of base. “Hello Grant, what is the weather this morning?”. “Minus eight degrees on the ground” “Right, I’ll put you through to the pilote”. After this short conversation between Grant and Romain, Troy politely carried out a true cross examination.
 
 He isolated himself in a corner of the living room with a notebook “Mornin’ Grant” and Troy reviewed all the weather parameters of the day. Temperature, pressure, wind, visibility, state of the runway… End of the conversation. With one bit of interesting information: Troy had just asked Grant to set up plastic bags to mark out the runway. The weather of the day even offered a fallback position to land on station North in Greenland. In case things got bad on Tara.
 
A last call to the tower and the green light was given. For the five chosen of the day, a scientist, a photographer, two cameramen and a film maker, the count down had started. After several days spent at a rather slow pace, one had to to regain ones’ spirits quickly and forget nothing. Everybody rushed joyfully towards their rooms, each one finishing up their packing in just a few minutes. But with this morning electrochoc, there was a new perspective in view : unless a counter order came out, they would be walking on pack ice three hours later. Some for the first time. At 9H40, the Twin Otter took off.

Vincent Hilaire