They hadn’t been together aboard Tara since Beirut, Lebanon. That was almost a year ago, last December, as the expedition was preparing to leave the Mediterranean for the Red Sea. More than ever Etienne Bourgois and Eric Karsenti, co-directors of Tara Oceans Expedition, are convinced of the importance of this scientific/humanistic project which has mobilized a team of women and men all over the world.
Etienne Bourgois (CEO of agnès b.) is responsible for the maritime, logistical, technical & educational aspects of the project. Eric Karsenti (senior scientist at EMBL) is in charge of the scientific part. But this doesn’t prevent the two men from having opinions about the other’s domain.
- Vincent Hilaire: What are your thoughts about the beginning of the expedition’s second year, since our departure on September 5 from Cape Town, in South Africa?
- Etienne Bourgois: “It’s a good start. Thanks to what we’ve done since Cape Town, and will continue doing until our mission in Antarctica, we’re going to have a very precise image of life in the south Atlantic Ocean at a given time. The level of cooperation for water sampling between the sailors on board and the scientists reached a new high during the voyage between Cape Town and Rio via the islands of Saint Helena and Ascension. We took samples in waves 4 to 5 meters high which had never been done. Before confronting the seas of the southern hemisphere, this is an important accomplishment.”
- Eric Karsenti: “When we left Lorient in France more than a year ago, things were a bit chaotic. Our itinerary was marked with many stopovers. Today, the ‘breaking-in’ period is over, and we’re doing high-level science aboard Tara. Everything is working perfectly. We’re doing everything we hoped to accomplish, and we have developed reliable methods. As Etienne says, we’ve moved to a higher level. It’s no longer random sampling of plankton, but a precise and targeted global hunt.”
- V.H: Speaking of ‘the hunt’, the one undertaken between Cape Town and Saint Helena is exemplary – one of the major accomplishments of this leg.
- Eric Karsenti: “I can tell you that what we just did in the south Atlantic is a real scientific achievement. With the help of meteorology, satellite imagery, and the almost-hourly collaboration between our teams on land and at sea, we succeeded in entering the heart of a huge whirlpool originating in the Indian Ocean via the Aiguilles Current. This current runs in an east-west direction, and after descending the Mozambique channel, passes the Cape of Good Hope and generates whirlpools that cross the south Atlantic — carrying a diversity of living organisms linked to its original environment. We succeeded in finding and exploring one of these whirlpools. We now work aboard Tara as if a land-based router were giving weather forecasts to a competitor in the Vendée Globe race. What’s more, with our accumulated experience, we can succeed in finding a needle in a haystack. This is unique. In addition, we accomplished the mission using our sails for most of the 5,000 miles between Cape Town and Rio.”
- Etienne Bourgois: “I want to emphasize that we obtained these results in conditions of total safety, never easy at sea, especially considering the windy weather we had. Our sailors and scientists even succeeded in organizing an extra sampling station despite the tight time-schedule for arriving in Rio. This shows you just how committed the team is.
- V.H: What are your thoughts about the stopover in Rio?
- Etienne Bourgois: “For us, arrival in Brazil and in Rio is above all a continuation of the expedition, but it’s also a very special stopover. Rio is a huge city, and for two weeks we’ve had many exchanges with scientists, political personalities, artists and environmentalists. This is not a technical stopover for Tara, but a time for meetings, and the most important event was the presentation of our work in the botanical garden of Rio. Two or three hundred people came, including the Ambassador of France to Brazil.”
- Eric Karsenti: “We arrived in Rio at a time when there are many new projects here for scientific development in oceanography. And Tara offers this scientific community an opportunity to be inspired by our expertise, for example concerning our extensive sampling of everything from larva and viruses to zooplankton. The study of ecosystems along the Brazilian coasts could greatly benefit from this partnership which scientists here are hoping for enthusiastically. Tara went to a workshop at Ilha Grande, near Rio. Representatives of the French CNRS met their Brazilian counterparts with the goal of facilitating scientific exchanges between our 2 countries at the highest level, including the Tara Oceans program.”
- V.H: On the starting line for this second year, and after Rio, Antarctica for a month?
- Etienne Bourgois: “We will not be the first to go there. Other research vessels have done it before. But with Tara’s low draft and her 36 meter length, we can get to places where no other oceanographic ship has been. For example, we hope to sail in the Wedell Sea, to the east of the peninsula.”
- Eric Karsenti: “If we succeed in studying and describing this sea, it will be a real first. Part of it is under ice. We know there’s a lot of sea life and not much biodiversity, but no one is able to prove this with scientific data. Our study will be a continuation of what we were doing before in the Malouine current. Our goal of achieving a global description of ecosystems at the scientific time “T” would not be meaningful without Antarctica.”
- Etienne Bourgois: “During the three years of our expedition, we’ll go to Antarctica only once, but we’ll stay there for a whole month. It’s a long enough period to complete some important research, especially valuable considering the challenging weather conditions in the southern seas: we’ll be in the Furious Fifties.”
- Eric Karsenti: “I think human aspects of the adventure will sometimes be as important as the scientific expedition. At these latitudes, science isn’t done in the same way, when it can be done at all!”
- V.H: Do you have any particular wish for this second year, which has begun so successfully?
- Eric Karsenti: “I wish we didn’t have to run after financing. I hope that scientific institutions and private organizations begin to realize the quality and importance of this expedition. I would like to stop begging. I’m a research scientist. If we don’t get the necessary funding, we could export our savoir-faire.”
- Etienne Bourgois: “Funding remains a problem. To have even a chance of completing our three-year expedition, we will have to decrease costs. For example, in an activity that uses a lot of equipment like ours, there’s a certain amount of wear-and-tear and breakage inherent to any expedition of this kind. We have no spare parts. To continue using the sails and benefiting from the increasingly strong winds present in the oceanic regions we’ll be crossing, we’ll have to replace our two main winches on the deck. This operation will cost 25,000 euros, just to give you an idea of our needs. If we can’t meet these costs, Tara will be used to the breaking point. And so this extraordinary, legendary boat would be the victim of lack of funding. Since we began organizing expeditions with Tara, we’ve gone from 12,000 motor hours to 24,000, in seven years of adventure. That’s an enormous voyage.”
- Eric Karsenti: “We feel a bit alone in this struggle. Everyone who made promises should now take action. We have the impression that despite our explanations, certain people don’t realize the difficulty and significance of what we’re doing.”
- Eric Karsenti: The agnès b. Foundation and the Veolia Environnement Foundation have supported us since the beginning. EDF Foundation, World Courier, Brittany Region, Cap l’Orient, the CNRS and the Foundation for Biodiversity Research also help us financially. It is through them that the expedition is possible!
Interview by Vincent Hilaire