The southern Indian Ocean currents influence the south Atlantic Ocean

The Indian southern equatorial warmer current affects the biodiversity and the thermo-haline circulation of the Atlantic Ocean.

At Tara’s present location, the Agulhas current flows at high speed along Africa’s east coast (up to 6 knots). Arriving at the Cape of Good Hope (formerly called the Cape of Storms), this current meets up with the colder and polar currents from the Atlantic.  This results in a retroflection phenomenon where the Agulhas current turns on itself and proceeds eastward in the Indian Ocean.

During this retroflection, the Agulhas current creates meanderings, which evolve into rapidly turning eddies. Periodically some eddies detach from the current and traverse the Atlantic Ocean towards the American continent.

Each year, the dynamics of the eddies, which succeed each other in the Mozambique Channel, partially control food supply and marine predator displacement. Due to temperature and salinity conditions, in addition to diverse species trapped in their midst, these eddy masses influence the circulation and marine biodiversity of the south Atlantic.

One of the Tara Oceans’ goals is to precisely evaluate the role of these oceanic masses in their enrichment of the flora and fauna of the south Atlantic.

By sampling nascent eddies in the South Indian Ocean, and then following their peregrination in the Atlantic Ocean, the scientists will be fathoming the details of genetic dissemination on large oceanic scales.

As the last-born ocean, the Atlantic continues to benefit from the contribution made by its “big brothers” the Indian and Pacific, where the continuing regulation of oceanic exchanges creates an evolving situation, which remains to be studied.

Gaby GORSKY and Valérian MORZADEC

Diary of an on-board Customs Diver

The coral mission begins. The divers, the bottles and the inflatable dinghy are prepared with the upmost attention to safety. It’s quite a set up that must be put in place each day. Jean-Jacques, who along with Mathieu, is in charge of the safety and logistics of the dives, provides us with the following extracts from his diary:

This morning we get up at dawn and load the large dinghy which Tara has hired for the dive. At 7.30am we set off for the first site, known as the “White Island”, located twenty minutes from the lagoon, near the port of Longoni. …The scientists are excited as they emerge from the water; they have managed to track down a group of species which they had been hoping to find. …We reconvene with Tara who has come to meet us and is anchored nearby. While the others sort and catalogue their coral, Mathieu helps us inflate the diving cylinders using the compressor installed in the front hold. Meanwhile we are delighted to see a group of dolphins swim by the boat. It’s almost as if they’ve come to say hello. The afternoon’s schedule is a repeat performance, only this time we go to the “Green Island”.

In the evening we debrief on the course of the day and prepare for the next day’s navigating, which is determined according to which sites the chief scientist, Francesca Benzoni, wants to explore. I really liked the “plankton” team who have just left and I enjoyed working with them, but I have to admit that today I did feel like I was truly in my element, doing the job which I have trained so well for and know how to do.

Today we leave the boat and head, with the diving team, to the North Reef’s outer drop, seven nautical miles away. At the site the divers get into the water and I stay on watch aboard the dinghy. A little later another inflatable dinghy approaches, its occupants ask me if we are the Tara team, I tell them that we are and they inform me that they are free-diving, spear-gun hunters. They ask me if I can lend them a lead belt as they’ve left theirs onshore. They promise to drop it off onboard Tara in the evening. They keep their word and, by way of thanks, bring us a fantastic wahoo (a member of the tuna family) fresh from the sea. After Jan has cooked it, it is simply delicious and there is enough for the five people on board.

Jean-Jacques Kerdraon

From Reunion Island to Madagascar

Because Reunion is an island, it’s easy to imagine it populated by fishermen and seafaring people. This, however is only partly true: the port where we have stopped hosts the larger part of the fleet, but historically, Reunion is home to a landbound population of planters for whom the Indian Ocean was mainly considered an obstacle to travel — a body of water feared by sailors because of its difficult temper and rough winds.

Tara had a stroke of luck on the way to northern Madagascar, in the form of a swell, which pushed us towards our destination. Sadly though, we were unable to dock at mysterious Tromelin island, located midway on our route: this small, isolated sand isle is enclosed by a perilous coral reef which renders access to the island difficult, and makes it impossible to drop anchor: the waters encircling Tromelin are 4000 metres deep!

Much to the disappointment of Jérôme, our cameraman, who was already imagining himself as a solitary castaway, filming Tara passing by this land where so few souls ever set foot. We settled for a tour around beautiful Tromelin instead, with binoculars to help us observe what our eyes couldn’t reach. A major bird colony inhabits the island: red footed boobies and masked boobies which, far from being shy, treated us to beautiful swoops and dives (reminding us that the only person onboard who actually succeeded in fishing was Ian Probert, imagery specialist from the Roscoff laboratory, who will seize any occasion to plunge his plankton net underwater).

Despite these complicated navigation conditions, we were able to set up and complete a sampling station before reaching Tromelin. The samples collected in this seldom studied area are now carefully stored in Tara’s flank. We arrived in Madagascar yesterday at noon. Apparently, the wonders of Diego Suarez –in the north of the island — are renowned throughout the entire southern Indian Ocean: Mathieu, Tara’s versatile sailor in charge of diving, tells us: “This place is a paradise for 4Ls! (Translator’s note: Renault 4L, the first front wheel drive family car produced by Renault.) Painted yellow, they serve as taxis, and at night they look just like Christmas trees, with all the lights on their hoods.”

Tara is docked in front of Spanish-Basque, seine-fishing tuna boats. One last detail to plant the setting in your minds: we had been told that the women of Antsiranana (the Malgache name for Diego Suarez) are especially attractive. Mathieu confirmed this: Indeed, “the women are very beautiful and wear lots of jewelry. Here, on the main street, you’ll find jewelry stores every 100 metros.”

After an intensive cleaning session from Tara’s prow to her stern, the boat is now ready to welcome children and visitors onboard. On deck, ropes arestashed away to prevent those not used to being on a boat from tripping and falling: welcome, friends and visitors from Diego Suarez!

Sacha Bollet

Heading for Tromelin

The name is a mystery for most people: Tromelin. It’s one of the Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean — 5 little-known French territories where the vegetation is very sparse, scattered around Madagascar.

Since 2005 the prefect of the TAAF (French Austral and Antarctic Territories) based on Reunion, has been the administrator of the Scattered Islands. The first one on our route is Tromelin, halfway between Madagascar and Reunion, a tongue-shaped, sand-covered island measuring 1,7 kilometers long and 700 meters wide. Surrounded by coral reefs and ocean depths of 4000 meters, Tromelin has always had the reputation of being very dangerous for passing boats. It is however a perfect configuration for research aboard Tara. We will be sampling water masses rarely frequented by other plankton enthusiasts.

“It’s a stone in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” says Lionel Bigot, scientist from the University of Reunion. “These islands fascinate everyone because they’re so isolated from human activities. On Tromelin, a meteorological station is the only sign of French presence. “Although these territories are very small, their zone of economic jurisdiction covers more than 640,000 km2. This necessarily attracts the envy of fishermen, and research scientists, and causes geopolitical rivalries between various countries.”

While waiting to plunge our nets in these highly protected waters, we hear the terrifying history of Tromelin, the “Island of Forgotten Slaves”. In 1761, The Utile, a slave ship belonging to the Compagnie française des Indes Orientales, was wrecked on the terrible reefs outlining the shore. 142 crew members, and 60 slaves captured in Madagascar, survived the disaster and organized life on the island using materials and supplies remaining from the wreck. After 2 months on Tromelin, the crew succeeded in rebuilding a boat, and they sailed away from the island, abandoning the slaves with the solemn promise of eventually returning to fetch them.

It took 15 years for this promise to be kept — by the Chevalier of Tromelin. He found 7 surviving women, and an 8-month old baby. Incredible as it may seem, they had managed to stay alive on this totally barren island, and had even succeeded in keeping a fire going, though no trees grow here. The forgotten slaves were freed, and the baby baptized Moses.

Even before we can glimpse their sandy shores, the Scattered Islands have aroused our curiosity. We will certainly not approach, content just to explore the mysteries of the waters surrounding the Island of the Forgotten Slaves.

Sacha Bollet

The eddy: second cousin of the gyre

This evening the curves of Reunion appeared! Massive mountain silhouettes in the dark night, and lights from houses at the water’s edge. Patience though! We still have to wait a little before we can set foot on the island and discover it in the full light of day.

We are currently heading, with the wind at our backs and the sails stretched taut, towards our second plankton sampling point since departing from Mauritius.

Colomban de Vargas, a specialist in planktonic ecosystems at the CNRS laboratory in Roscoff, has rejoined Tara for the third time as senior scientist. He has highlighted two sampling points which correspond to « eddies ». This English word refers to the small, transient whirlpools which form at the edge of large ocean currents. « Gyres », explains Colomban « are huge whirlpools. They are oceanographic structures stable enough to last either for years or a whole season, whereas eddies are much more volatile.”

A major ocean current runs along the East coast of Madagascar forming a retroflexion towards the south. A number of small whirlpools have been expelled from this flow of water at the point where it meets the Mascarene Plateau, which is where we are right now. According to our satellite maps there are about ten of them.

« Essentially, eddies are columns of water where the salinity, density, and chlorophyll level are different from the mass of water around them » explains Colomban. « We will be taking samples from the centre of two eddies this week. »

In an attempt to alleviate somewhat the workload of the scientific team (16 hours of non-stop sampling!), the shift has been broken up into two parts. We arrive at the sampling site the evening before and the scientists install the over-night nets in order to capture the nocturnal migration of zooplankton. They then go to bed for a short night’s sleep and resume operations the following morning: pumping bottles of water samples, collected at different depths and filtrations.

Mission accomplished for the first eddy, northeast of Reunion… with a surprising reading: the depth at which the concentration of chlorophyll reached its maximum was 120 metres! A record since the start of this expedition. At this locale there must be colonies of plankton which do not like the excessive light at these latitudes. The ocean is very clear and the sun’s rays can penetrate down to significant depths.

This evening we will try to locate the centre of another whirlpool, to the south-east of the island, where the surface chlorophyll level is higher.

A few more hours of courage, brave scientists, and we can regain our spirits and strength on the promised land of Reunion!

Sacha Bollet

Fishing in St Brandon: a national sport

“In St Brandon, there is no need for bait: the fish will jump right in your boat. » Those aren’t the exact words Armand (administrator of the archipelago) used upon our arrival, but that’s the general idea. 10 days later, our daily diet is composed mainly of fish and rice. Skill, however, has nothing to do with this.

The day after our arrival on the southern island, two fishermen climb onboard Tara to visit the ship. They kindly set up a fishing line with sturdy nylon and a sizeable hook, “to catch the “baboons”, the local delicacy which is related to the grouper.

Julien, our cook, is the first to try: the fishing lines are cast overboard. Before we can count to 20, something is already thrashing at the end of the line. Caught on our hook is a grey fish with black stripes of about 50cm long, which would vaguely resemble a shark if it weren’t for the large sucker adorning the top of its head.

It’s a remora, a harmless suckerfish that sticks to other fish and rids them of their parasites. Its flesh is perfectly inedible. The gluttonous remoras hang around Tara’s hull, only to rush over in large groups when the remains of what is left on a plate are tossed overboard. It’s impossible to throw a line without catching them, so we decide to put our dreams of fishing on hold until we stumble on a more promising opportunity. As compensation, Armand brings us a large babonne, which Julien prepares for us, marinated raw in coconut milk, lemon and spices.

Our second attempt takes place in the North of the archipelago, using a fishing rod and a lure. By throwing the line sufficiently far away from the boat, we should avoid catching remoras. Once again, only a few seconds later something tugs on the line. A long fish, with a slightly menacing aspect is struggling on the deck. It’s what the French refer to as a « crocodile needle fish ». These fish, with their long indented beak, swim very close to the surface. Their skin shimmers with blue, silver, green and yellow highlights, and they are chockfull of bones.

This time, we are saved by two fishermen cruising along in their boat, who trade us a large babonne for two cans of soda. In these isolated islands, money isn’t the best currency. And indeed, what can money buy, if not the few supplies in Armand’s grocery store? The one true treasure here, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, are the goods transported by cruise or leisure ships such as Tara: cans of fruit, chocolate cookies, sodas… anything that will distract fishermen from their everyday diet.

There is no exchange rate here. Values are indexed according to the warmth of human exchanges. Noël, Armand’s cook, welcomes us to Raphael Island with a mountain of delicacies made of fried fish and cod. On our way back, we come across two lobster fishermen. They show us the inside of their rowboat. “Not much in the way of success today », they were driven away from the reefs by the rain. “That means they’ll only give us a few small ones”, apologizes Armand, with a smile on his face. Small? The two men stuff 20 lobsters of quite honourable size into a bag.

Can you guess what happens when Ruby, our Mauritian scientific observer spends a few hours onboard the refrigerated ship that delivers the fish caught in St Brandon to Mauritius? Every single fish she touched is given to us for our dinner!

That’s right; there is no need to know how to fish if you make friends in the right places.

Sacha Bollet

Kite surfing is a dangerous sport for the teeth

To compromise a family vacation at Saint Brandon is really simple. The archipelagos are so isolated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, that a tiny incident can become serious in a couple of seconds.

Basile, 11 years old, wanted to tap the hand of her brother who was kite surfing. A slap of wind and there’s Basile with dental braces torn away, a large hole in the forehead and terrified parents.

Aboard their luxurious catamaran, the fist aid kit is not enough. Armand, the administrator of Saint Brandon, and a good friend of Tara’s crew calls us on the VHF: “Tara, we have someone injured, can you come take a look?”

With a safety vest and two suitcases with emergency supplies, Mathilde and Baptiste jump into the inflatable boat and race down to the southern islands. “When we arrived, there was a lot of blood!” recounts Mathilde “one saw that the wound was deep and the best would be to take her on board Tara”. With a half-turn and full-throttle, our ocean ambulance returns, with the young wounded and her father. “During the arctic expedition, we had doctors on board, but on this round, we’re navigating on marine international mode,” explains Hervé, the skipper. “All of the crew on Tara have been instructed as “assistants” for doctors on land. It’s the Hospital Purpan at Toulouse, which is always ready to respond 24 hours a day”.

Mathilde sends a photo of the wound and Hervé receives instructions from a doctor by telephone: “here it’s not possible for helicopter evacuation, so one had to do it on the spot”. That is the theory. “When you are faced with the wound, that is something else: you tell yourself there’s a problem… one sees the bone!” Basile is put under local anesthesia with a series of small injections.

Nurse Mathilde relates: “this is the painful part. At the beginning, the solution penetrates with difficulty around the cut. Afterwards it desensitizes rapidly.” “Fortunately there were two of us” adds Hervé, “it’s super important to hand over instruments and make the knots…” Making knots… that’s something, which our sailors know.

Impossible to affix simple Band-Aids, the injury is too deep, it needs to be sutured. Doctor Hervé takes a very fine thread (to avoid leaving a big facial scar) and makes a first suture.

Basile is very calm; it’s her father who is nervous. “Don’t worry Dad, it’s fine…” The tough kid in a bathing suit doesn’t flinch during the three sutures. Hervé finishes by carefully cleaning up the cut “in the tropics, one has to be wary of eventual infections.”

At the end, the valiant victim climbs up on Tara’s deck with a smile. She approaches Armand: “Do you think that will leave a big scar?”  The mischievous Mauritian: “Ah yes, it’s sure to be a big one”. The brave convalescent: “ Oh yeah terrific!”

Sacha Bollet

Plankton Attached to Coral

Already 8 months since Tara left Lorient. Faithful readers, now that you’re completely ‘fluent’ in plankton, we can move on to the fine points of a local, tropical dialect: coral.

You’re already familiar with Dinoflagellates… those single-celled organisms capable of photosynthesis, but also feeding on particles, and sometimes doing both at the same time.

Let’s observe one of these dinoflagellates fighting against the ocean current using its two flagella. It floats around in the open sea until it reaches a coral reef. From the outside, this reef looks very beautiful: calcareous spirals, solid bushes, and potato-shaped lumps with a labyrinth of ridges. Closer up, it’s even more beautiful: an envelope of calcium carbonate created by little animals called coral. Take away their protective covering and the corals themselves resemble a colony of tiny sea anemones.

Our dinoflagellate comes to rest on this providential structure. It sheds its two little tails, and attaches itself inside the coral. How exactly? This is what Roxane Boonstra and other researchers at the University of Miami are trying to find out: “These dinoflegellates, called zooxanthellae, live in symbiosis with the coral.” During the day, zooxanthellae create matter by synthesizing sunlight. The coral takes over at night. They extend their tiny tentacles to grab or filter small particles in the ocean. In this exchange of methods, each of the two organisms benefits from the other.

Today’s harvest was good for Francesca Benzoni, responsible for coral studies aboard Tara. She spreads out on a table the samples of coral taken underwater. “I try to collect 3 examples of each. The first will stay at Mauritius Oceanographic Institute on Mauritius Island, the two others will be sent to University of Milan Bicocca to be analyzed.” The Tara coral team includes specialists in morphology like Francesca, and molecular biologists who are interested in the DNA of coral. “It’s rather easy to determine the genus of a coral with the naked eye, but identifying its species is much more complicated. Often we have to look at its DNA to be sure.” This combined approach has only been possible for the last ten years, since the development of tools that allow us to delve inside the genome. “Very often, these tools make us question all the old classifications of coral!” adds Francesca.

Each sample is carefully identified and labelled. Francesca and Roxane cut the coral into little pieces and put them into test tubes for the DNA analysis. Add some liquid fixative, and they’re put away in a cool place in the hold, Tara’s treasure chest. Big pieces of coral are cleaned with bleach to conserve only the skeleton of the animal, then carefully wrapped in newspaper to be stored away.

Francesca’s objective is to identify the different species in the Indian Ocean. “The zone has already been studied, but we’re interested in the places rarely sampled: Djibouti, Mayotte and Saint Brandon.” David Obura, another specialist on our coral team, confirms this: “Saint Brandon is a special place, very isolated. Perhaps there are fewer species than in other regions of the Indian Ocean, but for us it’s interesting because there’s very little impact from human activities here. We can observe how coral recovers after a rise in temperature, for example.”

A few degrees higher, and the entire harmony of a reef can be destroyed. Finished, the beautiful symbiosis that unites coral and zooxanthellae. The dinoflagellates go back to the open sea where they can continue a new existence, until they find new coral where they can attach themselves.

Sacha Bollet

Phronima in a Barrel

Rainy day aboard the Tara. Long waves unfurl against the boat’s hull. Wind in the sails at 17 knots, we’re headed towards the archipelago of Saint Brandon.

Nets have been replaced by computers and books. Everyone has found a small spot inside Tara to keep dry, and work.

Ideal weather to talk about a representative of zooplankton that we’ve encountered several times this week: Phronima.

Immediately re-baptized “the alien”, the first Phronima we caught measured almost 10 centimetres. With a head in the shape of a Greek helmet, and big protuberant eyes, it looks like a frightening extraterrestrial. But Phronima is actually a rather common animal in the warm seas of the world — a crustacean with some very surprising domestic habits.

This creature is a hunter, capturing gelatinous animals among the plankton. Carefully cutting up the transparent cellulose envelope of its prey, Phronima recycles it, constructing a barrel as a shelter for itself. Each species of Phronima specializes in the capture of one type of animal. Some prefer medusa, others prefer salpes or siphonophores.

When it grows bigger, Phronima builds a new transparent tunica so as not to be short of space. It grips the barrel with its forelegs, and swims using rows of cilia hidden under its tail. Phronima doesn’t even have to leave its gelatinous shelter to hunt, nibbling its prey just outside the barrel, and pulling them inside when they’re sufficiently small.

Despite its frightening appearance, Phronima has maternal qualities rather unusual among crustaceans. The mother takes good care of her progeny: she lays eggs, then raises and feeds the larvae in her transparent incubator.

The specimen we photographed actually came out of its shelter – a rare image!

Sacha Bollet & Christian Sardet

In the Wake of Two Centuries of Scientific Discovery

A sampling station in the crystalline waters of Gan island, one of the last island chains south of the Maldives. Our scientists cheer up after 2 days of constant rain.

Tara’s orange prow follows in the wake of another expedition that crossed the Indian Ocean over a century ago – the HMS Sealark, led by the zoologist John Stanley Gardiner. In 1905, this lively Englishman sailed around islands and atolls to catalogue the marine flora and fauna. He was one of the first to study the symbiosis between coral and micro-algae – the same micro-algae found in plankton. Called zooxanthellae, these organisms are capable of photosynthesis. They create organic matter using sunlight, and nourish the coral in exchange for shelter and protection.

Gardiner was also interested in the way coral reefs formed…and he wasn’t alone. Our mentor Charles Darwin, whose round-the-world voyage inspired the Tara Oceans Expedition, had an intuition in the 1830s about the geological history of atolls. He wrote in his journal: “General laws must determine the marked difference between the reefs fringing the coasts, and those emerging from the ocean depths in the form of rings, distant one from another. We have demonstrated that by a sinking movement, the first category of reefs gradually evolves into the second, and into other even more remarkable structures.”

Not bad Mr. Darwin! Modern science has given us a more precise understanding of the mechanism of reef formation. It all begins with a volcano emerging in the middle of the ocean. When the volcano cools off, it becomes an island, and then a ring of coral grows in the shallows all around its coastline. At this stage, two changes can happen: the level of the sea rises, or the ancient volcano gradually collapses. Water then penetrates between the fringe of coral and the land, forming a lagoon. The third stage suggested by Darwin is the atoll. The remains of the volcano disappear completely under the sea, leaving a ring of coral barely emerging at the water’s surface.

We’re hoping to add to the scientific heritage of these historic discoveries during our two weeks of research around St Brandon. Don’t believe those photos of paradisical dives: we’re here only to serve Science!

Sacha Bollet

The Observer Who Loved Cousteau

“My house is near the water. I’ve always heard the sound of waves crashing on the beach. But what really made me want to work around the sea was a documentary by Jacques-Yves Cousteau that I saw when I was 8 years old.”

Incredible. More than 9000 kilometres from France, and the famous man with red cap strikes again. Rilwan Yoosuf is aboard the Tara for 5 days as scientific observer for the Maldive government. A smiling, discrete presence, he takes photos, asks questions about the sampling operations, and shares our daily life.

In the Maldives, there are only 6 marine biologists, and Rilwan is their assistant. Coral is a national treasure in the archipelago. Thanks to tourism, the primary source of income. Visitors from all over the world come to dive among the colorful reef fish. Coral was used for a long time as a building material. “We had nothing else. It was crushed and made into a paste. Houses, mosques, everything was built with coral. To harvest this natural cement, people gradually destroyed the barrier reef protecting the islands from the onslaught of waves. In 1980, a dramatic flood washed over Malé, the capital city, alerting the authorities to the necessity of protecting the fragile reef. In 1998, the water temperature rose slightly, causing 90% of the coral to turn white and die. To study their very slow recuperation, we set up 15 observation sites throughout the archipelago.”

Rilwan began his work in the ocean as a diving instructor in 2000. “I’ve clearly observed a decrease in the reef fish population, overfished to supply the luxury hotels. Fish like the grouper, in the Serranidae family, are becoming rare, and lagoon sharks have been protected since last year, after having nearly disappeared. The government has given exporters of sharks fins 6 months to get rid of their stock.

Rilwan also works on migration of tuna and sharks. For this, floating buoys are anchored offshore of the atolls. An entire ecosystem develops around them: First seaweed attach themselves, followed by small reef fish, which eventually attract much larger fish. “We have the power to protect plankton and fight against overfishing. But we alone cannot stop global warming,” warns Rilwan. “That is a job for all the countries of the world, to stop the rising sea level which threatens the Maldives in the future.”

Aboard Tara, Rilwan is particularly interested in the state-of-the-art technologies used for our work. “We have already organized oceanographic expeditions in the Maldives, but never abroad. We would like to build a research boat in the coming years.”

Sacha Bollet

Dry Dock in Paradise

Step outside the airport building and a blast of heat invades your lungs. In Malé, the capital of the Maldives, the air is the same temperature as the water: 30°. To leave the airport, you take a boat-taxi: These long, covered boats look like ferries and move nimbly over the crystalline water. Aaaah, the vision of Tara floating peacefully in the middle of the lagoon!

But no, the boat is out of the water for the first time since the beginning of our long journey. The cooling system for the port side motor’s propeller shaft had been functioning poorly for months. The port of Malé was the first opportunity to find a dry dock able to handle our huge sailboat, and check the “plumbing” that transports seawater to cool the motor.

Far, very far from the paradisical image of this archipelago, the boatyards are located on an island entirely built from trash! Garbage litters the burning ground. Disgusting landfill taking over the omnipresent sea.

Julien, chief mechanic, had to dive with scuba tanks to fasten the cinches underneath the boat’s wide hull without damaging the depth sounder or measuring instruments. It took 5 hours to organize the manoeuver and hoist Tara to land. When the boat was finally installed in the dry dock, a torrential rain began to fall. The helpless crew took shelter under the hull and waited until the shower stopped. On deck, the zodiacs filled with water and twice had to be baled out. Everybody got to work. Julien removed the propeller and literally “unboxed” the shaft. At the junction between the exterior and interior of the boat, he found a worn-out rubber joint. This was preventing the circulation of seawater necessary for cooling off the motor.

Time was limited. Everyone lent a helping hand to clean the underwater part of the boat. “All the scientists were scraping away at the hull”, Julien happily reports. “They were all dirty, covered with remnants of crustaceans torn off the bottom!” Hervé the captain, and Baptiste, all-around sailor, finished up the job with a high-pressure hose. Until 4 in the morning non-stop, they scraped off seaweed and shells accumulated during 8 months of sailing. “Now the hull is as good as new,” assures the chief mechanic.

No damage, no leaks were revealed by this passage on land. As for Julien the cook, he’s been struggling inside the cabin with a small fridge that’s leaking freon. Our precious cold drink refrigerator is out-of-commission, and too big to pass through the doors! The plexiglass panel above our main room must be  removed in order to evacuate the fridge, and is replaced by a new one “made in Malé”.

Paradise exists for sure. We have seen it, but from far away, from very far away!

Sacha Bollet

The Maldives, a paradise on earth slipping under the sea

The archipelago is the delight of advertisements and holiday agents with its postcard dreams, but the picture is not rosy: the sea threatens to swallow up this rare and still preserved natural habitat. Hence, the interest of government officials, who’ve come to salute the work of the “Taranauts” for the preservation of the marine environment and the planet.

Suddenly, like a mirage: a green fringe, a hyphen slides onto the horizon line between the blues of sky and sea. No doubt: just above, light clouds confirm the presence of a piece of land in the middle of the ocean. With binoculars, one picks out this time a thin beach of white sand, which underlines a palm-tufted grove, hemmed with a crown of turquoise water. On board Tara, everyone who can is on deck, eyes looking through camera sights, mouths agape: the first islets of the northernmost atoll of the Maldives archipelago appear before our eyes, seized by the magical scenery. We make a little stop in the lagoon amongst the fishermen for immigration formalities as a shoal of dolphins arrive to complete this idyllic painting. The ‘bathwater’ is more than 300 C, and even if microscopic jellyfish irritate the skin, we all succumb to the beauty of the place.

This image of paradise is, however, fragile and menaced. A dramatic illustration of the danger: on the 26th of December, 2004 when the tsunami wave from the Philippines arrived here, it overwhelmed practically this whole small country, and took, with its passing, 89 victims. The streets of Malé, the capital which reaches…2m above sea level, were flooded, like most of the 1,200 islands of this exceptional territory, made up of a series of atolls stretching like a track of confetti to the south-east of the Indian peninsula. But, if tidal waves remain a danger, which can strike at any moment this Eden between sky and sea, it is the warming of the climate, which worries the authorities most. To such a point that, just before the large Copenhagen conference on climate, the Maldives government met symbolically dressed in divers outfits at the bottom of a lagoon to alert public opinion to the scenario awaiting this territory situated at sea level. A shocking image was not sufficient, however, for the leaders of the world to agree amongst themselves on concrete measures to stop the phenomenon.

Life is pleasant in the Maldives. And not only for the 300,000 tourists (as many as the Maldives population!) who, every year, come to relax in the “sea bungalows” (hotel rooms on stilts…foreshadowing the final deluge of the country?) or to dive on the coral reefs, which make the success of this dream destination. “One doesn’t die from hunger here,” says Adam, employed in the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, and “one can say that everyone is happy with how the leaders run the country…in any case, almost everyone!” It is true that the mild climate and courtesy of helpful inhabitants, everything appears ideal in this best of worlds, like the smallest trip is made in a canoe, suspended over the turquoise waters of the lagoon. Social peace reigns in this Muslim society and secular (only example in the world with Turkey…) after settlers who came from neighboring Sri Lanka in the 12th century. With fishing and copra (coconut), tourism has added a substantial income supplement, but the main problem of the country is far from resolved.

The overpopulation of the island’s capital, Malé, foreshadows that problem which the inexorable rise of the seas could cause. Little by little, to gain more space, one tries to encroach on the ocean by constructing embankments around the existing islands, and enlarging them like on Hulumale, airport island, or creating new artificial ones, using compacted waste as filler, like that one nick-named “garbage island” which serves as an industrial zone. It was there, in the naval yard that Tara was in dry dock for repairs below the waterline.

On all evidence, that will not be enough to save the country from general drowning. And the ecologists are worried about what this technique could have on polluting the waters, which are fished for daily consumption and are desalinated to provision the drinking water supply, already under capacity. Like stopping the coral loss due to warming waters, “the authorities are always looking for a miraculous solution and satisfy themselves by making investigations and issuing regular reports”, confirms Marie; this former civil servant launched, with her husband, into the reproduction of a more resistant species of coral, implanted with success in the zones becoming deserts. Amateur divers need not worry about their next vacations: there will always be something to see in the Maldives, at least under water!

Jérôme Bastion

Abdou, son of Obock

For the past fifteen days, diving has been the main item on the menu for Tara’s crew. Onboard, six scientists and one cameraman are busy crisscrossing the depths of the Gulf of Tadjoura and the bay of Ghoubet, to examine the fish and coral of this region blessed with such a rich biodiversity. After 5 months spent fishing for plankton, Tara has just turned herself into a diving platform, for the first coral study session of the Tara Oceans expedition.
 
From 7:00 on, the whole crew is busy getting ready and setting our three boats up for our first dive at 8:00. First is exploring the surface waters with fins, mask and snorkel to decide where exactly our dive should take place.  Our scientists will be spending a good hour underwater – down between 6 and 30 meters – to make observations and get the samples they need. In groups of two, they SCUBA dive and follow all the recommendations for decompression (MT92).

Back on board, the data must be processed and the tanks filled, and it is only after a well deserved lunch that we head back into the deep for a second diving session. Our sustained rhythm is demanding, and for our program to be executed smoothly, divers and non-divers are asked to contribute.

We are working within a 35 nautical mile radius around Djibouti. Every day, we make our way to a new spot and the days of our sailors follow the rhythm of watch duties. Diving logistics and surface security are ensured by three sailors. Abdou, our Djiboutian native, and his launch have joined the team, and he is taking care of imaging logistics (essentially underwater imaging) for Cyril Tricot, our specialist as well as cameraman for the television show Ushuaia. From the deck, Mathieu and I are supervising the organization of the dives. When conditions allow, we help Cyril with the underwater lighting or the scientists with their sampling.
 
This diving session is a true success. Tara is thoroughly enjoying her new pulse, which brings throngs of underwater surprises to some and impressive sceneries to the others, what with these volcanic vestiges plunging straight into the sea. And whenever we get the chance to come across the local population, or to catch whale sharks showing off their fins, Tara Oceans and its work around the globe takes on a beautiful dimension.

Samuel Audrain
Multitasking officer

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal, a waterway which cuts through the desert, is more often than not seen as a sort of “marine highway”, what with its colossal dimensions, its massive display of industry and organisation and its picnic areas –such as the lake in which Tara rested last night.

Countless ships pass through it every day: boats such as monstrously large cargo-ships (up to 500,000 tons!), oil tankers and bulk carriers (which transport unpackaged bulk cargo). It’s difficult to avoid feeling tiny in this lengthy channel, just as fishing boats seem minuscule next to massive ships built of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel. In a sense, the mammoth shipping vessels mirror this civilization of worldwide commerce, with its gigantic quantities of merchandise in perpetual movement.

Through the canal passes a continuous flux which supplies and fuels a major part of the worldwide machine, constituting yet another undeniable asset of the Near East – which already possesses many. In fact, the Near East is the meeting point of continents, cultures, and hydrocarbon resources (something which an extensive number of pipes, derricks, tanks, oil tankers, and impressive platforms with their lit flares make impossible to forget).

Regrettably, aside from some nice scenery of the two lakes ( Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake), Tara’s deck doesn’t exactly offer much of a view of the canal, which is bordered by high banks. To appreciate its size and enjoy the perspective, you need to climb into the crow’s nest.

From time to time, a small town or a radar station appears along the long road of the channel, lined with military posts and observation checkpoints.

Only now, actually experiencing the canal, do I understand why we were made to turn around yesterday because of an American military cargo ship: choked in the narrow 195km long gully, a convoy would make a very easy target if it weren’t for the heavy network of control and observation surrounding the canal.

The landscape seems almost bare, made up of a repetition of carefully located elements. A few seabirds are in sight and high up in the sky, flocks of migratory birds are travelling to their winter destination in long geometrical shapes and figures.

From time to time, we come across fishing boats, or pilot boats guiding larger ships. Sometimes, we can make out ghost structures in the fog, such as the monument to the defence of the Canal in 1914-1918 which emerged from the haze like a strange obelisk, or long forgotten tanks in the dunes surrounding a statue commemorating one of the battles of Suez.

Lake Timsah is where we have decided to stop for the night. In the late afternoon, we arrive there under low skies. Even the waters give the impression of being grey, and everything seems motionless. After diner, as a distraction, several of us improvise the taking of a picture to celebrate the New Year: we do this on the deck, with flashlights, a projector, and survival suits. The exposure time is fairly long, and to make sure our timing is right, an old photography tip is given to the crew to help them count the seconds: One second corresponds to the time it takes to say “one elephant”. So there we are, counting elephants in unison on the front deck… Ronan, who won our little contest, is playing photographer with his digital camera while Anne-Kristel handles the headlight, Jean the spotlight. In the meantime, Daniel, with his flashlight and orange survival suit, looks like a comical cartoon character.

The next morning, after a peaceful night, we set off once again under a thick, grey-blue fog. This time, the landscape is nearly monochromatic, giving those on deck an impression of tranquil solitude which the fog magnifies as Tara glides along the middle of the canal or the Great Bitter Lake.

It almost feels as if we are nowhere, shrouded in an abstract world. Not until late morning does the sun make an appearance, and in the stillness of the air, the colossal floating castles passed along the way seem to be moved by a calm yet powerful force. We reach the mouth of the channel in the early afternoon. The scenery is different. On the starboard side, the desert rises up in mountains; on the portside, the shore is moving away as we enter the Red Sea, surrounded as we are by large ships each waiting for their turn to pass through.

There is quite a bit of traffic and watch calls for more observation. In the night, if it weren’t for navigation instruments, one could easily get lost among all these sparkling lights: buoys, boats, platforms are difficult to distinguish from the lights of the coast, and the narrow Red Sea is bustling with motion. As we sink deeper into the night, Tara remains on standby.

David Sauveur