Tara Pacific: in the footsteps of the great naturalist expeditions

© Duché de Vancy - Gallica.fr

With the beginning of Tara Pacific’s underwater explorations, it’s time to recall the great names that have marked the history of maritime exploration in the Pacific Ocean. In the coming months, memories of Bougainville, Cook and La Perouse will certainly accompany Tara’s journey.

The legendary ships –  Discovery, Boussole, Astrolabe, Beagle and Challenger – that carried some of the greatest explorers, criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean to learn about the islands and their inhabitants, fauna, and flora. All these great ships stopped at one point or another in Tahiti. Most passed through New Zealand, Easter Island, Samoa, New Caledonia and the Gambier Islands – Tara’s next stopovers on her 2-year journey across the Pacific.

 

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The Boussole and the Astrolabe, two frigates of the expedition around the world conducted by Jean-Francois de La Perouse in 1785

 

Between the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th, the South Pacific was a magnet for European explorers. The area was synonymous with mystery where everything remained to be discovered: islands, people and animals. It took a good century of relentless exploration before discoverers gradually abandoned these hot climates, preferring the poles. Gradually, these great expeditions died out at the start of the 20th century.

Nowdays, since research vessels are rented for tens of thousands of euros per day, maritime campaigns are short and relatively localized. But for the past 10 years, Tara has been reinventing the long-term expedition in a totally modern way.  In 1766, Bougainville left for 3 years, passing through Tuamotu, Samoa and Tahiti, just as Tara will in the coming months. Shortly after Bougainville, Tahiti was visited repeatedly by James Cook who led during each of his three 3-year voyages a true ethnographic and naturalist endeavor.

 

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Journey around the world by Louis Bougainville © Gallica

 

The duration and scope of these legendary voyages are not the only common points with Tara. Aboard the schooner, a multidisciplinary approach to science recalls the multiple objectives of the old scientific vessels: Tara’s research teams are focussing on corals but they also work on plankton, climatology and mega-fauna. Similarly, the presence of artists on board Tara evokes the expedition illustrators, painters and writers of old.

Of course conditions on board no longer have much to do with the 3-masters of the 19th century. Two 350 horsepower engines take over when the wind drops, and there are GPS maps, electricity and state-of-the-art scientific equipment. Yet, perched on Tara’s bow sailing to a distant island, we sometimes forget for a moment this technology and re-awaken the soul of the great past expeditions: the thirst to discover the world.

Yann Chavance

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