Tara’s Journal – Étienne Bourgois: “Tara Expeditions is also the Science of Sharing!”

© N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

Article from new Tara’s 10th journal

Now back from Greenland, the schooner is currently preparing a new expedition to study coral reefs and their ecosystems in the Asia-Pacific (2016–2018). It’s the perfect moment to catch up with Étienne Bourgois to talk about past expeditions and current priorities, such as Tara II and the forthcoming Arctic drift.

Tara Expedition News: You are a company boss, managing director of agnès b., with a workforce of 2,200 throughout the world, and the co-founder and chairman of Tara Expeditions. What drives your commitment to the oceans?

Étienne Bourgois: In the beginning the Tara was a very personal project. I bought the boat with Agnès Troublé because, for both of us, the sea and the vessels that sail upon it are first and foremost part of our family history, a real passion. And then I felt the best thing to do was to let the project develop until it outgrew me. That’s now the case and this has been instrumental in the project’s long-term success. For Agnès the Tara has been very important, and still is. She has been closely—and courageously—involved in the funding of fundamental research and work on environmental issues, which is unusual for a fashion designer. It is essential that these initiatives continue to receive funding. My role as company head is very time-consuming, no doubt about it, but the Tara gives me extra energy. And then there’s Romain Troublé, he’s giving 150% to Tara Expeditions. As does the entire team.

© David SAUVEUR

© D. SAUVEUR/Tara Expéditions

What are your thoughts, in a few words, on the last twelve years and the dozen or so expeditions that the Tara has undertaken in collaboration with scientific teams?

I think it’s been very positive. Right from the start—back in 2003—we chose to focus on science, to launch major research programmes based on extensive expeditions. The schooner Tara is a cornucopia, a mixture, a meeting point for scientists, artists, authors and children. Each expedition is unique, usually complicated to set up, and every time each one is, as far as I’m concerned, a beautiful adventure. However the Tara is foremost a polar vessel and I was determined to embark on an Arctic drift, an operation for which she was designed, and this came about in 2006–2008. We took an interest in the Arctic early on. It was the year of the record thaw, during International Polar Year (IPY), and we had become conscious of how essential the Arctic really is. We also went to Antarctica to study plastic pollution. (By the way, when the results on plastic pollution in the Antarctic come out they will undoubtedly make as much media noise as our assessment of the serious problem of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean.) We have also been looking at plankton and how it affects climate. And for us there has definitely been a before and after Tara Oceans (2009–2013). There is yet another facet to the Tara expeditions, and that’s adventure. The schooner is reviving the eighteenth century ideal of expedition making. When you’re at sea, heading into the ocean, there are no borders.

“Each expedition is unique, usually complicated to set up, and every time each one is, as far as I’m concerned, a beautiful adventure.”

Étienne Bourgois

With the Tara making the cover of Science, are we witnessing the end of one cycle and the start of a new adventure?

We set out, with Tara Oceans, in early 2009 on an expedition which lasted three years, and these articles came out in 2015. Of course the crew of the Tara and the scientists who took part in the expedition are absolutely delighted with this recognition from such a prestigious journal. For my part, while we were waiting for the results to be published, I was dying to learn more. Despite the samples being collected using very sophisticated equipment, the analyses are in fact undertaken, not aboard the Tara, but in shore-based laboratories, and it takes a long time. There’s the expedition and scientific phase, and then you publish the results. And here we are with this issue of Science whose impact has been pretty overwhelming, as far afield as Asia.

Your emotion is palpable…

Yes, because even at our humble level we can contribute to the progress of knowledge. I’ve been told that these publications, in Science, could be a reference for what’s happening in the oceans for years to come.
There’s a symbol in the fact that we’ve made our contribution with the Tara, with a sailboat and budgets which have sometimes been barely enough to take to sea. It’s marvellous. It’s recognition for team work. Working with the scientific community is, I have to say, an immense pleasure and that is a source of motivation too.

V.Hilaire/Tara Expéditions

© V.Hilaire/Tara Expéditions

Tara Expeditions is, at sea or ashore, an extraordinary human adventure…

Yes, and we saw this during the 2014 mission to the Mediterranean where we made numerous port visits to meet the people and lend our support to actions on the ground. These countries are sometimes unstable so you can easily imagine the populations’ priority is not the climate and yet we found that ordinary people were just as preoccupied as us about environmental issues. So yes, the Tara is about science but she’s also, I believe, the humanitarian sailing ship of the present and the future! Many major cities are built on the coast. Pollution, global warming, access to clean drinking water and desertification are issues that affect the two billion humans who live less than 100 kilometres from the sea. It is estimated that 250 million people will be displaced for reasons relating to the climate by 2050.

Of course many of the issues that the Tara highlights have political repercussions, it’s inevitable. So how do you deal with that aspect of your work?

The question came up when we put forward the proposition, with others, for establishing a legal status for the “High Seas”, a zone which currently has none. We worked on the political aspect of this with Romain Troublé and André Abreu. Subsequent to this initiative Tara Expeditions was granted observer status to the UN, which was an important step for us. We must promote ever closer collaboration between developed and developing countries. We have renewed our partnership with UNESCO because education is at the heart of what we do. Soon I hope the endowment fund for the Tara will become a real foundation, led by an executive committee.

Which of your priorities, in the short and medium term, are you focusing on most?

I would like to develop Tara Expedition’s educational scope so the project outgrows its French origins and gets reported more on the international stage. We need to continue raising awareness among the French public, but that cannot suffice. The Tara will be going to Asia next year and it seems to me that we really have to concentrate on social media to promote the boat, her message and news, in particular in China and Japan.

“It makes us think that we should perhaps look at building a Tara II, a bigger oceanographic vessel, but still a sailing boat. She would be built with new materials and use new sources of energy…”

Étienne Bourgois

So what about the rumour that there’s going to be a Tara II, is there a project underway?

It’s true that, several months ago, I put up for discussion the idea for a new vessel. The Tara has spent twenty-five years at sea. She’s been put under a lot of strain and requires increasing maintenance. It makes us think that we should perhaps look at building a Tara II, a bigger oceanographic vessel, but still a sailing boat. She would be built with new materials and use new sources of energy—and these latter points are already gaining us potential partners. So, yes, we’re looking into it but a project like this needs long-term funding. The Tara would remain our ambassador for raising awareness while the focus of the Tara II would be more on research.

© Tara Expéditions

© Tara Expéditions

For now the Tara is being prepared for an expedition to study coral and associated ecosystems in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. She’ll be setting out from Lorient (France) in the spring of 2016 for two years. Is this a major new step?

Well the Tara wasn’t designed for tropical waters but she will adapt to the conditions. Asia is certainly a new step for us. We will be presenting what the Tara does, the results of the Tara Oceans expedition, as well as talking to institutions and the public about the impact climate change is having on the oceans. There will be forums, exhibitions and lots of opportunities for discussion. In Asia the Tara will be carrying out new research into plastic pollution and the gradients of biodiversity. She will also be sampling coral reefs for research on, in particular, genomes. It’s the continuation of previous projects. Much work has already been done on coral in the Pacific but what is important is to be able to compare how the reefs respond to anthropic, that is man-made, stresses, and then analyse what we do or don’t find. It will be a major research programme and also, I’m quite sure, a wonderful voyage! I hope we’ll be welcoming aboard the Tara researchers from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan. Tara Expeditions is also the science of sharing!

Interview by Michel Temman

Related articles:

- Read the article “Tara Oceans reveals a new world in the Ocean”

- Learn more about the Tara Méditerranée expedition

Read other articles from new Tara’s 10th journal:

- Edito : The Ocean, our common project

- Polar research: Ice in the water

- Climate system: high seas emergency