Why does the Pacific Ocean have this name? With huge waves sweeping the deck these days, we really wonder. On Tara’s bridge, Captain Yohann Mucherie checks the weather forecast, but is not reassured. Sure there’s wind, but it’s not well oriented for our voyage. On this first night of the schooner’s long Pacific crossing, the sails remain folded and the two 350-horsepower Cummins engines drive the boat towards Hawaii.
Science on the high seas
There’s no coral between Tokyo and Hawaii, but this doesn’t mean scientific research aboard Tara stops. Fabien Lombard, a plankton specialist at the Villefranche-sur-Mer Observatory, is heading the Franco-Japanese scientific team that embarked in Tokyo. For Lorna (French), Rumi and Hiro (2 Japanese students from Kyoto University), this is their very first time aboard Tara. Every morning and every evening they will use a variety of devices to collect surface water, then carefully label, observe and conserve the different species of plankton.
The opportunity was too good to pass up – to continue the Tara Oceans expedition’s research, which involved 4 years of sampling plankton around the world. The long crossing between Japan and Hawaii will allow us to complete and update the mapping of these organisms. Plankton is the basis of the entire food chain and therefore of all marine life, including coral whose larvae are part of the plankton drifting with the currents.
Aboard Tara, everything is ready. The wet lab on deck is where the collected water samples will be filtered and put into vials, some of them stored in liquid nitrogen to be analyzed later. Inside the boat in the dry lab, analyses of the samples are carried out to determine their composition. But the sea makes its own rules and during these first days, the so-called “Pacific” doesn’t make any concessions to science or the newly embarked scientists. The wind gets stronger, the swell increases. Tara rolls from side to side and not many people come to the table for dinner. The samples will have to wait.
The High Speed Net is used by scientists onboard Tara to sample plankton while sailing – © Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Weather and incantations
The 4 sailors are gathered on the bridge: Loïc Caudan (chief mechanic), Charlène Gicquel (first mate), and Louis Wilmotte (deck officer ) surround the captain. They look at the weather charts which still don’t announce good news. There’s a lot of wind, but it’s not really favorable to our route. The sailors try to stabilize the boat to give some relief to our bodies, weakened by these first uncomfortable hours. They hoist the staysail to help offset the rolling of the boat. A few hours later, under a biting rain, they brave the elements again to hoist the yankee and the foresail. The wind has turned and is now pushing Tara towards Hawaii.
Pale faces take on color. The dining table in the main cabin is filled again. Sophie the cook spares no effort in her narrow kitchen juxtaposing the dining area. Despite the boat’s tossing and pitching, Sophie prepares meringue, bakes pastry and minces herbs, making sure that the fresh produce purchased in Japan will last as long as possible. “We’re not going to end up eating from cans, are we?”.
Navigating with the elements
Three o’clock in the morning: Yohann squints at a map of the Kuroshio current sent by Mercator, the French center for ocean analysis and forecasts, partner of the Tara Foundation. The Kuroshio is the second strongest marine current after the Gulf Stream. Originating in the warm waters of the Philippines, it carries abundant planktonic fauna and flora, making it possible for coral to grow in northern regions of Japan. Meeting the cold waters of the North Pacific, the current ends up swirling to the east of the Japanese archipelago. But tonight the warm Kuroshio current (waters at 22 degrees) is right in front of us. “We’re going to follow the current, not only in the interest of science, but also to increase our speed by 2 knots. A winning situation.
© Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Return to calm
Tara’s deck is busy early in the morning. Finally the weather is beautiful, so we can unfurl all the sails, even the mainsail with new cables recently installed in Tokyo. Sailors and scientists surround the HSN, the high speed net. Lowered at the stern of the ship, it collects water samples through a 300-micron filter. At starboard, the Dolphin net is surfing alongside the hull. It captures surface water that is pumped and transported on deck where it passes through a 20-micron filter. The 4 scientists are working meticulously with all these samples. In the evening, the whole procedure is repeated again. Scientific research creates its own schedule, and we must make the most of the clear weather.
After a week at sea, a little Tara community has formed. Sailors and scientists get to know each other and are learning from each other. Everybody volunteers when we have to hoist the sails or lower the nets into the water. Everyone is learning to recognize copepods. Everyone will eventually know how to make a square knot. “ It’s the Tara spirit”, says Charlene Gicquel, first mate, her eyes sparkling with the pure pleasure of being here.
Caroline Britz,correspondent aboard Tara, May 2018