With her unique aluminum hull, you can’t miss her. The Tara sailing boat has been parked on the river Seine, next to the Champs-Elysees, in the heart of Paris, France since the beginning of November. When I get on board, children are running all over the place with their teachers, looking everywhere, asking questions to the members of the crew, quarreling to have the best place to see. Tara is taking the opportunity of her stay in Paris to increase environmental awareness among the general public and particularly the young. On the quay, an exhibit traces the different missions of Tara Expeditions.
The history of this unique scientific boat started in 2006-2008 when the schooner drifted for 507 days across 2.600 km of Arctic ice. Fifteen scientists of seven different nationalities rotated on board to study the melting ice phenomenon, with two questions in mind: Is the perennial Arctic ice in the process of disappearing, and why? The Tara Arctic expedition wanted to address these two questions and try to answer them, because the disappearance of the ice in summer not only threatens polar bears; it could modify climates and life styles in considerable proportion.
A more general aim of the Tara Expeditions is to study the impact of global warming on life and human societies. Scientists believe plankton, the micro-organisms that live in the oceans, can provide unique information on the changes about to occur. This is why gathering more knowledge on the plankton ecosystems could be highly relevant. Hence the schooner’s second expedition, Tara Oceans: for 2.5 years, from September 2009 to March 2012, she sailed across the oceans of the world to collect samples of plankton with the aim to study their ecosystems and their sensitivity to environmental changes.
In Paris, we met Daniel Cron, the enthusiastic current young French captain of Tara. How did he get into this adventure? “I was trained as a French merchant marine officer. And after my studies, I had the chance to go as a volunteer for one year to the French base Dumont d’Urville in Antarctica, where I was in charge of the production of water and energy. At the end of my contract, I had the opportunity to go to another base, Concordia, which is a Franco-Italian base 1,000 km deeper in Antarctica.”
There he met a doctor who had worked for the Tara Arctic Expedition and who told him Tara was looking for people. Cron sent them a letter while he was still in Antarctica. “The same day I came back, completed jet-lagged, I met the people from Tara and they told me, ‘You start in 15 days.’”
During the Tara Oceans expedition, he alternated on board as chief engineer and deck officer. “No one sailed for 2.5 years; we rotated regularly, four months for the crew and about one month for the scientists.”
“Such an expedition is quite a human challenge,” he explains. “There are only seven cabins, two people per cabin, this means there can only be 14 people at a time on board. About half are scientists with different specialties, the other half are sailors. There is also a cook and a journalist. If most of the sailors are French, the scientists come from different labs across the world, so life on board is very multicultural. This makes it very interesting: we live together and share the different tasks, the scientists help us with the sailing and we help the scientists with the sampling.”
And, of course, Tara itself is trying to minimize her own impact on the environment. “We try to take advantage of the wind to sail as often as we can but of course this is not always possible. Sometimes we have to use the engine. During the Arctic expedition, Tara was able to use solar and wind energy, because we were stuck in the ice and so we sailed less; this meant we had more space to put solar panels and the like. This has not been possible for the Tara Oceans expedition. And, of course, we do smaller things as well, like the use of LED lights; and the switching off of lights whenever we can.”
“The Tara Oceans was an exceptional and successful expedition,” says Etienne Bourgeois, president of Tara Expeditions. “But the wider public has not yet realized to what point it has surprised scientists. Everybody agrees that the expedition has shown us just how ignorant we are about the oceans. We are working on getting the message across to the public.”
This is why outreach is the second most important objective of Tara Expeditions. They want to increase general awareness about environmental issues among the public and diffuse scientific data for educational purposes. They are focused on one specific target: children. Close to 23,000 French students followed Tara’s adventures while she was sailing around the globe.
“During the expedition,” Eloise Fontaine, the director of communication, explains, “classes in France could follow the boat. Teachers got pedagogical material and integrated that into their different classes, be it biology, chemistry, physics or geography.”
Additionally, during the expedition, 15,000 children across the world visited the boat. “In Brazil for example, children from the favelas were invited on board. They were very happy and curious because they had never been on the water. In New York, children age five were able to visit Tara. They then worked in class with their teacher,” says Fontaine.
Throughout the three months in Paris, nearly 130 schools and recreation centers were invited to discover the exhibit on the oceans’ essential role in life on our planet and visit the schooner with crew members. No need to ask the children whether they like it: Their faces speak for themselves, as do the numerous questions they ask the crew members. Six documentaries and five books were also created to share the expeditions.
The Tara Expedition project is a unique private-public partnership. “The scientific part costs about €1.8 million per year. These are paid for by major laboratories across the globe that participate in the research. As for the sailing and the awareness-raising part, the cost is more or less the same, i.e., €1.7 million per year,” Fontaine explains. “The region of Brittany in France and the city of Lorient, where the boat is based, contribute to the financing; and we have a few regular corporate donors. We also created two foundations, one in France and one in the United States, to raise funds.”
Tara will be in Paris till Jan. 27. She will then sail south of France for some more stopovers in Nice, Monaco and Bordeaux to raise awareness before leaving on a new mission. In May, she will head for the Great North again to attempt to go through the Arctic Ocean by the northwest and northeast passages — if the ice pack permits. Most of the scientists and institutions that participated in Tara Oceans will continue their work, studying the polar marine ecosystem and completing the research done in 2009. New research programs specific to the region, including plastic particles and traces of pollution, will be added.
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