Tara Oceans Expedition returns after two years at sea

On March 31, 2012, two and a half years after setting sail, The Tara Oceans Expedition returned to the harbor at Lorient, France. True to style, the people of Brittany – some of the saltiest folks in the world, came down in droves to meet the voyagers. But Tara’s mission is not over – there is still much science to be done. The Tara Oceans expedition aims to identify the effects of global warming on planktonic and coral reef ecosystems, and the consequences on food webs and marine life. The crew have traversed the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, and Antarctica. Eric Karsenti (senior scientist at CNRS and EMBL) and Etienne Bourgois (President of Tara Foundation) co-direct the mission.

Sir Peter Blake, formerly partners in the then called “Seamaster,” was murdered onboard on the Amazon River in 2001 by would-be thieves. Blake had been engaged as Director of Expeditions for the Cousteau Society, and was also named special envoy for the UN Environment Programme. While on an environmental exploration trip in South America, monitoring global warming and pollution for the United Nations, this sailing legend and ocean hero met his tragic end. It was unthinkable. In New Zealand, his grave is a place of pilgrimage. With Sir Peter’s tragic death, it looked like his legendary 119-foot schooner Seamaster might never be used to her full potential. But baby, look at her now. Sir Peter would be proud!

Since leaving Lorient on September 5, 2009, the schooner Tara has taken samples at 150 scientific stations around the world, collecting material for laboratory analysis, and has also studied specific coral reef sites. (938 expedition days, including 630 days at sea and 58 days studying corals.) After two-and-a-half years circling the globe, Tara returned to her home port in Lorient on Saturday, March 31, 2012.

With this unprecedented expedition, scientists hope to better understand the functioning and diversity of marine life and provide answers about their role in the face of climate change. Preliminary analyses from 30 stations show that 60-80% of genes characterizing plankton were unknown up to the present.

Tara Oceans is also an outreach expedition; meeting the people of the countries they passed through. During the 50 stopovers, nearly 5,000 children from all continents visited Tara and interacted with the scientists. The mission has been a great human adventure involving hundreds of people onboard and ashore.

In the coming months, the first scientific results will be published. Three papers are in preparation: on the genomics of stations in the Mediterranean Sea, the impact of environment on the complexity of biodiversity, and the effects of ocean circulation on ecosystems. In addition, analyses of their samples will continue for many years in partner laboratories. Possible applications of these results are numerous, especially in the biomedical field and for climate models.

2012 is the year for sharing the Tara Expeditions project – first, this June at the Earth Summit in Rio. The schooner will remain in Brittany throughout the summer. During the French leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, she’ll be in Lorient, then in Camaret-sur-Mer and at the “Tonnerres de Brest”. The schooner will then sail to Paris in September, and dock there for several months.

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