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Read a Q&A with the Tara expedition leader

Grant Redvers talks about what it was like aboard the Tara Arctic Expedition.
/ Source: MSNBC

The Tara expedition leader was 35-year-old Grant Redvers. Mr. Redvers, a native of New Zealand, has a masters degree in environmental science. He spent three seasons as a scientific technician at Scott Base in Antarctica and participated in earlier Tara expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2005, to South Georgia in 2005 and 2006 and to Patagonia in 2006. He was with the Tara Arctic Expedition from its beginning in the summer of 2006 until it came home in January, 2008. In December of 2008, MSNBC sat down and spoke with Grant on board the Tara when it was docked on the Seine in Paris as part of an exhibit on the Tara Expedition. We wanted to know what it was like to spend almost two years in the Arctic – and if it gets so cold that your eyeballs freeze (We were glad to learn that never happened).

Question: Tell us about how you were first selected for this role as Tara Expedition Leader.

Grant Redvers: For me personally, I'd come from a background that was originally a scientific background. And then I got involved with-- people who were doing expeditions in Antarctica. So, I spent a few years working in Scott Base which is the New Zealand research station in Antarctica, next to the-- American base.

I basically hassled Etienne Bourgois (the owner of Tara and funder of the expedition) for a job, and got on board in-- in Ushuaia (Argentina) in 2005.

So-- I had been involved with Tara for a couple of years before the Arctic expedition. And this background of-- of my scientific work and then-- as a sailor and a diver and-- being involved in sort of outdoor activities most of my life, climbing and running around in the mountains, those mix of skills-- led me to being involved in the Arctic project.

And—Etienne proposed that I-- become expedition leader for that project. So, that's how I ended up on Tara in the Arctic.

Question: How does living and working in the Arctic compared to the Antarctic?

Grant Redvers: Well, the-- the-- from my previous experience of expeditions in Antarctica or in the sub-Antarctic islands, they're generally a lot shorter duration compared to what we did-- on Tara. You're a lot less exposed in Antarctica. There's bases generally-- quite close by. There's people. There's cruise ships.

It's quite-- a populated continent now, Antarctica. By comparison-- the Arctic is an empty ocean. And particularly in the winter-- you know, we were the only people drifting in the middle of 14,000 square kilometers of ice. You really do sense that you're completely alone. You're exposed. If you have a problem, there's no guarantee that-- really, you're going to be able to evacuate someone. Just the risks, I think, are-- in the winter period, are a lot higher. And you're isolated. It's just-- it's-- it's-- seems a lot harsher, as well, I think. If you make a mistake in the Arctic, I think the consequences are-- can be a lot more severe.

Question: And what are those risks?

Grant Redvers: Well, obviously, living on a frozen ocean-- it's a dynamic environment. We had-- work that we had to do on the ice, particularly at the start of the expedition when we were in this phase of being frozen in. The ice was moving a lot. And we had one period where-- we had a storm and-- and basically all of the ice around us broke up into small pieces. And we were flushed out into the open ocean again. So, we had to recover our material. And-- you have to try and remember all the time that you actually are still living on an ocean. It's just got a-- thin veneer of ice on top of it. So, that's obviously a risk of-- living in this dynamic-- frozen, semi-aquatic world.

Question: Were Polar bears an issue?

Grant Redvers: Polar bears-- another risk. We had 18 bear visits -- the majority of those in the summer period. And obviously, we gotta take precautions against the bears. We always had a radio. We traveled with the dogs that would warn us if bears were nearby. We always had a gun and a flare.

We were quote fortunate. We didn't have any-- really-- dangerous-- meetings with bears. The dogs, however, did. The dogs were primarily-- they had to warn us, or scare the bears away. And one of the dogs, the older one (Zagrey), was a little bit too enthusiastic with his-- scaring one day, and got a little bit close and received-- a swipe-- that needed a bit of stitching.

So, they were a real risk. I mean, the bears are there wandering around. It's their-- it's their environment. It's their home. And-- they're hungry. They're looking for food. So, of course they see this-- boat that smells very nice on the ice. And-- they're very inquisitive.

So, they approached very close to the boat-- and tried eating some of our-- instruments from time to time, and did create a bit of tension at times. Because we had our toilet was outside. So-- when you're going outside in the middle of the night-- by yourself and-- and you know there's bears around sitting on the toilet with a gun beside you and a flare and a radio (LAUGHS) it can be a little bit nerve-wracking.

Question: Could you just briefly summarize the kind of special equipment that you needed to do an expedition like this?

Grant Redvers: Well, obviously primarily we need a-- vessel, a boat that's made to be stuck in the-- in the winter in the Arctic pack ice. So, Tara was-- was actually specifically designed for this purpose. She's reinforced to withstand the pressure of the winter pack ice.

So, the-- the first thing you need is a vessel that's made to be stuck in the ice. You obviously need personal equipment: clothing-- protection from the cold. This is nothing really special. It's what everyone uses in the Antarctic bases. It's-- just common sense, layering clothes and jackets and gloves and hats and goggles and-- it does make your activities outside-- challenging sometimes when it takes you half an hour just to get ready to go outside to the toilet. So, this-- in terms of personal equipment.

And then in terms of the work we were doing-- we were doing oceanographic work, atmospheric work. We were studying the snow and the ice pack. So, there's a lot of tools and equipment that go with that: drills for drilling through the ice-- just-- various things that-- that-- that we use every day for working out on the ice, skis and-- and picks and shovels.

And shovels were very important tool during the-- the duration of the expedition. Because every day-- just about every day, we had to dig snow to-- to clear off the deck of the-- of the boat; 'cause after every storm or-- or even a light wind there would be snow drifting up on and around the vessel. So, we spent a lot of time digging. If you ever go to the Arctic, take a shovel. Take two shovels. (laughs)

Question: And what-- so, what would be your top tip for keeping warm?

Grant Redvers: To dig. (laughs)

Question: Manual labor?

Grant Redvers: Yeah, no, no, seriously. The best way to warm up was to dig some snow. We tried-- little hand warmers which worked pretty well-- just to-- to-- you know, ward off the-- the-- the real chilling temperatures when it was around minus-40. But-- you heat up pretty quickly actually. With all the layers on, we generally found even when it was minus-30, 40, and you start digging, you would be taking off a layer pretty quickly.

Question: What does it feel like when you go outside and it's minus-40 (Celsius) on your face?

Grant Redvers: Minus-40, you sense it straightaway. You've really gotta be completely covered up and ready to be exposed before you go outside. At minus-30, you can get away with walking outside and putting your last glove on and-- or putting your hat on and it's not too bad. But I think at minus-40, you really need to be fully prepared to go outside. It's not a snap freeze. But it's a-- if you're not careful, within a few minutes, you're gonna have problems.

Question: And presumably, your face is-- parts of your face is still exposed. And what-- what does it feel like on your nose and on your eyes?

Grant Redvers: Well, and your nose-- if you breathe in too quickly and with too much force, you can-- feel the hairs in your nose and the-- and your sort of nasal passages just start to freeze. And-- and then your lungs, as well. It can sort of have a-- burning sensation, which I guess is the-- your lungs starting to freeze. (laughs)

So, often would wear a face mask which filters the cold air and gives you some sort of warm air which is re-circulating. And this-- this eases the-- the-- the shock of inhaling that really super cold air. But you do feel it on your cheeks, 'cause there's always a little bit of skin exposed. I had-- a little bit of frost nip on an ear once. Yeah.

Question: And what about your eyes? Can your eyeballs freeze?

Grant Redvers: No. I-- I never felt my eyeballs freeze. But when you're breathing out, you get moisture and condensation often forming around beards and on your eyebrows and eyelashes. And-- I've gone one particularly good photo of my eyes iced up. And it looks like it my eyes are kinda stuck together. But it wasn't actually that painful. But it's just these big ridges of ice which had built up on my eyelashes-- which get a little bit heavy when you try to open your eyes. (laughs) And then they start to stick together. You can't-- it's hard to avoid that. The difficult-- the painful bit is-- is-- thawing it out. When you come inside, you-- you don't want to pull-- pull the stuff off. It's better just to put your fingers on and slowly melt the frozen bits.

Question: Let’s talk about the toll that the winter period took on you and the crew. Did your mental state kind of deteriorate towards the end – after all those months of eternal darkness?

Grant Redvers: We had-- a cycle of-- you know, good times and bad times throughout the winter, like any group in-- anywhere in the world, whether you're in the Poles or temperate regions, wherever. But I guess-- by the end of winter-- obviously, we were more tired. We had a night watch-- we had someone on watch 24 hours a day. So-- and it-- every two nights, you were up during the night and then worked during the day, as well. So, fatigue levels during the winter-- accumulated.

Question: Any "Lord of the Flies" moments?

Grant Redvers: We had a few arguments that-- sort of went on a little bit and took quite a bit of-- diplomacy and discussions and listening and talking. And the thing was that often-- very small events get blown out of proportion. And it's just the fact of being closed in this polar night .

I didn't really ever think, "Okay, things are almost completely out of control, someone's gonna take a gun and-- or someone's gonna lock themselves in their cabin for a month, or--" it never really got to that, which are stories that you do hear of on expeditions and-- people living in confined environments.

So, I think on the whole, even though we had our ups and downs-- we were like a family that sometimes we're yelling at each other and sometimes laughing together and-- and-- we had all-- the whole range of emotions together-- which I guess is to be expected. Some people really had the-- the impression of-- being trapped in a-- in a prison. I never felt like that personally.

I felt the whole experience was-- very liberating, particularly during the winter. You know, it was a-- an amazing sense of freedom just to be-- sense that you're in the middle of this-- this vast wilderness in the middle of the Arctic Ocean with no one around. Occasionally when you see the-- the international space station orbiting overhead, you-- realize that those are the-- actually the closest people to-- to where we were on the planet. And-- I found that was a fantastic experience.

Question: After living in the Arctic night for four months, what was it like when the sun came back in early February?

Grant Redvers: It was-- it was quite a release. But it was a double-edged sword for me. Personally, it was quite strange. We-- obviously, we had a period of twilight when the sun was still below the horizon. And when the light peeked above the horizon for the first time, I remember I was on the morning watch.

And-- it just peeked above-- the leading edge of the sun peeked above the horizon for a few seconds. And it was just this instant-- just this instant-- energy, just to receive those first direct-- rays of sunlight. And then the next day, the-- the sun was fully above the horizon. And-- very quickly, within a matter of a few weeks, we had 24-hour daylight. The transition was incredibly quick. And-- obviously, it revitalized the energy within the team, the-- the optimism, the-- just our general team spirits-- went up with this event, obviously.

But the strange flip side of that was, a week after the sun came back, for me personally, I was actually-- kind of longing for winter again in the-- in the night. And it's sort of a strange thing to say. But-- I guess I'd been-- I'd get-- got quite comfortable living in this kind of cocooned world.

Question: During your almost two years in the Arctic what did you-- what did you miss the most? Was there anything you really craved? Like, a Big Mac or something?

Grant Redvers: No, I never craved a Big Mac. I did have a-- a craving for fresh fruit and-- and-- vegetables by the end. Particularly bananas. I really missed bananas. And it was funny, at the end of the expedition when we arrived in Norway, I got presented with a-- a big bunch of bananas and-- and-- and-- and a big tray of kiwi fruit.

So the-- the fruit was something that I missed by the end even though we had tinned fruit. You know, there's nothing quite like fresh apple or fresh banana. And also-- a long hot bath was something that I really was craving at the end.

We had-- enough water on board to have one shower a week. And then we also had our sauna, which was a great way to-- to feel just-- surrounded by heat and-- and-- and a great way of cleaning as well 'cause we'd have a sauna and then jump in the ice hole outside, which was-- obviously a shock but just a-- a nice, refreshing feeling. But there was nothing quite like the indulgence and luxury of-- of soaking in hot water, which we just didn't have-- a live supply of.

It was one of our most precious resources was water. And-- the first bath I had upon-- arriving in Norway was just-- I felt quite guilty actually because there I was soaking in a week's supply of water.

Question: Having been in both the Arctic and Antarctic – which do you prefer?

Grant Redvers: Well, actually, I have-- I've come to prefer the Arctic, I think. And it's really just-- a desert. I came to really like that feeling of-- being in that very empty wilderness-- and learnt to appreciate it a lot more. It was something that I was actually looking for, personally. One of the reasons I wanted to go for the whole duration of the expedition was to sense just to be-- exposed to those pure elements-- to-- to have to react to-- to being in this wilderness environment, and to not have full control, but just to be living in it, and to feel like we were living in-- in a real wilderness area, and not just passing through it, looking for a few weeks. So, that was something that I enjoyed about the expedition, and-- and I've come to love about the Arctic region, is just the-- the-- the pure wilderness.

Question: Grant Redvers, thank you.

Grant: You are welcome.