IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Log book: Read notes from aboard the Tara

See excerpts from the journal kept by the Tara Expedition leader.
Tara Expedition leader Grant Redvers
Tara Expedition leader Grant RedversTara Arctic Expedition
/ Source: MSNBC

While aboard the Tara Arctic Expedition, which lasted from summer of 2006 through January of 2008, expedition leader Grant Redvers took copious journal notes. MSNBC has selected excerpts from the log book, which can . All notes are published unedited.

04/09/2006: Beginning of the drift!

At 1400 hours, with the help of the ice breaker Kapitan Dranitsyn, we moored Tara alongside a large ice floe that will serve as our home for the next two years.

At 79°53’N, 143°17’E we have 24 hours sunlight, allowing us to work around the clock to install the camp and scientific base. We have installed a meteorological station, undertaken preliminary tests with the CTD sound and started to prepare the boat systems for the coming winter. Fatigue is evident in everyone on board as we work to finish this work before the helicopters arrive in a few days.


12/09/2006: Winds at Over 40 Knots!

Position: Moored in the Arctic ice pack, 80°07’N, 143°29’E
Wind: 40 knots
Sea Ice: Stable
Visibility: Poor
Cloud Cover: Cloudy, 8/8
Air Temperature: -1°C
Water Temperature: -1°C

The barometer fell through the floor overnight and we are now experiencing our first small Arctic gale. With winds peaking over 40 knots this will not be the biggest storm we experience, however it is the first blow we have had since arriving in the pack ice. Due to the wind the pack ice has started to close in and we now have less open water on our starboard side, the increased pressure giving Tara a very slight list to port side. With the poor conditions we were unable to undertake a CTD sounding today, focusing instead on securing and checking material outside. This together with routine jobs such as collecting ice to melt for water and clearing the deck of ice took up most of the day. Late afternoon we took advantage of the bad weather to have our first Russian lesson with Victor and Gamet. Translating Russian to English and then French will ensure that we are all trilingual by the end of winter.


28/09/2006: The lord of the Arctic

Position: Drifting, 81°11.7’N, 147°47.4’E
Course and Speed: ESE, 0.3kts
Wind: SE, 0 – 5 kts
Sea Ice: Broken pack with new ice on pools
Visibility: Excellent
Sunrise: 0645
Sunset: 1708
Cloud Cover: 3/8
Air Temperature: -7?C
Water Temperature: -1?C

Everyday for us is punctuated by an event that makes the moment memorable. Today was particularly special, we had our first encounter with a polar bear, the lord of the Arctic. This afternoon a young bear approached within meters of Tara. With a curious eye and nose held high he seemed intrigued by this strange foreign object in the ice.

Zagrey was soon onto the sent, proving his worth as our polar bear early warning system. However Tiksi, the pup, still has a lot to learn and was more interested in playing with the paparazzi on the deck. After a month with very little sign of other life in this polar desert we are all happy to finally meet one of the locals. However, we are now evermore aware of one of the potential hazards of venturing onto the sea ice.


04/10/2006: Slow screeching

Position: Drifting, 81°08’N, 145°54’E
Course and Speed: W, 0.2kts
Wind: E, 0 – 5kts
Sea Ice: Compact, some small pressure ridges
Visibility: Average
Sunrise: 0430
Sunset: 1645
Cloud Cover: 8/8
Air Temperature: -8°C
Water Temperature: -1.5°C

During the past few days we have seen, and heard, the pressure mount in the ice around Tara. Resonating throughout the boat we can hear slow screeching followed by tap, tap, tap, bang as the ice squeezes, slides past and cracks. The disconcerting sound of the ice

movement is recounted in many old polar expedition stories. However, it is not until you hear the grinding pressure mount that you fully believe the noise described in these stories. It is truly phenomenal, and more that a little bit unnerving as we drift along in our sardine can, albeit a sardine can specifically designed to withstand the pressure of the Arctic Ocean.

As a result of the ice pressure Tara has taken on a list to port side. To observe our list Denys has made a tilt meter in the saloon. Reaching a maximum of 6 degrees yesterday we have now resumed a more level platform. We have also begun to make daily ice observations, noting the physical characteristics of the ice close to Tara. This information will then be used for ‘ground truthing’ high resolution satellite images of the ice.


01/12/2006: Energy management

Nicolas, our first engineer, is a key person for the success of our mission. Even though our two main engines are now in hibernation mode until 2008, he is kept busy with energy management on board including the operation and maintenance of two generators, keeping our heating system running, managing fuel consummation and other general engineering. In the harsh conditions of an Arctic winter, this job is challenging to say the least. “For me my biggest concern is if we have a problem with both generators at the same time. This is not likely, however it would have severe consequences for our level of comfort, says Nico”. We have already experienced some problems with a circulation pump for the central heating. As a result we spent short periods without our main heating operational. Even though we had our back-up diesel heater, this temporary lack of warmth in cabins had a big effect on moral and energy levels. When he is not looking after our every need on board, Nico has taken to knitting with enthusiasm, a reassuring back-up if we have further heating problems! Grant

26/12/2006: A special Christmas day!

This Christmas day, as we approach 84 degrees north, thoughts of our friends and families are at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Position: 83?49’N, 135?27’E
Course and Speed: S, 0.3 knots
Wind: N, 10 knots
Sea Ice: Slight movement
Visibility: Good, clear sky
Moon: Not visible
Air Temperature: -30°C
Water Temperature: -1.7°C

This Christmas day, as we approach 84 degrees north, thoughts of our friends and families are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. With the saloon decorated and a feast worthy of lower latitudes on the table, we enjoyed a truly traditional Christmas, kicked off last night with a visit by Santa Claus. Continuing today with another fine meal, this afternoon was naturally spent in siesta mode! As Nansen said in 1893, ‘To have a feast is the only way for us to celebrate’. Times have not changed! Although we are trying to relax a little over the “holiday” season, we can never completely switch off. There is always ice to collect, ice holes to drill and scientific instruments to maintain.

We passed the midwinter solstice last week, a milestone even more significant than Christmas for polar habitants. This event marks the point in the calendar when the sun begins its slow but sure return towards our hemisphere. In two months we will see our first glimpse of sun above the horizon!

Merry Christmas


14/02/2007: The glow has increased

In the last three days the glow has significantly increased, illuminating a blue sky and sharpening the horizon indicating that direct rays from the sun are not too far away.

Life aboard has slowed down a bit over the last couple of weeks due to a large storm and the resulting ice movement restricting our activities. We have also and a problem with our depth sounder, temporarily limiting our ability to undertake the oceanographic work. With less activity to keep the mind occupied, discussions around the table have taken a philosophical turn, sometimes leading to animated debates with the diverse mix of culture, age and backgrounds in the crew. However, the two subjects that we discuss more and more are the return of the sun and our ‘return to earth’. The light level is the first thing that each of us now checks at the beginning of each day, observing an increasing intensity below the southern horizon over the past week. In the last three days the glow has significantly increased, illuminating a blue sky and sharpening the horizon indicating that direct rays from the sun are not too far away. To use a comparison made at the start of the drift, we feel somewhat like astronauts preparing for re-entry, or in our case ‘glacionauts’. Like a space ships re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, a delicate and uncertain manoeuvre, there are also a number of hazards and unknowns associated with our first relief flights, in particular, our ability to construct a runway on the sea ice and the ongoing stability of the ice. We are therefore at a turning point in the expedition, a period of expectation, hope, and soon to come hectic activity.


08/03/2007: First sun

After 141 nights the sun has finally returned !!! Last seen above the horizon on 17 October 2006, yesterday morning for a few fleeting seconds we received the first direct rays.

This morning we were better able to see the disc of the sun to our south for 20 minutes around 8am (corresponding to midday meridian time). Although the sun is still one degree below the horizon, an optical trick of light refraction allows us to see the sun slightly before it actually passes above the horizon. The transition from polar night to 24 hour daylight will be very rapid and by early April the sun will be continuously above the horizon.


26/03/2007: Stormy weather conditions

Stormy weather conditions over the past two days have restricted our activities making outside work almost impossible.

A sudden drop of the barometer gave us a precursory warning that some strong wind was on the way, dropping 50 hpa in a matter of hours and reaching a minimum of 965 hpa, the lowest point on our analog barometer. Since this morning the pressure has started to rise, however the wind remains at around 30 knots transporting snow that is once again burying Tara. The temperature has also been highly variable over the last 48 hours, climbing to a maximum of -8°C yesterday morning then descending to -23°C by the evening. Fortunately, the forecast looks good for the week to make a runway on the ice and finish the construction of our ‘scientific village’ that will accommodate the arrival of Etienne Bourgois, Tara management, 20 scientists, journalists during the month of April. We are keeping our fingers and toes crossed that the ice will remain stable and that the forecast will prove to be correct.


26/04/2007: Directions on how to land on Pack ice

New record: we have crossed this Wednesday the 88°degree latitude north. We are getting closer to the Pole (less than 300 km away) and it is quite possible that Tara may make Nansen’s dream come true: to drift on pack ice on the earths’ highest geographic point. For the moment however, one has to accomplish the planned observation missions for April and to do so, it was necessary to bring men and equipment with the DC3. To land a plane on pack ice is never an easy deed, especially when visibility is restricted. Today, everything was white on Tara. Off course, one could see a little. But all the perspectives, the landscapes were merged: sky, horizon, ground, everything was white!

For Brian Crocker and Louis-Eric Bellanger, the DC3 pilots, the job was not simple. It is hard to measure at eyesight the ground distance (if one can see the ground), it is hard to estimate the lateral wind speed during the landing, it is even hard to spot the boat sunk deeply into the snow or even to distinguish the runway, barely marked out with little red flags and empty kerosene barrels. It is in fact the Twin Otter crew that took in charge the DC3 landing, playing the role of a control tower.

Jim Hattew and Mathew Colistro are the pilots of this little plane that usually accomplishes the scientific missions pour the Damocles team. For instance, they have just finished the air-dropping of 16 weather buoys for Michael Offermann of the Hamburg University, that will transmit for a year the atmospheric pressure and temperature over a square of 500 km per side. In the past three days, the Twin Otter and his crew camp on the Tara base.

To help their colleagues land, the Twin pilots have had to first size up the vertical visibility ie the ceiling “At least 1000 feet” has estimated Jim Hattew, the head pilot at the beginning of the afternoon. This was confirmed by the weather balloon that Timo Palo has let go in the polar atmosphere for the Geography institute of the Tartu University (Estonia). The modern Zeppelin, that measures 4,5 meters long and 2 meters wide is bright orange and perfectly visible. One can spot it clearly up to 400 meters high which indicates the ceiling. From the runway that is located 800 meters from there, on can still see it. This gives us a good estimate of the ground visibility: 900 meters. The DC3 can land.

This information is communicated to Brian Crocker who is still 25 minutes away from Tara. From the cockpit of the Twin Otter, Jim informs his colleague that the balloon will be lowered to 30 meters at his approach and that a distress rocket will be lit at the beginning of the runway where the Twin Otter will position itself.

Matching his actions to his words, Jim is moving the throttle and makes the plane spin on its skis. The Twin Otter as well as the DC3 are not equipped with directional landing gear; To move these planes on the ground, the engines need to be activated to anticipate exactly the resulting sideslip. Precise manoeuvring, delicate but accomplished with mastery by the head pilot who drives his throttles to the tip of his fingers makes the plane slide to its spot. It is most probably visible from the sky because of its colour orange. On the ground, one does not have the impression that visibility exceeds 100 meters. Everything is still so white.

In front of us, the runway is marked out with barrels and some flags.
The strip is in fact just made of snow that has been packed down, slightly more flat than the surrounding pack ice. From the sky anyway, the lack of relief prevents one from distinguishing it from the rest of the landscape. Some meters behind the plane, Guillaume, Taras’ mechanic is about to light the distress rocket that is used as a signal buoy. The DC3 is now tree minutes away from his first approach: he must fist pretend to land, by flying as close to the ground as possible to identify the runway before turning around and land at his second passage. The landing without being dangerous is nevertheless perilous.

It is at this particular moment that Brian Hattew and Mathew Colistro his co-pilot in the Twin notice two fluorescent figures, right in front of them on the runway. Two members of the Tara expedition (we will not disclose their names) were heading right where the DC3 is supposed to touch down the ice. It is likely that they were convinced that the plane would land in the other direction and that they found themselves at the end of the runway…
Mathew then opens the door of the Twin, sets foot on the snow and runs to warn the two reckless persons not to remain there. The figures scatter off to the sides.

With engines roaring, the oblong shape of the DC3 passes over the Twin, flies over the runway a few meters above the ground in a cotton cloud. The plane turns on his left wing, rises up again to turn around and aligns itself with the Twin. Brian Crocker informs his colleague Jim that the runway is well visible and that he is ready to land. In a renewed white roar, the DC3 flies closely over the Twin, maybe 10 meters over, goes down slowly… stable on his landing strip and touches down. In his seat, the Twin co-pilot, Mathew approves the performance by applauding: “great landing”.

28/04/2007: It is time to leave…

We saved the tractor but it was a close call. The idea was to evacuate the surroundings of runway n°2 that was collapsing everywhere. Gamet, duly dressed with a survival suit in case anything should go wrong got down to work but the 3, 5 ton machine got the better of the ice pieces’ instability. In a minute, the essential tractor that is used to make the runways, tipped over and fell. As if set on springs, Gamet jumped on the ice… The machine did not plunge, only its back dipped in water. Warned by radio, Guillaume, the new mechanic pulled out a tackle from the depths of the engine room and trekked with the device covering the 1000 meters that separated him from the runway. Stuck in one meter of ice, this super hoist that can tow up to 6 tons, pulled our tractor slowly out of the water. With its familiar chouk chouk (so much energy is necessary to start the engine that it runs permanently), the tractor went to Tara where it will now remain on the deck.

In the same manner, the camp is closing down little by little. It is time to leave… without a runway to land the DC3. We have to operate shuttles with the Twin Otter. The small bi-motor has just landed near us. It does not have sufficient autonomy to take us directly to Svalbard or Greenland. An intermediate airport is thought up to be established on pack ice to land the DC3 that will then bring back the scientists and members of Tara who do not remain on board. The Twin Otter operates the shuttles between Tara and this intermediate airport. One of the places possible to establish this runway is where the air-dropping of the B13 weather buoy by Michaël Offermann took place a few days ago. A superb immaculate ice sheet of 1 kilometre has been spotted. B13 was located at 89°30’ when it was air-dropped. Considering the drift, we have a slim chance of finding ourselves in the North Pole to wait for the DC3.
The Tara-Longyearbyen flight with a connection at the Pole should not depart before 00:00 hour.

08/05/2007: Activities for the summer

After a week in ‘tidy up mode’ we are now launching into our regular science activities for the summer. Looking at all of our new installations adds up to a comprehensive list of experiments from a height of several kilometers above Tara, through the snow and ice to the deepest depths below. New experiments started during April include a captive atmospheric balloon profiling wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, a network of five seismometers measuring ice movement, a radiometer under the ice measuring solar radiation, two thermistor strings measuring the temperature throughout the ice, a new Ice Mass Balance (IMB) instrument measuring ice and snow thickness and a Polar Ocean Profiling System (POPS) that automatically measures conductivity and temperature throughout the water column to a depth of 1000m once a day. We will also now be undertaking more ice and snow measurements, including weekly electromagnetic surveys of ice thickness along a 2km transect, and additional biological sampling of phytoplankton and zooplankton at various depths in the water column.

The meteorological programme has been extended to include a network of sixteen buoys. These were parachute dropped by Twin Otter aircraft within an area 500km x 500km centered on Tara and will automatically send surface meteorological data via satellite communication. To our south another POPS has also been installed and to our north an ice tiltmeter.

These additional activities compliment the existing programmes that we have undertaken since the start of the drift including deep CTD profiling, meteorological measurements near Tara, incoming and outgoing solar radiation sensors measuring albedo, acoustic sensors measuring underwater acoustic propagation and a micro CTD deployed near the surface under the ice.

Between all of the science activities we will also be installing an array of solar panels this week to take advantage of the 24 hour supply of energy. It is certainly shaping up to be a busy summer for all on board!!


24/02/2008:Tara: triomphant return to Lorient.

There was a large crowd on Saturday afternoon under the sunshine to welcome Tara. First, a welcome on the water, since about thirty boats joyfully escorted the schooner into the harbour. Then a crowd in the port as 5000 people were standing on the quays to see the boat and its Taranauts. Onboard there were the crews of the Tara Arctic expedition, Etienne Bourgois as well as Jean-Claude Gascard. All were wearing Tara’s colours in grey and orange. On the port, the crowd was able to witness the event live on a giant screen; an event commented by the navigator Catherine Chabaud.

Upon their arrival, the crew members were first reunited with their families. Grant Redvers, the kiwi expedition leader had not seen his parents who had come especially all the way from New Zealand for nearly two years. Then the members of the expedition gave their testimonies and a first assessment of their onboard experience and of the scientific data accumulated during 507 days. The team then was welcomed by Norbert Métairie, mayor of Lorient and president of Cap l’Orient at City Hall. Then the party, organised at the submarine base lasted until late into the night.