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September 4, 2006

It is starting to sink in how significant it is that we are here, witnessing the start of Tara's historic mission on the ice. On Saturday, Jean-Claude Gascard and the captain of the Kapitan Dranitsyn searched for the right ice floe along which the Tara could moor. The ice floe had to be thick enough that helicopters could land on it and close enough to open water so that Tara could maneuver into place (she is not designed to break ice). When what seemed like the right place caught his eye, the captain stopped the ship and Jean-Claude and members of the ice team got out and tested the ice. They drilled numerous holes and, satisfied that the ice was sufficient, left an acoustic buoy so we could find the spot after our open-water rendezvous on Sunday.

The French sailing vessel, TaraOn Sunday, we met Tara about 60 miles away and she followed behind the icebreaker toward the buoy that marked her new home. Though we knew the general location of the buoy from its signal, trying to actually find the marker, which was the size of a large mailing tube, in the vastness of ice was a bit tricky. At last, the marker was spotted and Tara was maneuvered into the channel made by the Kapitan Dranitsyn the day before. Tara had a little difficulty reaching the location because ice was blocking the channel, but was finally "docked" in the spot that will be her home for at least the next two years. In the next two weeks she will become frozen in place.

Tara was built in France in 1989 for Jean-Louis Etienne and was sailed by him around the world under the name of Antarctica until 1995. Then, Sir Peter Blake used the ship (then called Seamaster) as part of his global environmental protection program with the support of UNEP (United Nations Environment Program). In 2003, Etienne Bourgois bought the boat and renamed it Tara (a name chosen by his grandfather after the plantation in the novel “Gone in the Wind”). Although its name has changed yet again, the ship continues its environmental stewardship mission.

When we met the Tara on Sunday, there were a number of people onboard to witness the start of their mission: crew members, French media, scientists and two Siberian Huskies (one just a puppy). Seven crew members will remain on the Tara this winter, as will the dogs. The huskies will serve as companions and an early warning system for polar bears. Rumor has it that another adult dog will come with the helicopters scheduled to arrive later this week.

It was quite a sight to see Jean-Claude walk across the ice and greet Tara’s captain and crew. The men shook hands and hugged. This moment was the culmination of two years of planning, fund raising and endless bureaucratic wrangling (a necessary step when transporting gear and people across international boundaries). The French teachers and scientists aboard our ship were deservedly proud.

No time was wasted in getting Tara’s supplies and 34 tons of helicopter fuel unloaded onto the ice. It took several hours to pump the fuel into numerous large rubber bladders stationed at the edge of the landing zone. Teams from the Kapitan Dranitsyn were busy analyzing observations from the last ice station and setting up scientific instruments that will be monitored by Tara scientists over the coming months.

The main objective of the Tara-DAMOCLES project is to increase our knowledge of climate change in the Arctic with regards to sea ice cover, atmospheric processes and ocean circulation. Jean-Claude likened Tara to the Space Shuttle of the DAMOCLES observation system. Through an ambitious educational program, this project will also disseminate scientific data to the public through outreach programs planned for the upcoming International Polar Year (2007–2008).

Tara's scientific mission will include a variety of disciplines: meteorology, solar radiation balance, nivology (study of snow dynamics), glaciology (study of ice), oceanography, microbiology, sea bird and sea mammal observations and human physiological studies that will focus on the physiological stress generated in hostile and confined environments.

With supplies unloaded and equipment deployed, members of both ships celebrated on the ice with group photos and an international display of flags. As if on cue, the elusive Arctic sun came out and electrified the landscape. For many of us onboard the Kapitan Dranitsyn, the celebration was bittersweet as it was our last time on the ice — the ship's remaining research will take place at open-ocean stations.

At 16:00, a powerful blast from the ship's horn signaled it was time for the Kapitan Dranitsyn to depart. Almost all hands were on deck as we slowly pulled away. Jean-Claude and Erko Jakobson (Timo's colleague from Estonia) remained behind with Tara. (They will fly out by helicopter in a few days.) The sailing captain of Tara joined us for a ride back to Norway as his duties onboard Tara are now complete.

As Tara shrank in the distance, I could see Jean-Claude and the others waving. Then one of the French film crew took to the air in a motorized paraglider (carried onboard Tara) for what must be some spectacular images of the giant Dranitsyn pulling away.

We all wondered what it will be like for Tara and her crew for the next two years. What will they experience? What majestic sights will they see? What discoveries will they make? We wish them well.

—Mike Dunn


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Kapitan Dranitsyn