The Tara Trip
Apprehension. Excitement. Honor. Complete terror and insane wonder. These are the feelings I have been going through (sometimes all in the same five minutes) when I think about my voyage on the Tara. Tara you say? Yes Tara! Tara is a 36 meter (that’s ~110 ft for you Americans) sailing ship, devoted to the collection scientific samples and the dissemination of knowledge and good will across the world. Tara is currently on its 11th oceanic mission called the Tara Pacific Expedition which our lab was asked to join back in late 2015. Our lab’s mission is to help collect, catalogue and evaluate the viruses associated with two species of coral across the entire Pacific. In December of 2015 I travelled to Tara headquarters in Paris with my postdoctoral research and colleague Dr. Jerome Payet, who is an expert in aquatic virus ecology and conveniently French. Jerome helped me navigate and fall in love with Paris those few days (merci beaucoup Jerome!) but more importantly helped the newly assembled Tara Pacific Team devise a sampling strategy and determine a few of the many logistical issues associated with the coral virus aspects of this expedition.
Most of the members of the scientific and logistics team are European (mostly French), as the Tara program is funded by the European Union and other European and international partners. In fact, our lab is only one of two non-European labs heading the scientific mission of the Tara Pacific expedition, and on the boat I will be the only one who doesn’t speak French. Doh! But what an honor to be chosen to lead this endeavor, and we were so lucky to be asked to participate! Thanks to everyone who threw our names into the collaborator hat!
The Tara Team
So since December the Tara team has been tirelessly getting the boat, equipment, permits, and all the amazing amount of paperwork and other 10,000 things done to launch the expedition in May. The boat successfully sailed from Paris to Miami and then Miami through the Panama Canal where the first leg of this year’s expedition started. Our very own Ryan McMinds was sent on that leg where he was instrumental in augmenting and finalizing the underwater protocol for collecting the corals. Ryan along with our friend and collaborator from KAUST Maren and ended their trips on the west coast of Panama.
Can You Say Remote?
Currently the sailing team is in route to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) where I will meet them and journey across some of the most remote islands in the world. And therein lays my apprehension and terror. Now I’ve travelled a lot to many remote and foreign places. I have spent hours and hours on small boats doing coastal marine science, and I have logged hundreds of hours of dive time underwater in many tropical locations. But I have never spent more than 7 days on a boat, and that boat was an 83m (273ft) research vessel Atlantis, not a sail boat! Many of you might think I’m pretty adventurous, but I’m going to admit that I am kind of a wuss. I love traveling in retrospect, but usually when I do it I just want to go home. Yet I need to do this. It’s something every marine biologist dreams of…to be cliché…it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Expeditions like these are amazing life experiences both personally and career wise. It’s gonna forge new scientific collaborations and probably generate life-long bonds among the science team and crew. Never the less my ulcers get a little bigger each time I think about being at sea in the middle of nowhere. Well… it’s not that far you say? Oh yeah? So Easter Island/Rapa Nui is 2,182 miles from its protectorate nation of Chile. Its closest neighbor island is the least populous (only 56 people live there) nation in the world, Pitcairn which is famous for its descendants of the mutinous Bounty crew, a short 1,289 miles away. The island where we disembark, Gambier/Mangareva, is a short jaunt of 1,619 miles away. Also I will have no internet (yeah no politics for 4 weeks) or email (I dread my inbox on the day I return)! YES MIDDLE OF NO WHERE!
Can You Say, Pristine?
Fortunately middle of nowhere might also mean some of the most pristine reefs of the world. I can barely imagine what I will see and experience. Whales? Sharks? Whale sharks (please please please)? Coral cover and species diversity like I’ve never seen? I hope. I’m also super excited about the microbiology we will be uncovering. We’ve never done such an extensive latitudinal and longitudinal survey of the microbes and viruses associated with corals before. This Tara trip will likely uncover new taxa and diversity like we’ve never recorded before. We might also be able to say what drives much of the co-evolution of these taxa with their symbionts. The data will be a long way in coming, but combining our GCMP data, we’ll hopefully have the most extensive geographical and phylogenetic analysis of the coral holobiont in history thus far. So I’ll keep you updated on the adventure. Wish me good weather, scientific luck, and whale sharks. Au revoir!