Tara Oceans in London

I have a friend in the United States who has been involved in phytoplankton research for a while and spent a lot of time aboard ships sampling off Maine. About a week ago she recommended that I visit the sailing vessel Tara, which is currently docked in London having just completed a two and a half year, 70,000 mile voyage called Tara Oceans, investigating marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Tara at St Katherine Docks

I was in London on Wednesday night anyway so I decided to stay for the free lunchtime event at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a 10 mile bike ride from where I slept in Walthamstow. I had some route finding issues but arrived a few minutes early for the event. It began with an introduction by Chris Bowler, the expedition’s scientific coordinator, who explained the history of the vessel. Originally named Antarctica she was built in 1989 according to drawings by Luc Buvet and Olivier Petit for the explorer Jean Louis Etienne. In 1999 Sir Peter Blake renamed her Seamaster but he was tragically killed onboard in 2001 by pirates in the Amazon. In 2003 she was renamed Tara by Etienne Bourgois and Agnès Troublé and 2004 saw the launch of her environmental missions, Tara Expeditions. I think of Tara as a Hindu goddess, an entity in Tibetan Buddhism or a hill in Ireland, but the name was actually chosen in relation to the novel Gone With the Wind (how appropriate for a sailing vessel). Having been built to cope with ice, Tara spent all of 2007 drifting across the Arctic, studying interactions between ice floes and the atmosphere. In 2009 she set sail on the journey she has just completed.

A closer view of Tara

Unfortunately the event was not well attended by the public, perhaps half the audience were members of the crew or otherwise associated with the project. After Chris’s introduction we watched the first of four episodes of a documentary called “Tara Oceans, the Secret World”, which gave a good idea of life aboard. It covered the first leg of the voyage from Lorient, across the Bay of Biscay, through the Straights of Gibraltar and all through the Mediterranean. After the film there was time for questions and then I managed to have a brief chat with Chris. Tara is open this weekend for public visits but I explained that I was just in London for the day and he kindly invited me to visit that afternoon, which I did, after a late breakfast at a café on the way.

Arriving at St Katherine Docks it was hard to miss Tara, all 36 metres of aluminium hull with a fluorescent orange bow. Chris was about to do an interview so he sent me down below and said that someone else would show me round. The only person available was the French engineer, which meant I got a tour from someone who knew the answers to all my questions, but couldn’t necessarily understand them. We managed the language barrier though, and I was able to tell him the english words for things like heat exchanger and gearbox. He showed me the engine room and seemed happy with the twin 350 hp Deutz marine diesel engines. Unlike small marine engines I have seen before where sea water is sucked up continuously for cooling, these units had a closed coolant circuit running through boxes where one wall is effectively a section of the hull below waterline. The twin rudders can be lifted vertically through clearance holes in the deck to decrease the draft from 3.5 to 1.5 metres. I don’t remember the name of the Engineer but he seemed like a cool guy and I discovered that he had also visited Tres Hombres, which was the main subject of my previous blog entry. He will be working on Tara at least until Paris, a journey which will involve lowering the twin masts to navigate the Seine. I wish him safe passage and would like to thank him for his patience.

Once back on dry land I got on my bike and started heading towards Kings Cross. I stopped for a while at Freedom Bookshop in Whitechapel then went to visit a new space called Firebox on Cromer Street just south of Kings Cross Station. The door was open so I went in, thinking I could have a coffee, but it is not properly open yet. The grand opening will be on October 6th and Tony Benn is among the names on the program. By now I was getting a bit hungry so I cycled up to inSpiral at Camden Lock and went in for some soup but couldn’t resist also getting a double espresso and an exotic raw chocolate and goji berry truffle. I could hear live music from across the street so when I had finished my coffee I went over to check it out and stayed till the end of the set. The band was called Shoshin and I really enjoyed what I heard. I also recorded a few bits of video on my old Canon IXUS 400 and I have uploaded one of them to YouTube. I then cycled up to Finsbury Park to catch a train home and the place was swarming with police. I asked an officer if there was a match on (because that can make getting my bike on the train difficult) and he said no, handing me a leaflet about Operation Hawk – “Preying on drug dealers”. I asked if he was therefore recommending I go elsewhere if I wanted to buy drugs and he laughed and said yes, it was too risky for dealers here, what with all the police and dogs around. I know it is not really a laughing matter but I didn’t have the patience to talk to him about how it would be so much easier to control hard drugs if a medicinal herb called Cannabis was legalised, and how even if it not totally harmless, it is considerably less harmful than tobacco or alcohol (according to this BMJ article for example) and is no more a “gateway” drug than either of them. I should have done, but enough is enough and I caught the train home.

4 responses to “Tara Oceans in London

  1. glad you went Ian – for those interested in what Tara has accomplished, here from the log book:
    1. To study the biogeography and biodiversity of the different oceanic regions. To understand the evolution of micro-organisms by collecting samples and modelizing their distribution
    2. To develop models showing the consequences of climate change on micro-organisms in the oceans
    3. To create a unique oceanographic database comprised of organisms and cells preserved and identified – the Biobank. Available to everyone at no cost, this Biobank will constitute a reference point and a source of study for generations of researchers

    information on the entire science program is at

  2. Thanks for the additions Meri, I like the video.

  3. I see Jenny Hill has just done a report on Tara Oceans for the BBC

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