Expeditions and Explorers

Like snowflakes for plankton.
Explorers, that special breed and a personal favourite type of being! My kind, is the type that’s unafraid of hardship, always pushing to redefine themselves through the nature of discovery. Content to simply be the first. Theirs is a unique triumph, for once the trail has been blazed, a new set of complexities inevitably shows up.

I’ve always thought that the really interesting stuff is found at the extremes of anything, but lately I’m less certain of that. Sometimes, it's little obvious things, the seldom noticed that can be just as enigmatic.

When TARA docked in London in 2012, after her epic 70,000 mile voyage of discovery through the world’s oceans, there was a brief opportunity to jump aboard for a personal tour. The boat itself exudes a special kind of presence. Her history is rich with tales of adventure, challenging expeditions and tragedy. She formerly belonged to the Cousteau Society, and was known then as the Antarctic Explorer, until Sir Peter Blake bought and renamed her Seamaster. The story I was told, when I asked after her unusual design, was that she had been fashioned on an olive pip! More specifically, the olive pip boat design had been drawn on a paper napkin over drinks between friends, with a dish of olives to hand. Inside, it is exactly like I imagine living in an olive pip would be like, so I’m happy to believe in the fact or fable.

TARA’s research team had set out to investigate marine ecosystems and biodiversity under the impact of climate change. In the end, they returned home with so much more. State-of-the-art gadgets for scientific sample collecting revealed a multitude of previously undiscovered plankton species. Originally, estimates of planktonic biodiversity and protists had been set at around 100,000 individual species. Preliminary findings from the expedition have now raised that to over one million species and counting. New DNA sequences have been identified and that ... is super exciting!

What this all means to the people laying down the detail, is the possibility of extracting specialised bioactive compounds that might be of benefit to our own species. Biofuels and pharmaceutical applications aside, I have to wonder how the detail-makers will balance the debt to nature when the time comes.

Just over a year after my tour around TARA, I was in Mexican waters with the biggest fish in the ocean. I was swimming beside whale sharks as they gulped vast volumes of plankton-enriched water. Right at the surface, where the effect of sunlight concentrates the plankton into a soupy shimmer, these gigantic creatures were feasting like there was no tomorrow. Time and time again, they circled in figures of eight, passing close by me. They’re so huge, one swish of the tail and they move like a thunderbird rocket. Yet despite their size, they were always aware of exactly where I was and watched me back with a gentle curiosity. My time with them will always be one of my most treasured and thrilling experiences.

All this plankton, right under our nose! We have much to thank the little critters for.