Antarctic: in the footsteps of Charcot

November 9, 2019 in the morning. Paradise Harbor. 65 degrees south latitude. Despite the engaging name, it is suddenly much colder than yesterday, the sea more agitated and dark gray, summits hidden by the clouds. Only the glaciers exhibit their turquoise blue projections, between the flanks of blocks sometimes reminiscent of ghostly dogon villages or strange fortresses. “Ice cream crystallizes our emotions” in their book “Praise of the Ice” (Éditions Pôles d'images), Catherine and Rémy Marion. For the happiness of the readers, they deliver on 132 pages, accompanied by splendid photos, an anthology of quotations. “The whole landscape looks like a wonderful, unreal scenery: it looks like I do not know what huge palace, destined to receive fairies”, wrote Ejnar Mikkelsen (1) in 1924, in his book “Lost in the Arctic”.

As for Henri Michaux, he became almost lyrical: “Icebergs, icebergs, cathedrals without the religion of eternal winter, wrapped in the ice cap of planet Earth, how high, how pure are your cold-weathered edges”. And in a character of Jules Verne (in Captain Hatteras, 1867), other astonishing resonances arose: “Would not we say a strange city, a city of the East with its minarets and mosques under the pale glow of the moon?” Here is a long series of Gothic arches reminding us of the Chapel of Henry VII or the Palace of Parliament “. More prosaically, in the early morning of November 9, from the zodiac, we see the few wooden houses of the Argentine scientific station Amiral Brown.

F for French

Small red-brown dots on huge white background, the roof sporting the white-blue of the Argentine flag. It's a terrible story that this base has known, as Ed Webster, an American historian, tells us about this Antarctic Cruise – “Expedition of Knowledge” for Science and Future -recall the extraordinary adventures of the polar explorers. Around, in the steep rocks falling in the waters of this port of Paradise, nest cormorants and checkers Cape.

As Samantha Mcbeth, one of the specialists of the polar regions on board, tells us, the birds of these countries make the connection between land and sea. Some of them, such as scoop-beaks, fill in their unique way a specific ecological niche in the same way. ecosystem. They feed on the excrement of the penguins, or even bite the milk directly to the teat of a mother seal, even as she feeds her baby, as shown in a photo of the ornithologist Adrian.

When the ship raises anchor again, it is in the footsteps of one of the most famous navigators of this region that we advance: Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Direction Port Charcot via a channel 12 km long, named Lemaire, according to a Belgian explorer from Congo (2). We sail between mid-rocky, semi-icy mountains in a setting reminiscent of the Caspar-David Friedrich. When suddenly, in the distance, a suspicious icy tongue appears, flush with the water. Everyone wonders about the bridge on the thickness of this layer of ice, difficult to assess for an untrained eye, towards the exit of the channel? Will pass ? Will not pass? What will the commander do? As we approach this exit of the channel, while Port Charcot is nearby, imperceptibly the ship inflected its course. We will not pass. U-turn was ordered. It will be necessary to circumvent the island that we go along otherwise. Such is the law of places, intractable.

November 9 afternoon. On the rock covered with lichens that we approach on board a zodiac, is distinguished, engraved in the wall, the letter F in capital letters. F for French, the name much less known than the “Pourquoi pas? From French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot. With these two successive sailing ships, he came here twice, on two expeditions, the first in 1903-1905, the other in 1907-1909. Both made him famous and made him the first French polar explorer of a truly scientific nature (read below interview of Rémy Marion, specialist of the polar regions and lecturer on this Expedition of Knowledge).

It is gray, we can not go down on the snow-covered hill, dominated by a cairn going back to the expeditions. “We would sink to the neck,” says Samantha McBeth, who also regrets not being able to pay a visit to the stele also enthroned on this hill, where the names of all the crew members are engraved. The zodiac pushes further. It's a shock. Here we are in front of the “iceberg cemetery”! This is the name given by the regulars to these extraordinary places. While the sky was light gray, the sea turns to anthracite gray. And a whole group of giant blocks are floating there. White cylinders, like a shed … Tables fringed with stalactites. Crystalline chaos seeming to lift giant's fingers to the sky. Blue meringues, turning to deep turquoise under transparent water. Deep arches are outlined, cliffs perfectly split as with a sharp sword of samurai. Grayscale and blue on black and white background. There are sorts of sails, improbable pyramids, faces also strange characters … Irréel, Mikkelsen wrote. Only the biting cold proves that we are not dreaming.

1. Of which a port visited by the MS World Explorer took the name (read article LINK)

2. After the Belgian Baron de Gerlache's expedition. But it was a German expedition that had discovered it in 1873-1874, led by Dallman.

“Charcot, the gentleman of the poles”

Jean-Baptiste Charcot can be considered as the first French scientific explorer of the poles, explains to Sciences and Avenir Rémy Marion, speaker aboard the MS World Explorer and specialist of the polar regions.

Sciences et Avenir: What must be remembered first of the explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot?

Rémy Marion: Science and disinterestedness. This doctor's son, who was forced by his father to study medicine as well, a racing enthusiast and a great sportsman – he even took part in the Olympic Games – became an accomplished sailor. For his first expedition, he already assembled a scientific staff. Because he wants to make meteorological observations, measurements of magnetism, to study the marine biology – one sees it on certain photos in dialogue with penguins or to “dance” in front of them. He was a joker!

How did he organize his expeditions?

His first expedition, in 1903-1905, is one hundred percent private. He puts in his personal funds and organizes a subscription. He left Rouen with the “Frenchman” sailing and steam boat, knowing what he was going to find, based on the data collected a few decades earlier by the Belgian Baron Adrien de Gerlache. He wants to map this area. After exploring during the summer, he stays in winter with his scientists and sailors who can not read or write. This humanist asks his staff to teach others what they know. He does not want walls between them.

It stays stuck for a long time?

At Port Charcot, he found a small cove in which the boat remained embedded in the ice from April to October 1904. Nothing to do with the Weddell Sea where Shackleton's ship will be crushed later, given the enormous forces at stake in the ice at this place. He was able to navigate and map the site (using sextants), collect weather data that still serve! He measured the variations of the Earth's magnetic field etc. We must imagine the challenges to be met, at a time when recordings are not automatic and where scientists regularly have to go to their instruments themselves to take measurements. You need hypermotivated people! This expedition is a huge success.

What happens then?

On his return, the French State promises to help him. With this help and a new subscription, he will be able to build, with his experience, a new boat, still sailing and steam, more reinforced than the French. It is built in oak in Saint-Malo by the manufacturer Gauthier. On board, there will be a library, a laboratory, in short it is a real research boat. With him, he will be able to complete his cartography and all his measurements and will carry out a wintering again. He will then make a great navigation to the west.

Is it from Charcot that all these French names come in the region?

Yes, there is also Île Berthelot, Renaud, Lavoisier, the French Mount but also the large Marguerite Bay, named after his wife and of course the island Why Pas. What Charcot wanted was to map. This sailor was less “(geo) political” than those who wanted to conquer the poles and go there first. This made Scott, the Brit who arrived at the South Pole a few days after the Norwegian Roald Admunsen, that Charcot deserved the nickname “Gentleman of the Poles”.

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