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Ghislain Bardout, Abysses as horizons

The Under The Pole expeditions explore the “twilight zone” at ocean depths of between 60 and 150 metres and contribute to the major scientific discoveries that will determine the future of our planet.

by Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in November 2020Time to read: 2min 58s

A “dream” is the word that comes up most often when Ghislain Bardout is asked about his career. A “dream”, as well as a “wonderful story”– two promises that this explorer of abysses and his family have been fulfilling for the past 12 years. Crossing the globe from one ocean to another, while passing through the Arctic, Ghislain and his wife Emmanuelle have been pursuing their Under The Pole expeditions since 2008, with the goal of sharing their passion for underwater exploration and their wish to “contribute to a better life together, alongside our environment”. From holding the world record for diving down to 112 metres below the pack ice, to coming face to face with the rare Greenland shark, discovering a mesophotic coral species at 172 metres in Polynesia, and being submerged at a depth of 20 metres for 3 days in a 4.3 m3 capsule: the Bardout duo have managed to combine technical innovation and scientific research. Each Under The Pole expedition – the fourth is currently being prepared – is an initiatory journey towards promoting a better understanding and picture of Mother Nature’s evolutions.

The first expedition in 2010 was aimed at taking images from above and below the pack ice. Ghislain Bardout and his team chartered a plane to drop them off at a distance of 65 km from the North Pole. Travelling on skis, each member pulled a sledge loaded with 150 kg of equipment. “I wanted to document this disappearing environment,” recalls the adventurer. “This journey would no longer be possible today because the air link has been broken due to the weakening pack ice.” In total, 51 dives were carried out under very cold conditions, which also allowed for a study of human physiology under truly unique conditions. The epic journey resulted in a 52-minute film that was shown worldwide, as well as a book. Negotiating this obstacle course, with its three years of preparation and its search for a sponsor, eventually paid off. Rolex sponsored the entire expedition: “This story has been a great success, especially as they’re still collaborating with us today,” says Ghislain Bardout.

This story has been a great success, especially as they’re still collaborating with us today.Ghislain Bardout

An all-consuming passion

Ghislain has fed his love for extreme situations ever since he was a child. While he enjoyed open-air activities such as mountaineering and rock-climbing, it was his discovery of sea-diving at the age of 7 that turned into an all-consuming passion and rapidly took up all his free time and money. As a teenager, he spent every holiday at the diving centre on the Glénan Islands in Brittany, where he obtained his full certification. After becoming an instructor, he met Emmanuelle, a professional sailor and the head of a nautical base, who he encouraged to follow in his footsteps. This was the beginning of another beautiful story that started in 2005. The pair have also had a shared experience of working with the iconic Jean-Louis Étienne. Thanks to him, Ghislain – then a student of mechanical engineering at the EPFL (the Federal Polytechnical School of Lausanne) – was able to discover the icy expanses of the North Pole for the first time and carried out his first dives below the pack ice. The two aspiring explorers were married in 2013, six months before Under The Pole II.

The Bardout couple’s dream, which became a reality with their first expedition, was about to continue. “It required a huge effort to withstand the test of time and understand how to challenge yourself,” reveals the co-founder of Under The Pole. Nevertheless, the next project was even more ambitious: to study the seabed along the entire western coast of Greenland throughout the seasonal cycle, by spending winter at the heart of the ice. With Emmanuelle given the role of captain, the mission required a boat: the Why, a derelict schooner rotting at a naval site in Nantes, which had never gone to sea before, was to serve as the Bardouts’ new home. However, this new project also required financial investment. “We sold everything – our house, our car, our furniture. We only stored some boxes with our grandparents and then cast off with the feeling that we had left nothing behind us: an amazing feeling of freedom,” recalls the expedition leader. Moreover, he had to take a team of volunteers on board, which was by definition less reassuring, but once again, this turned out to be a success: these amateur men and women became professionals linked to Under The Pole. Between January 2014 and October 2015, the Why spent 5 months wintering, which involved being provided with supplies by Innuits. By doing a record dive down to 112 metres, the expedition managed to capture breathtaking nature images and build up a database on the entire life cycle of frozen territories.

My idea was to go underwater and camp, like in the Himalayas, maintaining a base camp and intermediate camps in order to achieve the ultimate goal.Ghislain Bardout

Underwater camping

During the preparation of Under The Pole III (2017-2021), the scientific dimension came to the fore. At the Explore base in Concarneau – funded by the navigator Roland Jourdain – the team worked on the construction of a world-first prototype: a sub-marine habitat that was simple, light, transportable and autonomous, taking inspiration from Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. The aim was to allow the divers to observe marine life for as long as possible without returning to the surface. “My idea was to go underwater and camp, like in the Himalayas, maintaining a base camp and intermediate camps in order to achieve the ultimate goal.” The capsule was tested in 2019 in the warm waters of Moorea in Polynesia. Submerged at 20 metres for 72 hours, the three members of the team only had two hours of decompression stops to complete outside the capsule before returning to land.

At the start of the journey, the same scientists who boarded the Why in 2017 went in search of the “twilight zone”. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, via the Arctic, an exploration of the zone at a depth of between 60 and 150 metres was envisaged. This area known as the mesophotic zone captures the last rays of light and is also the least explored; here, expensive underwater technology was used below a depth of 150 metres. These unchartered waters where all kinds of discoveries are possible – with around 7 new species discovered every hour – is a favoured exploration site for Under The Pole expeditions. Accompanied by Marcel Koken, a molecular biologist from the CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research), the team studied the phenomena of biofluorescence and bioluminescence in the polar regions, the understanding of which may have an important influence on medical research (such as tracking cancerous cells, for example).

At the start of the journey, the same scientists who boarded the Why in 2017 went in search of the “twilight zone”. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, via the Arctic, an exploration of the zone at a depth of between 60 and 150 metres was envisaged. This area known as the mesophotic zone captures the last rays of light and is also the least explored; here, expensive underwater technology was used below a depth of 150 metres. These unchartered waters where all kinds of discoveries are possible – with around 7 new species discovered every hour – is a favoured exploration site for Under The Pole expeditions. Accompanied by Marcel Koken, a molecular biologist from the CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research), the team studied the phenomena of biofluorescence and bioluminescence in the polar regions, the understanding of which may have an important influence on medical research (such as tracking cancerous cells, for example).

The hope of regenerating corals

Once the boat arrived in Polynesia, studies focused on deep-sea corals. No fewer than nine scientific institutions based in France, Australia, the United States and Monaco were involved in this expedition, including the Centre for Island Research and Environmental Observatory (Criobe), one of the most specialised French laboratories in the study of coral ecosystems. Thus, when Ghislain Bardout and two of his companions descended into the abyss, weighed down by their closed-circuit diving suits, expectations were high and the desire to “go further” than ever before was particularly powerful. And when they collected the deepest coral ever discovered at a depth of 172 metres, it was a world first. However, it’s not record-breaking attempts that truly motivates the Bardouts; it’s what they were able to prove on that day that is even more crucial. Until now, scientists thought that about 25% of surface corals could be found in the mesophotic zone. Thanks to some 6,000 samples taken by Under The Pole, we now know that this proportion amounts to 60%. This opens up promising perspectives about the capacity for generating corals, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted will disappear from the oceans completely before 2050.

This will be one of the specific challenges of Under The Pole IV: testing coral transplants from the depths to the surface and vice versa. The next expedition is expected to take place from 2021 to 2030, as part of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The whole Bardout family, including Robin (aged 8) and Tom (aged 3), will once again abandon their moorings in the hope of sharing their discoveries and passing on key messages: “The solution is restraint, easing off in all areas and refocusing on the most essential and important things, but this doesn’t mean being less happy... in fact, quite the opposite!”

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