The French oceanographic fleet at the service of research

As one of the three largest European fleets, the French oceanographic fleet, at the service of research, is going to get a new look.

From the depths to the ocean-atmosphere interaction, the French oceanographic fleet has been contributing for 50 years to better respond to the major challenges of today's marine sciences and technologies. Ifremer1, which manages this fleet, has just unveiled its new 2035 roadmap to ensure its modernization and renewal.

Four deep-sea vessels and more

The French oceanographic fleet consists of four deep-sea vessels (the Marion Dufresne2, the Pourquoi pas? Atalante and Thalassa) that can operate for 2 to 5 weeks without stopping and can accommodate up to 40 scientists3 ; 6 coastal and semi-offshore vessels, 4 of which work in France and 2 in the overseas territories, that can carry out campaigns lasting about 10 days; 7 station ships operated by the CNRS that go out on a daily basis; and submarine or sampling devices such as Victor 6000 - an ROV4 that carries out observation and intervention missions at depths of up to 6,000 meters.

With these multidisciplinary research vessels, the scientific community carries out both explorations of water columns and marine currents, underwater mapping, studies of biological or geological processes of the seabed, analysis of underwater biodiversity, paleoclimatology studies and much more...

Since January 1, 2018, Ifremer operates all these resources for the benefit of the French scientific community, giving it access to all the world's oceans and seas, excluding polar areas. Until then, the fleet was managed by four public operators or research organizations such as CNRS, which piloted several coastal vessels and its station ships.  "Our fleet is one of the three largest in Europe, alongside Germany and England, and can sail in all oceans - the only one with Germany," reports Olivier Lefort, director of the oceanographic fleet and a former engineer and naval architect.  "The integration of all these ships was desired by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation to ensure a better structuring of the French oceanographic fleet for the benefit of the scientific community and all its users," he explains, informing that the annual budget of the TGIR5 is of the order of a little more than 70 million euros6. However, several of these vessels are starting to age and it was time to give this fleet a new lease on life.

On the way to 2035

Among the major changes foreseen in this roadmap, "the end of activity in 2031 for the deep-sea vessel, Atalante, which will see the entry into service of its successor. Just like the Marion Dufresne and the Thalassa, from 2032. "Mathilde Cannat, a researcher in marine geosciences at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris7 , is familiar with these ships and has participated in more than thirty campaigns and sailed on all the deep-sea ships in the fleet. "Each one has its own specificities and depending on the geographical destination, the size of the scientific team and the instrumental needs, the project will be carried out on this or that vessel", explains the scientist recalling a campaign on the Thalassa, the smallest of the deep-sea vessels and whose activity is mainly focused on the ecology of fish populations and the evaluation of species exploited in the Channel, Bay of Biscay and North Sea.

For the record, the Marion Dufresne is "the most imposing of all deep-sea vessels". The reason? It is a multipurpose ship which, in addition to operating for oceanographic research, also ensures the supply of the French sub-Antarctic islands8 on behalf of the TAAF9 and embarks technical and scientific personnel going to work on these islands and sometimes some tourists. But beyond her good looks, she has the giant corer CALYPSO, making her one of the only ships to collect sediment cores up to 60 meters long - with a world record of 70 m during the Crotale campaign in 2019.

In the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, two mid-shore vessels will replace, respectively by 2025 and 2030, the mainland coastal vessels Thalia - a multipurpose vessel operating in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay - and L'Europe - a catamaran of more than 29 meters operating mainly in the Mediterranean Sea and dedicated to fisheries research10 and the coastal environment. The mid-shore vessel Antéa11 will reach the Pacific at the end of 2022 to replace Alis, while waiting for the construction of a mid-shore vessel for the Pacific. These changes will allow the French oceanographic community to have larger vessels in capacity and to deploy underwater systems in the coastal zone as well as on the continental shelf. In terms of equipment, a new-generation deepwater ROV will be built by 2025, while a survey vessel (AUV 6000 Ulyx12) unveiled last October will finally provide French teams with a deepwater AUV that is consistent with deepwater intervention vessels. "We also want to make the fleet greener, with energy optimization objectives for both the construction and operation of the fleet," says Olivier Lefort.

 "Going to sea requires three years of preparation

The oceanographic research community in France represents 3,500 scientists who regularly request access to campaigns on the ships of the French Oceanographic Fleet. Each year, it embarks more than 1000 scientists, engineers and technicians and carries out 40 missions on offshore vessels, 140 missions on coastal vessels and 300 on station ships.

For a mission to be accepted, the research teams must set up a project that is in line with the fleet's programs and submit a file two years in advance. The files are then reviewed by peers, then classified by a scientific commission on the basis of these reviews. Once a file has been prioritized in this way, the Ifremer programming team defines a route and a vessel according to the requirements, objectives and constraints. "For example, if the research project concerns a seismic campaign, we must define a work period during which mammals are not present in the area," explains Olivier Lefort.  The sequence of tasks must also be planned and supervised, and "30-day campaigns on an offshore vessel are large-scale projects! "he stresses. Cécile Guieu, a researcher in marine biogeochemistry at the Laboratoire d'océanographie de Villefranche13 , who has organized and participated in numerous campaigns at sea, agrees. "Going to sea requires three years of preparation. Once a team has been set up, files are submitted to the Fleet Commission, then funding applications are filed for analyses and instruments, and scientists and equipment travel to the ship. For Cécile Guieu, the main quality to navigate is adaptability. "On the boat, it's an incredible rhythm, we work day and night, on weekends, but what a special atmosphere on board," she describes, recalling a night session to pull up a corer with the ocean as far as the eye can see without a light on the horizon.

Health crisis and port closure

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic - and the emergency closure of many ports - had a significant impact on the fleet. "At that time, the Thalassa had just returned from the African coast. The Atalanta, at the gates of Peru, had to interrupt its campaign, but stay in the area to retrieve the equipment. The Pourquoi pas? was then in the Mediterranean Sea and we gave it the order to return," recalls the Fleet Director. From March 15 to August 15, the activities of the oceanographic fleet were completely stopped. Thereafter, they resumed following a very strict protocol. "The crews had to confine themselves for 15 days and perform two PCR tests. Today we ask for a self-containment of 7 days", reports Olivier Lefort. In 2020, only half of the scheduled campaigns could be carried out, "we are trying to reschedule those that could not be done, and for 2021 we have made the choice not to make any more stopovers abroad. "