On Friday afternoon, as storm clouds enveloped the coastal town of Sitka, a team of French explorers boarded a 65-foot aluminum schooner aptly named “The WHY”. Although rain and choppy seas awaited them just outside of the harbor, the small crew were all smiles as they set sail for the tropical waters of Hawaii.
“It is the first time we will get to be somewhere warm in something like 10 years! So, we are very excited,” joked Under the Pole Expedition Leader Ghislain Bardout.
Standing at just under 6-feet tall, the slender Frenchman looked more Hollywood actor than international explorer as he removed his glasses to take an impromptu portrait in UAA's Rasmuson Hall two weeks earlier. When it's remarked that he bears and uncanny resemblance to James Franco, Bardout quizzically asks: “who is this James Franco?”
Bardout's lack of knowledge about pop-culture is understandable. For the past decade, the 38-year-old has spent most of his life exploring the frigid marine landscapes of the polar regions.
“The story started in 2007. At the time, I was working with an explorer whose name is Jean-Louis Etienne and I had the opportunity to dive beneath the ice in the region of the North Pole and I discovered that it has a huge, huge, huge potential,” Bardout animatedly explained. “It was an amazing world of ice and we decided to imagine an expedition really focused on that.”
It took three years of preparation for Bardout and his skipper turned wife, Emmanuelle Perie-Bardout, to realize his dream. But in 2010, the duo assembled a team of 8 crew members to embark on a hero's journey from France to Greenland in the hopes of creating an accurate eyewitness report of the undersea world of the polar region. Their expedition was punctuated by 45 days of travel by ski and sled across Greenland's punishing winter landscape and 51 polar dives.
“I remember when I was doing my first dive – all the sudden there was this other world,” recalled Bardout. “When you arrive in such a world, it is hell but at the same time, that hell is what makes it powerful. Being there, you are totally alone but you know that you will never be there again.”
“I just stayed down there for some minutes and felt the power of the landscape. We talk about climate change as if it is a distant future but over there, it is already a reality,” said Bardout. “We are witnessing a disappearing world.”
Bardout's world may be full of landscapes very few people will have the opportunity to experience firsthand, but he believes that it is a world that all children are fascinated by.
“The polar region is surrounded by immensity, by big landscapes – and mammals that we have on our beds as small children like stuffed polar bears and seals for example,” Bardout explained. “And at the same time, it is one of the last places to be discovered – we know more about the surface of Mars.”
If Hollywood's wildly successful polar themed movies like “Happy Feet,” “Ice Age,” “March of the Penguins,” and “The Golden Compass,” are any indicator, Bardout's affinity for the frosty unknown is shared by many.
However, it has taken far more than insatiable curiosity to fuel Bardout's passion for the polar regions. It has taken a deep seated belief that underwater exploration holds one of the keys to creating a sustainable planet.
“I believe that humanity has to change his relationship with the environment and have a better understanding and a more sustainable way of life. It is absolutely necessary,” explained Bardout whose fervent conviction led him and wife Emmanuelle to sell their home in order to purchase their vessel.
It is that same conviction that attracted a 55 person crew to sail without compensation for nearly two years during Bardout's second expedition, Under the Pole II, in 2014.
“The second expedition in Greenland cost so little you would think I was lying to you,” laughed Bardout. “Our crew was not compensated, so we just had to pay for equipment, food and insurance. In fact, it only cost about 100,000 Euros [$123,000] a year to fund and 20,000 [$24,000] of that went to insurance.”
It may be hard to believe that anyone would voluntarily travel to some of the coldest places on earth, let alone do it for free, but as Bardout points out, the expeditions have been the adventure of a lifetime.
Luckily, Bardout's crew shares his unflappable sense of adventure – even if that means sailing against 40 knot winds and battling 20 foot waves that cover their boat in thick layers of ice that have to be chipped away every morning, only to re-form each night.
As the saying goes, with great risk comes great reward. So, it's not surprising that the crew's sacrifices have been handsomely rewarded, albeit in some unexpected ways.
“When we set sail for Greenland, I realized quickly that maybe I did not time our departure so well. Because it was winter, we had to go through some of the most inaccessible and inhospitable expanses of ice. There were times that I questioned my decision, but I was the leader so I could not show that I was afraid,” said Bardout.
Just when the crew found their vessel completely immersed in immovable sea ice and were left with little to do but wait for the summer thaw, they encountered one of the world's most elusive and majestic mammals – the Greenland shark. As the sharks dwell at significant depths underneath unyielding ice formations, sightings of the shark are so rare that scientists have only recently been able to obtain underwater video footage of them. In fact, very little is known about these 24-foot marine mammoths except that they have a lifespan of somewhere between 200-400 years.
“That was truly the most amazing encounter I have had over the last decade,” Bardout said with an ear-to-ear grin.
Bardout who never travels without his wife, two young sons and a Siberian husky named Kayak, has watched his family grow against a truly remarkable backdrop. However, his family hasn't been the only thing that has expanded in recent years.
Bardout's newest expedition, Under the Pole III, caught the eye of some major financial players who turned his small enterprise into a worldwide collaborative. With main sponsor Rolex as a backer, as well as ad campaigns with Azzaro Parfums, Bardout has been able to assemble a team of 150 crew members and 130 partner companies and research institutes. The new financial support means that Bardout's passionate crew can finally walk away with something more than memories – they can earn a paycheck. As a man whose guiding principle is sustainability, Bardout humbly takes pride in successfully developing a career from his passion for exploration.
For the small crowd of Alaskans who attended Bardout's lecture at UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium on March 29, his success stands as a beacon of hope for young entrepreneurs – particularly those who have a seemingly impossible dream.
“My first expedition was the adventure of my life because there is only one first time and we really did not know if it would even work. It was a bit like jail – like we thought maybe we had done something wrong but we could not go back, we had to just go for it. We had to keep going forward,” Bardout told the crowd. “You know, when this all started, I was just this young guy with a dream.”
*Originally published in the Anchorage Press