PARIS -- Forget sunning in St. Tropez or munching on salade nicoise seaside in Nice. Two French students are experiencing the Mediterranean in a very different way, embarking on a 10,000-kilometer kayak mission to raise awareness of its environmental issues. The project, called Mare Nostrum, is a way for the pair to explore the sea while focusing on several research and educational objectives.
According to the European Union Commission, ecosystem depletion due to rapid construction and pollution are among the leading threats to the ever-fragile Mediterranean Sea. France has targeted part of their coastline in 2003 as a protected ecological zone, tracking pollution and fining offenders. Still, the Commission estimates that by 2025, nearly 50% of the coastline will be developed. Under the Horizon 2020 plan, the Commission has committed to reducing the causes of pollution as well as increasing knowledge of the sea's problem over the next seven years. But Louis Wilmotte and Douglas Coet, both 22-year-old students in French universities, are looking to increase awareness on a smaller level through their kayaking adventure.
Wilmotte and Couet are avid marine enthusiasts, be it sailing, diving, or kayaking. After growing up in the same village and attending the same school, the two went off to different universities, but still decided to put their passion for water to good use while their friends worked their part-time jobs during the year and vacationed during the summer. "By practicing all of these sports, we wanted to do something bigger and more important," Wilmotte said.
They began to hatch a plan to cross the Mediterranean exclusively by kayak in the framework of a prolonged research project. Soon, however, they found their project to be part of a larger movement that has been growing over the past few years. They quickly found support from their universities and various associations like SOS Oceans, a French group dedicated to raising money to help raise awareness about issues facing France's coastlines. Another French partner, the Maude Fontenoy Foundation, has been committed to preserving the oceans since 2008 while the Ramoge Agreement between France, Monaco, and Italy seeks to fight pollution along their respective Mediterranean rivieras.
Fellow students also became involved by creating and maintaining the project's website as a class assignment. This August, the two finally hit the water, starting at the Strait of Gibraltar, equipped with various types of gear and a land-based team to monitor their progress. They will be sleeping mostly in their canoes during the 12- to 14-month trip, eventually reaching Istanbul where a French-speaking school is awaiting them.
Their project is three-pronged, addressing questions of education, research and culture. While exploring several of the 22 nations bordering the sea, they will also be collaborating with schools in France and Turkey to educate young students about marine ecosystems. With solar-powered equipment, the two will be able to Skype with classrooms during their excursion to share their experiences with students.
Part of the educational component is to show younger students that one need not be a marine biologist in order to be interested in such topics. "We got here by being motivated and passionate and by a desire to engage people, and we have already done some good work and we're proud about it," Wilmotte said. While Couet is studying oceanography, Wilmotte's education is geared towards technology and industry, with little connection to maritime affairs.
The arduous journey in a kayak was a strategic choice, and not just because both enjoy it. "To do proper scientific analyses, we are as close as we can be to the water and everything that's happening," Wilmotte said. They will attempt to collect data related to noise pollution in the water and how it may affect the sea mammals that inhabit the Mediterranean.
Additionally they'll be taking algae samples along the way for future research in collaboration with their partners like DCNS, which seeks sustainable solutions for maritime businesses. "I think for us to associate with these groups is because we have common interests and we're fighting to protect the sea at different levels," Wilmotte said.
The public can follow along as Wilmotte and Couet track their progress via GPS locations and social media updates. They hope that their project will inspire others to take interest in the Mediterranean, and not just for its sun-soaked beaches. "I think there are many things that have been done -- areas of protection, laws, and associations -- and all of this is very new," Wilmotte said, "but there are still plenty of things to do. It's not the two of us who will be able to do it all."
Photos: Mare Nostrum