Ice diver and polar explorer Alban Michon tells Samuel Firman of his belief in the power of exploration to serve the planet and its people by advancing knowledge
Adventure that Matters | Alban Michon first experienced deep-sea diving when he was 11. By 18 he was an instructor – including for IMF boss Christine Lagarde – and at 22 owned Tignes’ ice-diving school. Alban was soon one of the world’s leading proponents of deep-sea and ice diving – expertise that proved invaluable for polar expedition teams. In 2010 he was invited to join Deepest Under the Pole: a 45-day expedition involving multiple dives under the North Pole pack ice. This inspired Alban to lead his own expeditions, including The White Trap, a two-month sea kayak along the eastern shore of Greenland, and, most recently, a 62-day solo journey through Canada’s Northwest Passage. All his expeditions and related speaking and teaching are rooted in a belief that an explorer’s role is to serve science, the environment and humanity. We caught up with him following his latest adventure.
Adventure Uncovered: Alban, thank you for talking with us. How do you describe what you do?
Alban Michon: What I’m doing is trying to make a contribution to world knowledge. Through my adventures I try to make the public dream while talking about the importance of protecting the environment. This shows that nothing is impossible, that we can go beyond ourselves and that the world is still beautiful. But if we want to preserve it, we have to understand it and have to be optimistic. I’m just a witness of a changing world.
What do adventure and exploration mean to you?
For me there is a difference. An explorer may be an adventurer, but an adventurer is not necessarily an explorer. The adventurer is a person who exceeds his limits, who seeks a feat. The explorer is a person who will try, through the basis of scientific studies, to bring knowledge of the world or human beings from where scientists cannot go. The world is still to be discovered, despite the presence of satellites. And the human body is interesting to study under extreme conditions; this helps to advance our knowledge.
How did you get involved in adventure/exploration?
For years, I had an ice diving school in France. One day, an explorer contacted me for information on an upcoming adventure. This is where I began to rub shoulders with explorers. And then, one day, for a mission in the North Pole, I was contacted for my expertise in submarine diving. I then went on this first adventure to dive under the Arctic sea ice for 45 days. It was a great but difficult adventure. After that I wanted to create my own expeditions.
Tell us about your recent projects.
My last expedition lasted 62 days alone. I left for the Northwest Passage in Canada’s far north. I experienced extreme temperatures, down to -55°C. The adventure was very difficult, but I did a lot of things relating to three scientific programmes: plankton sampling under the ice floe, the study of atmospheric pollution and the study of brain reactivity in extreme environments. Each expedition requires about two years of work before leaving. It is very difficult, but I like it. Being alone in nature is an incredible opportunity.
You’ve said that you hope your work contributes to science and narratives around climate change. How do you hope it does this?
First, every piece of scientific information I bring back is a step towards more knowledge. If we want to protect the world, we have to know how it is changing, so we need regular information. The problem is collecting information in the most remote and extreme places on the planet. This is where explorers come in.
Secondly, once back home, I organise conferences and photo exhibitions and go to schools a lot. I bring the dream of adventure, but also pedagogy. If we want to preserve the environment, we must also understand how it works. Children are very receptive, and it is they who will make the world of tomorrow. They have understood everything, and for me this is already a success.
You’ve also talked about inspiring individual people. How do you want your work to inspire people?
I have many people who contact me to tell me that my adventures make them want to do things too. They want to believe in themselves and take action. There is no need to go to the end of the world to do extraordinary things. The people who inspire me are the ones who make things happen, whether in protecting the environment or helping others. My heroes are firefighters, doctors, nurses and volunteers in associations. Commander [Jacques] Cousteau also inspired me, but he was not the only one. We are surrounded by wonderful people who inspire us every day.
'If you want to make a difference with the adventure, you have to ask yourself the question of what your project will do for the knowledge of the world, or the wellbeing of everyone'
What advice would you give to people trying to make a positive difference through adventure?
I advise two things: either study ecology, or get closer to associations that defend the environment. Create your own project and be persistent – because it is difficult, but not impossible. Then surround yourself with scientists for the project. There are more and more young people becoming eco-adventurers. It is a happy medium between adventure and exploration. In any case, if you want to make a difference with the adventure, you have to ask yourself the question of what your project will do for the knowledge of the world, or the wellbeing of everyone.
Finally, what is next for you in terms of adventure?
For the moment I am going to release a book and a film about my last adventure. Then I will talk about it around France and abroad. I am also preparing another great adventure, which should have an even greater international impact. It will still be in the polar world, but will require a team this time. I will need competent people from many fields, so will surround myself with specialists and guide them in this extreme world. It should last about 3 months, but for now there is a lot of work. I don’t think I’ll leave until the end of 2022.