Paul-Emile Victor

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The Independent Online
``An Eskimo in Bora-Bora'' was how Paul-Emile Victor was often referred to in the popular press. ``PEV'', as his intimate friends knew him, spent 50 years of his life as an explorer, adventurer and ethnologist in the Arctic and Antarctic. But, on numerous occasions, he claimed that he hated cold and wind, snow and ice. In this he was the opposite of another great scientist-explorer, his friend Thodore Monod, who has spent most of his life tramping the deserts of Africa.

Without the driving force of Paul-Emile Victor's passion for adventure, and his trail-blazing enthusiasm for on-the-spot Arctic research, there would have been no French expeditions to the polar regions in our time, and the Antarctic base of Dumont d'Urville would not have been set up in 1956. He was the pioneer of polar exploration in the 1930s, and created, in 1947, Expditions Polaires Franaises (EPF) to study, among other things, the ethnology of the Inuits.

Victor gained his first experiences as an adventurer when he sailed the seas as a deckhand. He obtained his first technical qualifications as an engineer at the Ecole Centrale in Lyons. He also took diplomas in science and - most importantly for someone who was to become a popular travel writer in literature. In Paris, he followed the lectures of Marcel Mauss at the Institut d'Ethnologie. This, too, was important for his work, because his explorations were always conducted in the spirit of an enlightened ethnologist.

His youthful ambition had been to undertake ethnological research in Polynesia, but this was not to be. For in 1934 he was offered his first great opportunity - an expedition to Greenland, under the tutelage of Commandant Jean-Baptiste Charcot on the Pourquoi-Pas. Charcot dropped him off on the Greenland coast with three other young researchers, where they were to work until the Pourquoi-Pas picked them up one year later. It was here, in the Angmagssalik region, that the intrepid quartet set up their first base, at Tassiussak, a small Eskimo community that had existed there in almost total isolation. From his experiences there, Victor produced in 1935 Douze mois sur la banquise ("Twelve months on the Great Ice Barrier") which had an immense success when serialised in France-Soir and opened the way for Victor's first public lecture at the Salle Pleyel.

Victor returned to Greenland in 1936 accompanied by two of his former research companions and by the multi- talented Danish sculptor- archaeologist-novelist Eigel Knuth. This time, the four crossed the island on foot from west to east using husky-drawn sleds for their provisions. They left Victor alone, to stay for 14 months in a Greenland family, where he continued his researches in his usual energetic, hands-on manner, recording the daily life and culture of the Eskimos, in particular their native pastimes, games and toys, all illustrated by Victor's excellent drawings. He mastered their local dialect and learnt their songs which he wrote down phonetically. In 1988, these writings and drawings were exhibited at the Muse de l'Homme in Paris, and the journals were published the following year in a finely illustrated volume La Civilisation du phoque ("The Civilization of the Seal).

During the Second World War, Victor was demobilised in 1940, and made his way to the United States, where he took double nationality and volunteered for the US Air Force, for which he wrote technical manuals to be used by the squadrons he trained for service is Alaska, where he commanded a research station at Nome.

On his return to France in 1946, he organised the EPF. He was an inspiring lecturer and turned to all the modern media for his increasingly popular conferences, the money from which helped to fund EPF. Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us (1951) and Silent Spring (1962) were the inspiration for his own ecological researches and crusades. He was one of the first European ecologists to alert governments to the dangers of air pollution and the chemical pollution of the Mediterranean. In 1974 he founded with Jacques Cousteau, the volcanologist Haroun Tazieff and Alain Bombard, the marine biologist who crossed the Atlantic in a rubber dinghy, the Groupe PEV pour la Dfense de l'Homme et de son Environment.

Victor was individualistic, outgoing, handsome, spell-binding in all his contacts with his growing public. But his energetic, practical nature made him impatient with the slowness and lack of imagination of bureaucratic organisations. After exploring the Arctic, he turned to the Antarctic, where his statue now stands at the EPF base he founded in Terre Adlie, next to the statue of Dumont d'Urville who discovered it in 1840.

Victor retired in 1976, and finally his adolescent dream of a life in Polynesia was realised when he settled on a small island in the Bora-Bora lagoon. He wrote some of his books there, and his beachcombing life became the subject of several outstanding television documentaries, in which he always spoke out frankly about the decline of our environment and the dehumanisation of life on earth. On his 80th birthday, he revisited for the last time the Antarctic and the Arctic. In 1991, he was the hero of a series of three television documentaries made by his first wife, Eliane Victor.

Paul-Emile Victor will be remembered along with all the great modern explorers and adventurers - men like Alain Gerbault, Maurice Herzog, Thodore Monod, Jacques Cousteau and the Japanese climber Naomi Uemura, whose body likes entombed in ice beneath the snows of Mount McKinley. PEV's body was taken on a frigate of the French navy and entrusted to the deep, in the waters round Bora-Bora that he knew and loved so well.

Paul-Emile Victor, explorer and ethnologist, writer and lecturer: born Geneva 28 June 1907; died Bora-Bora 7 March 1995.