Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great joy to meet you this morning to inaugurate theAlfred Merlin, a stone’s throw from one of our country’s oldest ports. I am particularly honoured to be the sponsor of this ship, which is the new flagship of the French scientific fleets.

Just out of the iXblue yard in La Ciotat, he will soon join his brother in arms, theAndré Malraux, to bring the colours of France’s scientific excellence to every sea in the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, the great French archaeologist Salomon Reinach already said in 1928: «The sea is the largest museum in the world». But it took some time to forge the tools to explore these hidden treasures at the bottom of the oceans.

A decisive step was taken in 1966, when André Malraux decided to create the Underwater Archaeological Research Directorate.

 He set it up right on that esplanade at Fort Saint-Jean. André Malraux: it is not surprising from the adventurer that he had been, from this love of absolute fascinated by the distant, the depths. Malraux had a very extensive conception of culture, cosmic – universal in the most accomplished sense of the word: which went to the bottom of the sea, therefore. This conception is at the very foundation of our French ministry of culture: it is not useless to mention it in passing today.  

He was immediately convinced of the importance of studying and safeguarding the immense heritage lying on our seabed, hitherto unknown.

He wanted France to have the necessary means to study these precious testimonies of the human adventure on the oceans, and defend them against the destructive curiosity of lovers and treasure hunters. Its objective was to share the wealth of sunken wrecks as well as those of these sites, once coastal, now submerged by water.

He thus allowed the fantastic development of a discipline still in its infancy. It was only a quarter of a century before that Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan had developed the autonomous diving suit, which had freed archaeologists from the constraints imposed by the «heavy feet» diving suits.

In order to enable DRASSM to live up to this ambition, André Malraux had decided to equip it with a first ship, The Archéonaute, disarmed in 2005, after forty years of loyal service.

It soon became necessary to give him a successor, as the missions he had fulfilled had proved decisive for the advancement of research.

TheAndré Malraux, baptized on 24 January 2012, represented the continuation of one of the most original adventures of the Ministry of Culture.

This ship met the most ambitious scientific requirements, and it has never ceased to live up to our expectations.

For nearly ten years, it has carried out an average of 160 mission days per year, covering nearly 8,500 miles, for several thousand hours of diving. But it is also a true scientific base on which more than 10,000 hours of study have taken place since 2012.

TheAlfred Merlin shows our willingness to further expand our efforts for years to come. This new offshore vessel, equipped with the latest technology, will allow our research to take on a new dimension and make many discoveries possible in the years to come.

Today, lexploitation of deep-sea resources, port development and the production of green energy are all future challenges for our society. They nevertheless pose a risk to the extraordinary archaeological heritage of the French maritime domain.

The question therefore arises of the means available to carry out, in mainland France as in the overseas countries, the indispensable missions of preventive archaeology, provided for by the heritage code.

In response to this challenge, the project for a second offshore research vessel was launched. Based on the conclusions of the Interdepartmental Committee of the Sea, my predecessor, Franck Riester, took the decision to start construction in February 2019, and entrust it, as for theAndré Malraux, the Mauric office and the iXblue shipyard, with the financial support of ADEME as part of the call for projects «Ships of the Future». I particularly want to commend the work of iXblue, a truly exceptional French high-tech company, which will now be able to commercialize its solutions around the world based on the prototype we are launching today.

TheAlfred Merlin, which we are launching, is a concentrate of innovative technologies. Ten meters larger than theAndré Malraux, With a double capacity, it will travel the seas for the next fifty years.

Its hull is the longest composite hull built to date, as part of an innovative composite recycling program.

The ship has a crane unique in the world, outstanding scientific equipment, as well as a fleet of robots developed by the DRASSM and Le Laboratoire d'Informatique, de Robotique et de Microélectronique de Montpellier.

The new remote-operated robot «Arthur», will be able to intervene up to a depth of 2500 meters, from where it will be able to bring back objects weighing up to 25 kg.

Is there a better illustration of French scientific and technological know-how than this ship? I would like to salute all the teams, engineers, technicians and workers who helped build it, especially during these difficult months of health crisis.

I am sure that this prototype boat will be the first of many and that other countries, like us, will want to acquire it.

I would also like to thank BOURBON Offsfore, a world-renowned Marseilles company, to which the Ministry of Culture has entrusted the management of the crews of the two DRASSM high seas vessels for the next three years. 

The choice to give this ship the name of Alfred Merlin is particularly symbolic. Normalian, a member of the French school in Rome and Academician, from 1907 to 1913 he led the world’s first underwater excavation, that of the wreck of Mahdia, a Greek merchant ship loaded with sculptures.

His example testifies to the French excellence in underwater archaeology, as well as the ambition of the Ministry of Culture to carry innovative and pioneering projects in the scientific field.

I know that Alfred Merlin’s family is with us today. In particular, I would like to greet Mathilde Labbé, her great-granddaughter, who is responsible for the Mediterranean Facade at the French Biodiversity Office and who specializes in the integrated management of coastal and marine ecosystems and environmental risk management.

You’ve kind of picked up the torch from your grandfather, and I’m sure you’ll bring good luck to this ship and its crew!

The agenda of theAlfred Merlin is already loaded. This summer, he is to participate in the first international cooperation set up to protect a site in international waters, the Banks of Serki. Eight Mediterranean countries, including France, rely on theAlfred Merlin to serve as a logistical platform to preserve this exceptional archaeological heritage.

But before this important mission, the next days will see the first test campaign at sea of the «Arthur» robot to validate its performance at 2,500 meters depth, then a campaign of tests at sea of the «Ocean One K» humanoid robot, designed to work at a depth of 1,000 metres.

Finally, allow me to pay tribute to Michel L'Hour, director of the DRASSM from 2006 to the last days, without whom these great achievements would not have been possible. His commitment and charisma within the Directorate-General for Heritage and Architecture were decisive in advancing the ministerial process of ratification of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Heritage.

The baptism of this ship is therefore the symbol of a strong and lasting commitment of the State, not only in the service of heritage and heritage sciences, but also in research and development.

Many of the innovations on this ship are real disruptions that I know will affect the shipbuilding industry.  I cannot therefore invite you to visit these two ships, here welcomed in the Mucem basin, on which you will also discover the robotic arsenal developed by DRASSM. They are an infinite source of curiosity and wonder.

Today, I hope that this wonder can be shared with as many people as possible. I know that many initiatives have been taken. But the activities of DRASSM are still too little known today. I hope that in the years to come they will be the subject of more publicity, particularly among young people. While remaining focused on its core business – underwater archaeological research – it seems to me that DRASSM could profitably further develop its mediation activities and go out to meet the public. I am absolutely convinced that success will come.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Department of Culture has been exploring the sea floor for 55 years. We can all be proud. Thanks to the commitment of its experts, French underwater and underwater archaeology has become a world reference. I know I can count on all of you to continue to do so.

It is now up to me to do the «baptism» of this ship before it leaves for its first mission!


Thank you.