October 20, 2022

Navigating the challenge of COVID and cruises

Posted by Laura Guertin

All of our personal and professional lives were impacted from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in early 2020. Teaching and research immediately shifted to a remote format, if/when possible. The schedule of ocean expeditions was hit especially hard, and field-based ocean research continues to work through the ongoing challenges of coronavirus.

Here, I share three examples of how and where COVID impacted ocean exploration – starting with my own story.


Waiting for my ships to sail

In 2019, I applied and was accepted to sail with NOAA through their Teacher at Sea program and with IODP as an Onboard Outreach Officer on JOIDES Resolution. Both expeditions were scheduled for the year 2020 – and then, they weren’t. The years 2020 and 2021 were filled with messages of “get ready to sail” and “sorry – we are postponing the expedition.” My perfectly-planned sabbatical for the 2020-2021 academic year didn’t yield any time at sea (but did result in the creation of an amazing quilt collection on Drawing Down Towards Climate Solutions).

I was hopeful in the beginning of 2022 when I headed up to Kodiak Island, Alaska, to join a NOAA ship. I was “this close” to spending time at sea – instead, I spent my time in hotel quarantine, and then returned home. So it should come as no surprise that when I was ready to head to Cape Town, South Africa, to join JOIDES Resolution in the South Atlantic a month later, I was feeling incredible anxiety and honestly was expecting “something” to happen again and the expedition to be cancelled. Fortunately, I was mistaken, and we had an incredible two months for Expedition 390 (South Atlantic Transect 1 – see this page and this page for my expedition blog posts).

I summarized my entire experience with preparing and then not sailing with NOAA (hoping I will finally get on a NOAA ship in 2023, three years late), and my up/down journey getting ready to sail on the JR, in a detailed blog post on my Journeys of Dr. G blog (Still waiting for my ships to sail… my journey back to the ocean (March 18, 2022)). There is a shorter version of this story on the Penn State blog for the Institutes for Energy and the Environment (Waiting for my ships to sail (May 2, 2022)). I pulled together my tweets from my hotel quarantine in Cape Town, if you are curious to see how someone occupies their time (DrG w/390 – Week of quarantine).


When COVID comes on board

I met Maya Pincus when we both went through training to become Onboard Outreach Officers for JOIDES Resolution. Smart, fun, full of energy… I’m thrilled to have Maya as a colleague and a friend. We supported each other through our own JR expeditions and continue to collaborate on projects today. Unfortunately, her time on the JR was not as smooth sailing as mine.

In a nutshell, her first time on the JR for Expedition 391 had to return to port after departure because of positive COVID cases on the ship. This meant less time to collect core on the Walvis Ridge. An upcoming JR transit leg allowed some scientists and Maya to sail again to complete the core recovery and continue the outreach – but yet again, COVID joined the expedition. And Maya was forced to quarantine on board after testing positive.

Maya authored posts on the JR blog summarizing this experience for herself and others on the ship. Her writing is powerful and captures such a snapshot of this time (and her ten full days in isolation) as we continue to work towards our scientific research objectives during a pandemic.

COVID on Deck (Part 1: EXP391)

COVID on Deck (Part 2: The New Normal) (text written by IODP Manager of Science Operations, Dr. Katerina Petronotis, in response to Maya’s questions of how IODP decided to operate during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic)

COVID on Deck (Part 3: It happened to me)

Please take a moment to read her words. These experiences of what her and others have gone through to advance our scientific mission should never be forgotten.


Turning around – maybe next time

The year 2022 is filled with additional sea stories that couldn’t have more significant swings. This example unfolded for everyone on Twitter:

Dr. Julie Huber (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) was posting on Twitter her excitement about finally getting out to sea in July 2022 after a pandemic delay. Unfortunately, her expedition was significantly shorter than scheduled. She shared the outcome in a series of tweets:

What’s next?

How will oceanographic research sail out of this pandemic? Will we sail into another one? How will we better prepare? What are the short- and long-term psychological impacts scientists and crew are facing having gone through these disruptions? What are our families and friends feeling when they hear we tested positive for COVID so far from home? These questions and more must continue to be a part of the preparations and logistics of scientific research at sea, on the ice, in the field, etc.