Organising an expedition in COVID times
There is no doubt that organising a seagoing expedition like iMirabilis is a challenging task even in normal times: organising equipment, supplies, people and science priorities is rather like trying to solve a 3D jigsaw puzzle where the pieces keep moving when you’re not looking!
However, the global COVID-19 pandemic brought a whole shipload of additional considerations, constraints and compromises. Firstly, we had to reschedule the whole expedition: iMirabilis was originally planned for 2020 but the worldwide shutdown meant it was impossible for it to go ahead. We are very fortunate and grateful that the shiptime for this mission was rescheduled to 2021. International travel restrictions mean that research vessels can currently only operate to and from their national ports, so the geographic scope of the expedition – which originally encompassed a full 3-month voyage from Vigo in Spain to Cape Town in South Africa, with a substantial survey of the Walvis Ridge, one of our main target areas – was radically altered so that the RV Sarmiento de Gamboa leaves and returns to Spanish ports. Unfortunately, this meant that the original work planned in the South Atlantic had to be abandoned as it was simply not possible for the ship to dock in Namibia or South Africa as originally planned. This was very bad news since our colleagues from South Africa and Brazil formed a large and important part of the original science team, and the data we planned to collect from the South Atlantic would have made a valuable contribution to our understanding of ecosystems in that part of the ocean. However, the expedition still offered a great opportunity to work in the region around Cabo Verde.
So, with a restricted geographic scope and a reduced amount of shiptime, the science plan had to be radically re-designed. As well as ensuring the ship was available, we also had to secure the necessary scientific equipment: this is not easy, since the large instruments like the ROV and AUV are shared across the scientific community and are always in high demand, so some very careful planning and negotiation was required to make sure all the necessary pieces of kit were available for the expedition. We are extremely fortunate to have the ROV Luso and Autosub 6000 on board since these are the main tools of the trade for the research we are carrying out. However, we also need specialised technical experts to operate all the instruments – more than half the science team on Leg 1 are highly skilled technicians who will make sure everything operates efficiently and safely.
What about COVID-19 health and safety? Over the past year we have all become familiar with the need to socially distance, wear a face mask and wash our hands regularly. On a research ship with limited space some of these measures become difficult! To ensure the safety of everyone on board, all the science team go into quarantine for 10 days prior to joining the ship. During this period, they isolate in a designated hotel in either Vigo or Las Palmas (depending on where they will join the ship) and are required to return two negative COVID tests prior to joining the ship. Ten days is a long time to be shut in a hotel room, but everyone sees it as a small price to pay for being able to go to sea…and scientists always value quiet time to get data analysed and papers written!
Once on board the ship there are strict protocols that everyone must follow to keep the expedition COVID secure. The strict pre-expedition quarantine and testing measures minimise the risk of anyone bringing the virus on board – even equipment and supplies are disinfected before being loaded onto the ship, and the ship itself is regularly cleaned and sanitised. Special measures are in place for the changeover between Leg 0 and Leg 1 in Las Palmas, and there are isolation facilities on board in the event that anyone develops symptoms. The expedition’s COVID rulebook is long and very detailed, but every precaution is taken to keep the team safe.