By Jed Thompson for JISAO Magazine
As the novel coronavirus was beginning to spread in the United States, three JISAO researchers departed for a crucial research cruise in South Africa.
In early March 2020, three JISAO researchers departed for South Africa expecting to board NOAA’s R/V Ronald Brown for a 45-day cruise to collect water column samples along the coast of Africa beginning in Cape Town and heading north to Cape Verde.
The COVID-19 outbreak outside of China was just beginning so there was reason to expect the cruise to proceed as planned. The scientists and crew – 47 people in total – were already in port and prepared to launch the project. The virus was certainly concerning but the scientists were optimistic that the cruise, after a decade of planning, would depart on schedule.
The optimism didn’t last long.
JISAO’s Bonnie Chang, Andrew Collins, and Emily Norton flew to Cape Town roughly a week before the cruise’s scheduled departure date of March 19. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, a stay-at-home order would be issued by the governor on March 23. “We kind of skipped out right before the door closed,” Bonnie said.
The researchers had a few days to play tourist in Cape Town but businesses around the city were already beginning to close. Emily hiked to the top of Table Mountain where the gondola was shut down and restaurants along the normally busy waterfront were nearly empty.
“I went out to dinner and the concierge at our hotel recommended a place but told us we wouldn’t be able to get drinks because they stop serving at 6:00,” Andrew said. “I was like that’s funny, good joke, but it was true.”
RAPIDY CHANGING PLANS
The group received daily emails of optimism from NOAA saying the cruise was still on, but NSF had already canceled their university-operated fleet so, to many people, the writing was on the wall. Bonnie was concerned but hoping they could squeeze out of port before it was too late just like they had done in Seattle. “I thought we’re already here so let’s be on our way before anyone notices what’s happening.”
Emily felt the same way. “We were going to be quarantined on the ship anyway,” she said, “so I hoped somehow they’d just let us do our thing.”
However, by the time departure day arrived news had trickled down that the NOAA fleet had been called home and the cruise was cancelled.
The disappointing news was made worse by the fact that the border to South Africa had been closed and, at that point, there was no plan for how they would get home. “That was a scary period for me,” Emily said. “We still didn’t know if we were going to be able to ride the boat back to the U.S. We didn’t know how we were going to get home.”
“That was a scary period for me…we didn’t know how we were going to get home.”
Fortunately, the researchers soon learned they could leave with the ship, however, six hours before departure they still didn’t know where it would take them. There was a whiteboard with a cruise plan showing the departure time as 2:00 PM and a question mark as the destination.
Eventually a plan became clear. The ship would spend the next week within a three-day transit radius of Cape Town and then, once they knew that no one onboard was sick, would steam its way across the Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia.
At this point the goals of the trip had changed dramatically. “They’re just moving the ship, just driving it back as fast as they could,” Bonnie explained. “We did science but they certainly didn’t intend for us to do science.”
The journey would take three weeks and they knew the boat would never stop for them to take samples but it was an intrepid group of researchers determined to make the most of the situation. “We made up new questions on the fly,” Bonnie said. “Like, okay, now we’ll turn into an air/sea surface team.”
They decided to use the ship’s flow-through seawater system to collect samples around the clock. “Every two hours we’d all convene in the same lab and draw water samples,” Andrew said about their improvised routine. “We took samples for pretty much every measurement group along the entire track the whole way. That’s the data set we came back with.”
“And it’s not nothing,” Bonnie added, “it’s absolutely something. We took the whole suite of samples every two hours, 24 hours a day.”
The silver lining in terms of science, Andrew pointed out, is that they were able to fill a key gap in the BGC Argo Float data. “There’s a nice plot that shows gaps around the world before and after the cruise (opposite page), so we were able to help that project.”
The R/V Ronald Brown has one of the best internet setups in NOAA’s fleet so COVID updates were easy to obtain. They had access to internet and satellite TV with three news networks available (perhaps surprisingly, Fox was the most watched station) and there was also a satellite phone so everyone could stay in touch with their families.
Emily remembers talking to her sister back home. Those conversations were nerve wracking because her sister’s husband is a doctor in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Boston. “He was seeing a lot of very sick COVID-19 patients so it was scary to think that he, and perhaps my sister, could be exposed to the virus.”
Daily emails told them official counts of the total number of COVID cases and total deaths in the U.S. The emails also included updates about implementation of stay at home orders, PPE shortages, and emergency response activities. These official – and stark – notifications, Emily said, were daily gut-wrenching reminders of how bad things were and how fast they were deteriorating back home.
The outbreak was a cloud hanging over the entire trip, it was impossible not to think about it, but they couldn’t dwell on the negative. “We were actually living a regular existence and enjoying each other’s company” Bonnie said. “I had a good time. I’d rather be on the ship than locked up in my apartment.”
Emily remembered an all-hands meeting the week before they arrived in Norfolk where the captain pointed out that all 47 people on board were gathered in one room together which was an anomaly worldwide. “We’re all looking around thinking, yeah, we’re not going to have this for potentially many months once we get home.”
There were a lot of mixed feeling onboard the boat. At first there was some anxiety from not knowing if anyone was infected and people were also worried about their families. “I was quite worried about my parents,” Andrew said, “but once I got home, put eyes on the place, and saw they’re doing things right, I started to think why did we come back here?”
Emily had a similar experience. “When we were on the boat and hearing about the apocalypse happening it felt very scary, just totally out of control,” She said. “Now we’re back home and all we do is stay inside all day.”
There were also some questions about what kind of PPE would be available for everyone once they docked in Norfolk. Eventually the ship’s crew assembled little care packages for everyone with hand sanitizer, gloves, and some spare rags to make into masks. When they reached shore, Andrew, Bonnie, and Emily received a package from PMEL with N-95 masks and other supplies to help them get home safely. They were especially appreciative of the elaborate, hand-sewn masks made by a colleague’s family member. Everyone agreed it was extremely thoughtful and it eased one worry they all had about returning to the new world.
“We were very fortunate to be surrounded by a team of good-natured, positive people,” Emily wrote in an email. “Despite the extenuating circumstances, everyone stayed positive and worked diligently to carry out the mission du jour. These incredible people were the highlight of my trip.”