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COVID-19 Impacts Cruises and Cruise Preparations

“Can someone in quarantine walk their dog?” “Does the whole family have to quarantine or only the person about to board the ship?” “Is isolating in a cabin in the woods for two weeks prior to boarding a real quarantine solution?

These are the type of questions the OOI teams planning upcoming operation and management (O&M) cruises to service the OOI Arrays are striving to answer. Planners are also working closely with UNOLS (University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System), which is establishing the requirements for COVID prevention and mitigation aboard US research ships.

The R/V Thomas G. Thompson as it returned to port on 8 May 2020 after 823 days at sea. Credit: James Tilley, University of Washington, Applied Physics Laboratory

“Almost everyone on our staff has either a kid, a dog, or both, which complicates quarantine issues,” explained Jonathan Fram, program manager for the Coastal Endurance Array and chief scientist on this summer’s scheduled Endurance Array cruise. “Given that communications have changed during the pandemic, coming to agreement on what constitutes a safe quarantine is more difficult than under normal circumstances, and there are many players involved—the university, UNOLS, the Governor of Oregon, and others.” The quarantine puzzle is one of many pieces that need to be sorted before the Endurance Array team can leave Newport Oregon in early July for their 16-day cruise aboard the R/V Thomas G.Thompson.

Timing is even more critical for the Pioneer Array, which is the first of the rescheduled summer O&M cruises. Pioneer 14 is set to leave from Woods Hole, MA aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong for an eleven-day cruise on 7 June to service the profiler moorings in the Array. Intensive planning, assessment, and re-planning have been underway since mid-March. Reducing the scope of the operation to focus just on the profiler moorings was among many accommodations that had to be made to ensure that the cruise would be sufficiently low risk.

“The appropriate length and circumstances involved in quarantining is only one of a long list of new requirements for OOI cruises to ensure the health and safety of members of the scientific party and crew due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Derek Buffitt, program manager for the Coastal Global Scale Node (CGSN) arrays, which includes the Pioneer, Station Papa,  and Irminger Sea Arrays. “Figuring out when and how to conduct testing, how to maintain social distancing while aboard vessels, what type of protective gear is needed and how to dispose of it properly are some of the issues we have had to work through to be able to head back out to sea.”

Like Fram and Buffitt, Brian Ittig, program manager of the Regional Cabled Array (RCA), is working with the RCA team to sort through many of the same considerations.The RCA cruise is currently planned to mobilize 20 July in Newport Oregon and return there on 30 August for a 41 -day cruise aboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, embarking after the Endurance team returns. The team is working in coordination with the University of Washington (UW), which has allowed access to critical labs and facilities, under highly restricted conditions, to continue to ready infrastructure for deployment this summer. Personnel safety is a priority and all activities are conducted under restricted conditions with minimum personnel using appropriate combinations of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment.

The RCA team is also in frequent communications with the UW Manager of Marine Operations, and the R/V Thomas G. Thompson and ROV Jason teams to determine requirements for safe operations. Planning for scientific and engineering staffing and onboard arrangements, including berthing and lab procedures, and potential deployment scenarios are under discussion. “It is anticipated that this years’ cruise will be a very different sea-going experience,” said Ittig.

R/V Neil Armstrong at Curtis Wharf in Anacortes, WA the day before she sails. Photo by Ken Kostel, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

COVID-19 has required implementation of new and novel procedures in cruise preparations on land, as well. To ensure that the buildout and testing of equipment before it is deployed can take place with social distancing, many approaches have been implemented. These range from requiring staff to work in alternate shifts, to making makeshift workrooms in home settings.

“The thing that has most amazed me during this difficult time of adjustment is how adaptable our staff has been and how multi-talented and creative they are. One bright side of this pandemic is how our team has really come together to find workable solutions and new ways to tackle issues and get the work done,” added CGSN’s Buffitt.

While the Pioneer, Endurance, and RCA teams will head offshore to provide needed array servicing this summer, other planned O&M cruises have either been delayed or canceled.  The Coastal Endurance spring cruise was canceled as a result of an operational pause directed by UNOLS, which coordinates schedules for university-operated ships. The Station Papa summer cruise was canceled in mid-May by CGSN following a review of logistical and safety issues.

The Irminger Sea Array O&M cruise is scheduled for August, leaving and returning from Woods Hole, MA. Because of an eight-day transit to and from the array, it presents additional contingency planning. “WHOI Marine Operations has had to identify ports with nearby hospitals where we could transport a cruise participant in the unlikely scenario someone would come down with COVID-19 while at sea,” said Buffitt, charged with Irminger planning.  “While unlikely this may occur, the health and safety of our team is paramount so we have to have a plan in place, just in case.”

Added Fram, “The challenges presented by COVID-19 may change the way we go to sea for a while, but we are pleased to be able to get to the Endurance Array this summer.  We can keep it in good working order so it can continue to provide ocean data so vital to our understanding of ocean processes and changing conditions.”

The Ocean Observatories Initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation.







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