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Return to Sea in the COVID-19 era

The R/V Neil Armstrong returned to its home port in Woods Hole, MA, on 16 June 2020, having completed a successful 10-day mission to service the Pioneer Array, 75 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Its crew and nine-member science party from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution proved that it is possible to work onboard while adhering to strict precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The expedition was the first science mission to have departed Woods Hole, MA following a “pause” in research expeditions imposed in March by UNOLS (University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System). UNOLS coordinates the U.S. academic research fleet ship schedules and has established guidelines for COVID prevention and mitigation aboard these ships.

“The preparation was arduous and comprehensive” said Al Plueddemann, Chief Scientist for the Pioneer Array expedition. “That preparation paid off with a cruise that completed everything we set out to do.” Plueddemann led the scientific team in a partial “turn” of the moored array, which means that equipment that had been deployed was recovered for refurbishment, and replaced with equipment that could undergo the rigors of being at sea, collecting, and recording data for the next six months.  Over the 10 days, the team deployed five Coastal Profiler Moorings (CPMs) and recovered seven CPMs. In addition to the mooring turns, the expedition included many CTD casts (measuring Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) in the vicinity of the Pioneer Array, and the collection of shipboard meteorological and oceanographic data, both while on station next to the moorings, and while underway along specific track lines.

On top of what would be accomplished under normal operating conditions, the team was able to provide data in real-time to scientists who would normally be onboard, but whose participation was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. Through an innovative use of data telemetry from the ship, WHOI’s Shipboard Scientific Services Group made it possible for members of the Northeast U.S. Shelf Long-Term Ecological Research (NES-LTER) team to receive data and images of phytoplankton and microzooplankton in near-real-time along the cruise track. The data were collected by Imaging FlowCytobots (IFCBs), which provide long term, high-resolution measurements of phytoplankton abundance and their cell properties.

“Our ability to conduct a near-normal cruise in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to the commitment to preparation from UNOLS and WHOI, and a reflection of the strong team within OOI and on the Armstrong” said Plueddemann. “We were all excited to get back to sea”.

The following is a collection of images from this successful mission.

After 14 days of quarantine, a nine-person science team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution boarded the R/V Neil Armstrong on 5 June 2020 to prepare for a 10-day expedition to service the Pioneer Array, 75 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard in the Atlantic Ocean.The expedition was the first science mission to depart Woods Hole, MA, with new COVID-19 precautions in place. Photo: © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rebecca Travis 

Chief Scientist of the Pioneer 14 Expedition, Al Pluedemann, models the uniform de rigueur —mandatory mask-wearing for the duration of the 10-day cruise. It was one of many stringent precautions taken to address the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Darlene Trew Crist

WHOI technicians (from left) Dan Bogorff, Nico Llanos, Chris Basque and Eric Hutt work to ensure that all equipment is in place as they prepare to head to the Pioneer Array. Photo: © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rebecca Travis

WHOI technician Chris Basque (far left) runs the deck while Bos’n Pete Liarikos and WHOI technician Nico Llanos (behind the buoy) assist in deploying the OSPM profiling mooring at Pioneer Array. Photo: © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rebecca Travis

While this may look like Snuffleupagus on the back deck of the R/V Neil Armstrong, it is actually a profiler buoyancy sphere recovered on the Pioneer 14 cruise. The sphere is covered with marine growth after spending eight months in the water. Photo: © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rebecca Travis

The Northeast U.S. Shelf Long-Term Ecological Research (NES-LTER) team, whose members would have been onboard under normal circumstances, remained onshore due to COVID-19 restrictions. But through an innovative use of data telemetry, Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Shipboard Scientific Services Group made it possible for the NES-LTER team to receive data and images of phytoplankton and microzooplankton in near-real-time along the cruise track. Photo: NES-LTER

One of the rewards of working at sea is the peacefulness and beauty at the end of a long day aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong. Here the Pioneer 14 team got its just rewards as they lowered a CTD rosette frame into the Atlantic at sunset. Photo: © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution,  Rebecca Travis 

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