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The R/V Sally Ride headed back to sea after the end of a moratorium on U.S. cruises. 

Bruce Applegate

U.S. research cruises resume, gingerly

Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

U.S. research vessels are taking to the sea again after being docked since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the confined space of a ship could favor the spread of the novel coronavirus, the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), which manages the U.S. academic fleet’s 20 research vessels, has spent the past 4 months developing procedures to reduce the risk. And so, on 1 July, UNOLS allowed nonessential cruises to resume.

It is not business as usual. Many cruises have already been canceled, research schedules have been disrupted, and research cruises look very different from those before the pandemic, with crews and research scaled back. 

Only 10 low-risk, high-priority missions were permitted to launch during the stand-down, UNOLS Executive Secretary Doug Russell says. The University of Alaska Fairbanks’s R/V Sikuliaq, for example, collected water and plankton samples in the northern Gulf of Alaska from a long-term ecological research (LTER) site to maintain the continuity of its 22-year record of ecological data. 

Of 256 cruises scheduled from March to December, about half have already been pushed back or canceled. Some long cruises with large crews on in-demand ships have not be rescheduled. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has had to torpedo one such mission, intended to study how carbon sequestered by organisms near the ocean surface sinks hundreds of meters to the mesopelagic region, also known as the twilight zone. And a joint mission to deploy seismic equipment around the Cascadia subduction zone, the longest fault lines in the world, has been tabled until 2021, at the earliest.

Postponing, when possible, can cause logistical problems. Anela Choy, a biological oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, had planned an expedition to study mesopelagic food webs off the coast of California. Choy says she is lucky that her April mission could be rescheduled for August. However, it included trawls, divers, and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to collect samples and photograph delicate, poorly understood creatures called siphonophores below diving depths. But the divers and the ROV won’t be available in August, and her mission will likely have to rely exclusively on trawls to collect samples. 

To lessen the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, research crews have been scaled back and work in small groups.

Bruce Applegate

Meanwhile, oceanographic institutions made the most of the 4-month hiatus. Woods Hole was able to bump up the midlife overhaul of the R/V Atlantis by several weeks. Scripps has completed more crew training since March than it has in years, says Associate Director for Ship Operations Bruce Applegate. “If these guys see another Zoom training course, they’re going to throw their monitors at me.”

Under UNOLS’s new rules, universities now must assess the risks of cruises based on factors such as homeport infection rates and plans for coping with shipboard outbreaks. Crew numbers—especially older, at-risk crew—should be kept to a minimum. Ships can only use U.S. ports. Institutions must isolate crews, test them twice for the virus before departure, and maintain social distancing aboard ships. Longer, higher-risk cruises should implement the strictest quarantine procedures—up to 14 days of extra isolation before embarking, which may not be an option for scientists with families.

The safety precautions are taking a toll on research. A 3-day cruise on Scripps’s R/V Sally Ride that departed the very day the moratorium ended, for example, was significantly scaled back. The research crew was cut from more than two dozen to 17. Some collaborators were sidelined because they couldn’t enter their shuttered university labs to prep equipment. On board, scientists worked in smaller teams and stayed away from other groups, conducting four experiments a day, rather than six.

 Stephanie Matthews, a Scripps graduate student who participated in the most recent cruise of the R/V Sally Ride, understands the rationale. “As important as the science is, people are really important too,” she says.