Still waiting for my ships to sail… my journey back to the ocean

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March 18, 2022 by Dr. G

For the past two years, the pandemic has interrupted and disrupted the professional and personal goals of many of us. So many of my friends and colleagues knew I was going on two ocean expeditions in 2020, and they have been asking what is going on, if I’ve been out to sea yet, etc. I thought I would write up a short blog post to explain this journey-within-a-journey – but I didn’t expect it to be almost a six-page story! For those that are interested, buckle up for the ride and read on… this is my story up until March 18, 2022.

Person in a survival suit on a ship on the water
Dr. G on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, 2014

I thought I had everything worked out perfectly. Part of why I became a marine geologist is because of my love of the ocean – including, being out on the ocean. The last time I was on a ship was during my last sabbatical in 2014, when I joined a hydrographic survey on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson. I knew I was eligible for a sabbatical again in the 2020-2021 academic year, so I applied to see which ocean experience(s) I could be a part of and reconnect with the excitement of being in the field.

In November 2019, I submitted my application to sail again with the NOAA Teacher at Sea (TAS) program. That same month, I applied to be an Onboard Outreach Officer for an International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) expedition on JOIDES Resolution (JR). Then, the waiting period to hear back about my applications began…

So I start teaching my face-to-face, on-campus classes in spring semester 2020 on January 13. On January 27, 2020, I was notified that I was a finalist to sail with NOAA again (pending medical clearance). It looked like I would be heading out to sea, at least once, during my sabbatical! But first, I had to finish the remainder of the spring semester.

There’s something going around…

At the end of February, I headed to San Diego to attend the Ocean Sciences Meeting. It was a conference that had hand sanitizers at the entrance to every doorway in the convention center. In her plenary address, the CEO of AGU encouraged us to greet each other in the hallways and session rooms with elbow bumps. I followed these safe procedures, but I didn’t think anything more of coronovirus when I returned to campus to continue my normal teaching routine. The first half of my spring semester wrapped up not long after Ocean Sciences, with March 5 as the last day of teaching before spring break. That same day, I received news from IODP that I was a finalist for an Outreach Officer position on the JR and they would like to schedule an interview with me. So far, my spring break is off to an excellent start!

Then, things started happening very rapidly.

Change of plans

On March 9, I received the following email:

“Based on the current nationwide spread of COVID-19 and the constantly changing environment, it is with disappointment that I have to inform you we are canceling the 2020 NOAA Teacher at Sea season.”

Although I was crushed over NOAA, things picked up with IODP. I was contacted for an interview held Monday, March 16, and I was accepted into their program on April 20.

“The JOIDES Resolution Science Operator (JRSO) is pleased to invite your participation as an Outreach Officer on the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) South Atlantic Transect Expedition 390. Expedition 390 will be implemented as a single science program together with Expedition 393 during two cruises of the JOIDES Resolution in 2020 and 2021.”


5 October 2020 Expedition begins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

5 December 2020 Expedition ends in Cape Town, South Africa

As the semester ended, with rapidly escalating COVID conditions, I needed to let my administrators know if I was going to remain on sabbatical for the year, or postpone the sabbatical and come back to teach in the fall. I decided to remain on sabbatical – I mean, we all thought the end of the pandemic was just around the corner, right? And, after all, I was going to be on JOIDES Resolution in the fall semester!

Navigating the sea of medical clearances

I started the medical clearances needed for IODP in May 2020 – bloodwork, immunizations, etc. – all during a pandemic. Doctors didn’t want to see patients in their office unless it was a critical situation, but I needed to meet in person to get an 18-page medical packet approved and signed. And then an additional medical form for my doctor to complete arrived on June 19, “intended to evaluate your risk of experiencing a severe covid19 illness.”

I wish I had kept track of all the appointments I needed. For example, I’ve known my entire life my blood type is O+, yet I had no medically-confirmed blood test on record that showed this (my Mom’s notation in my baby photo album was not acceptable, to her disappointment!).

Navigating this challenge of getting in-person appointments and testing when there was nothing wrong with me was incredibly hard logistically, and then there was the emotional roller coaster that started with my status for sailing.

Adjustments needed

Not long after the COVID medical clearance form arrived, IODP sent this email on June 25, with the first of many adjustments to our original sailing plans:

“Most relevantly and unfortunately, these plans require sailing a smaller number of shipboard scientists to better allow for social distancing and provide space for isolating anyone who becomes ill.  With a smaller science (and technician team), we won’t be able to do all the great science that usually takes place aboard the JR during regular operations. This will necessitate longer and more intensive shore-based core description activities, although the details of those are still to be worked out.”

A change of port was announced for Expedition 390 via email on June 26:

“One brief update: our starting port will change from Rio de Jainero, Brazil, to Montevideo, Uruguay, in light of the current COVID-19 outbreaks in Brazil. We are still currently scheduled to end in Cape Town, South Africa, pending the lifting of travel restrictions.”

And the adjustments to not just where but who would sail on Expedition 390 continued coming via IODP email, first on July 8:

“Finally, we will inform individuals within the next few days regarding who will be a shipboard participant and who will be shore-based. We know that not being able to sail will be profoundly disappointing, but we will rely on your engagement and participation in other ways…”

And then this email communication to myself and the other Outreach Officer selected to sail on Expedition 390, arriving on July 9 (which happens to be my birthday):

“Following discussions with the co-chiefs, we have decided that due to the drastic reduction in shipboard scientists, we are not able to offer shipboard positions to the outreach officers.”

It’s amazing how quickly I went from hopes of going to sea twice in 2020, to not-at-all.

But there was a little bit of light at the end of this tunnel, from an IODP email on September 4:

“I write with positive news about Expeditions 390 & 393. The two expeditions have been rescheduled for 7 April – 7 June 2022 and 7 June – 7 August 2022.”

And knowing that NOAA was still keeping me as a finalist for a future research cruise meant that I would still be heading out to sea – just not during the timeline of my sabbatical master plan. It was a long delay, but so many other expeditions were postponed before mine, and the pandemic was still creating a challenging situation to safely be at sea, that surely we would all be in the clear by 2022 – right?

The sabbatical begins (finally!)

My sabbatical officially began July 1, 2020. That summer and fall I spent on land. I received an email from NOAA on January 22, 2021:

“The 2021 research cruise season is currently under development, and at this time, NOAA’s COVID-19 safety protocols involve placing only essential personnel on the cruises. It will likely be many months before we know when or whether we can sail any of you this year. It is highly unlikely, even if vaccinated, that we will be able to sail teachers this year. Therefore, we are letting you know now that we are holding a finalist spot for you in 2022.”

Ugh. Here we go again – another year, another postponement.

Fast-forward through all of 2021, through the rest of my official sabbatical period, and my plan to head out to sea did not result in getting on the water. Instead, I spent the time advancing my science storytelling through quilting work (see blog post).

IODP did host an onsite training workshop at its facilities at Texas A&M University in August 2021. This was the first flight I had taken science the Ocean Sciences Meeting in February 2020. I packed so many masks, so much hand sanitizer – but also packed my enthusiasm for meeting the other Outreach Education Officers that would be sailing on the JR for four different expeditions (see blogs posts about JR training (forthcoming) and the Gulf Coast Core Repository).

Dr. G at IODP, home of the Gulf Coast Core Repository, on the campus of Texas A&M (August 2021)

In Fall 2021 I’m back teaching again – this time, in a fully asynchronous online “classroom”. The NOAA TAS program contacted me, as they wanted to restart their program in 2022. As I had experience sailing on a NOAA ship, they wanted to know if I would be willing to be the first teacher to kick off their field season.

Would I? I couldn’t say yes quick enough! I was so fortunate that since I had updated my medical clearance for IODP in Fall 2021, it was easy enough to get my new doctor to just sign the necessary forms, since my previous one retired during this pandemic time. Fortunately, my new Primary Care Physician was eager and enthusiastic to hear all about my upcoming ocean adventures and was willing to do whatever it took to ensure I had the clearances I needed (phew!).

Heading out with NOAA (or am I?)

I was assigned to join NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson on Kodiak Island, Alaska, for an acoustic trawl fisheries survey. Because of the pandemic protocols, this wasn’t a typical preparation and departure for an at-sea adventure. I started with a 10-day RCP (reduced contact period) at home with a daily health questionnaire for self-monitoring any COVID symptoms, and a PCR test required 72 hours before my two-day flight to Alaska.

For those that are curious, during the RCP I was required to:

  • Avoid restaurants (quick entrance for takeout okay), bars, and other crowded establishments
  • Limit time indoors when outside of the home to <15 minutes if possible, unless it’s a small indoor gathering with masked, vaccinated people per NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center protocols
  • Mask indoors at all times outside the home
  • Mask outdoors if 6’ distance cannot be maintained
  • Avoid unvaccinated people or those with high-risk contacts (unless unvaccinated people are known to you and are unable to be vaccinated due to age or health considerations)

The ship had a weather delay trying to transit from Washington to Alaska, but that didn’t interrupt my flying schedule. But delay #1 should have been a sign…

Dr. G standing in front of NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson in Kodiak, Alaska (Feb. 2022)

Upon arrival in Kodiak Island, I was still under reduced contact requirements. I was in a hotel for five days (which fortunately had a refrigerator and microwave for storing food and reheating leftovers), with a required PCR test for all scientists and crew the day before boarding the ship. Because of a COVID issue, our departure was delayed for another five days. You would think it would be easy to extend a hotel reservation for five more days in Alaska in February… but no! I ended up switching between three different hotels during that period, and not all hotels had a room microwave, were in walking distance to food for take-out, or even had a functioning heater! But after five days, we all reported for another PCR test, and we were all cleared to sail. We were to check out of the hotel at 7AM and head over to the ship for a 9:30AM departure on Sunday, February 13.

It’s finally time to board the ship and head out to sea! I was standing at the front desk of the hotel. I had literally just finished checking out and turned in my room key. The Chief Scientist comes through the lobby to tell us to not leave our rooms, as Oscar Dyson’s CO (Commanding Officer) reported there was a mechanical/electrical issue with the ship. I was able to check back in, and wait again in the room.

Kodiak Island, Alaska – powered 100% by renewable energy (wind/hydro). This is one of the beautiful views I was able to take in when I braved walking across the ice!

At the end of the day, it was determined that the engine repair would not be a quick fix, and as we had lost too much time on the water due to weather/COVID issues/the ship, we were told to change our flights and leave Alaska. On Valentine’s Day, we all started our journeys back home without ever getting out to sea.

Some people have said to me they would have enjoyed having weeks in a hotel with nothing to do. But this experience was far from a vacation. This was a group of scientists that had been waiting for far too long to get out in the field. And we couldn’t socialize with each other indoors, eat out together, etc. There was one rental car we shared for emergency trips to the grocery store or for any other field-related items. I tried to get outside for short walks as much as possible, but the temperatures were below freezing more days than they were above freezing, with so much ice covering sidewalks and roads. This was three-and-a-half weeks of reduced contact and travel, to only be delayed by weather, COVID, and mechanical issues. You expected any of these to impact fieldwork, but all three at once – ouch. This one hurt, to travel to Alaska and to have nothing to show for it. What might have been an enjoyable time for some was emotionally gut-wrenching and frustrating for myself and I know for some of the other scientists.

The journey continues…

Why do I share this narrative with this detail? For some scientists, these delays are a significant impact on their careers. But there’s a bigger story here – one where areas of scientific discovery and data collection from field-based oceanographic research have been delayed for a significant period. Certainly, in geologic time, the postponement of these research expeditions is less than a blink of the eye. But how long can we wait to carry out these surveys to ensure we maintain sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea? We know that warming temperatures are impacting our higher latitudes faster than other regions of the globe, and the survey data is necessary to keep the pollock population healthy in numbers and to follow their geographic distribution (see one article from NOAA on this very topic).

I leave on March 31 to begin my next two-day journey to a ship – but this time, to Cape Town, South Africa, to join JOIDES Resolution. Just as with the Oscar Dyson, I need to be in a reduced contact period at home for seven days, with a negative PCR test 72 hours before departure before I can fly out. Once I arrive in Cape Town, it is a direct shuttle from the airport to the hotel, where everyone joining the ship will be in hotel quarantine for another seven days. We won’t be allowed to leave our rooms – all food must be delivered, and COVID tests will be done door-to-door. We’ll join the ship and continue to maintain a distance from each other and wear masks for another twelve days. Pending results of COVID tests on the ship, we will finally be able to remove our masks. After two months on the water on the JR, I will hopefully be able to join a NOAA ship (maybe a pollock survey again?) later this year or in the future.

Heading out to sea is never easy, as there are so many logistics to coordinate in our professional and personal lives. For myself, what started with applications to sail in 2019 and original sailing dates in 2020 are now (hopefully) resulting in time at sea – in 2022. There’s no way to catch up on all the missed data collection and time on the water. What discoveries are not being made? Which data are not being collected to support sustainable practices, the drafting of new ocean policies, the protection of marine cultural resources, etc.? My heart aches for the research not happening and the protection plans for our ocean communities that are not getting updated. As we navigate this new pandemic environment, may we find safe and productive ways to further ocean research and discoveries to sustain the physical and natural systems of our ocean.

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