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BLOG: Cruise begins with COVID restrictions

The science team from SAMS arrive in Southampton, where they boarded the RRS Discovery
The science team from SAMS arrive in Southampton, where they boarded the RRS Discovery

Dr Kristin Burmeister is an oceanographer on the scientific cruise DY120, headed for the North Atlantic to undertake crucial data monitoring and retrieval work. But this cruise on board the RRS Discovery is very different to every other that has gone before, because of COVID-19. DY120 is only the second scientific cruise to leave the UK since lockdown in March and only half the original science team have been allowed on board. In the first of a series of blogs recording this unique experience, Dr Burmeister shares her experience of joining the ship.


Oban bus station on a Monday morning at 5:30am. Most of the town is still asleep.

A big bus is waiting for its passengers to board. Some of us needed to get on the road as early as 4:40 am to catch the bus that will bring us all to our destination, the research vessel RRS Discovery in the harbour of Southampton. This is it, the start of the research cruise DY120.

It awakes some kind of school trip feeling in me. What is different to the ordinary school trip? No teacher is waiting to coordinate a crowed of school kids, no kid is boarding the bus. Instead the bus is picking up scientists from SAMS. The biggest difference, which is also very new to us, we are not many, only six all together, sitting at minimum two metres apart from each other, our faces hidden away behind masks.

While this would have been kind of odd for somebody who read this text just a year ago, in late 2020 this is an almost everyday scenario since the world had been hidden by the COVID-19 pandemic. As for everything else in the world, well known routines and occasional last-minute changes are mixed with new COVID-19 precaution guidelines and an extra portion of uncertainties and unknowns. As my colleague Clare summarised it very nicely, this is not an ordinary cruise with a plan A and a back-up plan B, but with many back up plans B, C, D, E…

The mission of the cruise however stays the same as prior to the pandemic: retrieve equipment in the North Atlantic that has been collecting samples and data over the last two years and install new instruments to continue the measurement time series. Continuous observational time series are of inestimable value for us scientist as they are crucial to understand, monitor and predict climate change and its consequences.

The data collected on this cruise are used to monitor the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a large system of ocean currents that spans the entire Atlantic. Its upper part transports warm water towards the north and its lower part, deep below the ocean surface, is transporting cold water towards the south. The AMOC plays an important role in mixing the world’s ocean and distributing heat across the planet and therefore has an influence on the weather and climate. Scientist have found that the AMOC is slowing down and less heat is transported towards the north, which has huge potential impacts for us in the UK. We are concerned about a continuous slow down of the AMOC and its consequences for our climate, which is why our cruise has high priority status and is only the second UK scientific cruise since lockdown.

Just one month before the cruise we finally knew how many scientists and technicians would be allowed onboard: seven each. The scientific crew is only half its normal size. That demands flexibility in planning the cruise schedule. Before the cruise every participant needed to complete a COVID test. Additional scientists and technicians needed to prepare for the cruise just in case some of the cruise participants were tested positive for COVID. When we finally arrived in the harbour of Southampton, we were welcomed by Valeria, the purser of RRS Discovery, together with the seventh scientist from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton. A new situation for everyone: The scientific crew is isolated from the rest of the crew during the first days onboard. When a final COVID test that is taken onboard is negative, we are allowed to start our actual work.

Although everybody is trying their best to make the situation as comfortable as possible, the air is full of tension and the nervousness. All that we as scientific crew can do is to follow the isolation guidelines and wait. Wednesday morning, 10am. The test results arrived: all negative. A big relief is going through all of us. Although we need to socially-distance for altogether 14 days, we can start to unload and install our equipment. Our cruise DY120 finally begins.

The DY120 cruise is supporting the work of the CLASS and UK-OSNAP research projects.