Members of a CCE-LTER cruise during quarantine. Photo: Laura Lilly

Scripps Oceanography Research Cruises Resume – With Limitations

Scientists deal with substantial procedural changes to ensure safety during COVID-19

The cruises that are a fundamental component of research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego will resume Wednesday with a pair of day cruises and a longer three-day mission off the coast of California.

But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, procedures will be radically different, say leaders of Scripps Oceanography’s ship operations and scientists taking part in the first cruises since March, when the entire U.S. research fleet stood down from service.

Typically the days before a cruise are a frenzy of loading equipment onto vessels and completing last-minute logistics. This time around, cruise scientists and crew need to pack such activities in a week before launch in order to begin a period of self-isolation. 

Laura Lilly is a Scripps biological oceanography student who will be part of a three-day cruise aboard research vessel Sally Ride to waters south of San Clemente Island. The cruise is entirely student-designed and initiated, with fellow biological oceanography student Stephanie Matthews serving as the chief scientist. Their science team wants to find out more about how nutrient availability and organic matter production changes from day to night. It is part of an ongoing study in the California Current Ecosystem Long-Term Ecological Research program that is funded by the National Science Foundation.

In non-pandemic times, Lilly might have been hopping aboard the ship several times for last-minute checks before R/V Sally Ride pushed off from its dock in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood. Instead COVID-19 protocols started two weeks before the cruise when all science party members were swabbed to test for the virus then began strict shelter-in-place measures at home. Then came a period of even more disciplined self-isolation and virus testing in a hotel near the ship six days before the cruise started.

“Each member of the science party is in isolation in their own room for the entire six days, with meal service provided to us,” Lilly said. Researchers underwent a last round of COVID testing and, assuming results were negative, moved onto R/V Sally Ride today and began setting up equipment, she said.

Scripps Oceanography Associate Director and head of ship operations Bruce Appelgate said Lilly’s cruise and two day cruises aboard Scripps research vessel Robert Gordon Sproul will be the first by Scripps since the entire U.S. Academic Research Fleet (ARF) stood down from operations on March 17. Since that date, the entity that coordinates U.S. research cruises, the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), has had to scrap or postpone 101 research cruises including 17 planned on Scripps Oceanography vessels. All missions on ARF vessels must now originate in U.S. ports and the 101 postponed cruises are being re-prioritized so that projects that have a compelling need to go to sea soon are able to do so. For example, instruments that are deployed in the ocean and are nearing the end of their service life need to be recovered.  

Sally Ride
Loading of supplies on board R/V Sally Ride had to begin prior to a period of self-isolation among ship's party members because of COVID-19 protocols. Photo: Stephanie Matthews

“Our pre-embarkation protocol calls for a period of self-isolation by all participants prior to boarding the ship for a multi-day mission,” said Appelgate, who is participating in the first Sally Ride cruise, and is also self-isolating. “Before COVID, that period of time was crazy busy, with scientists and technicians loading instruments and equipment aboard the ship and mobilizing for sea. Post-COVID, all that work has to be done in advance, or by others. This requires more time and resources, and results in inefficiency relative to the well-honed process that existed before.”

Onboard the ship, researchers will continue to practice social distancing. The scientific party on Lilly’s cruise is limited to 17 scientists. Scientists will wear masks at all times outside of staterooms, work closely with sampling teams of no more than five, and will eat meals in rotations to limit occupancy  in the ship’s galley, she said.

When Lilly finishes the Long-Term Ecological Research cruise, she will prepare for another 16-day summer cruise on R/V Sally Ride, which will follow the CCE cruise. This will be a voyage to continue the California Cooperative Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) cruise series that has taken place since 1949 in part to monitor threats to California’s seafood supply.

The drill between outings will be similar. Lilly will quarantine on the ship for the entire nine-day period at the dock. The isolation will be a new experience to get used to. Many of the activities that make research cruises fun like movie time or poker in the ship’s lounge will be absent on these cruises but Lilly sees it as part of the mission.

“One of my favorite sailing expressions is ‘Ship, Shipmate, Self,’ and I think that saying rings truer now than ever,” Lilly said. “At sea, we are used to having each others' backs, whether reminding our shipmates to put on hard hats and life vests or telling them to move away from dangerous equipment overhead. Only if we put our collective ship's health first can we safely complete our science and the sailing necessary to do it.”

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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