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No One Said This Was Going To Be Easy Part 1

November 29, 2021

Part 1: The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round…until they don’t.

Antarctic Division staff standing by airplane getting ready to depart for Chile. Campers getting ready to board their flight in Oakland. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Sometimes I go back and read my old blog posts for inspiration. I laughed out loud recently when I re-read this one about how many obstacles we had to overcome during our 2019/20 field season. That field season was duck soup compared to this one, and this one hasn’t even technically started.

Along with our glider program, we also have a land-based field program. Our field camp personnel spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months each year living in remote camps on the South Shetland Islands while they study seals and seabirds. Personnel are dropped off at the camps with everything they need to survive until they’re picked up at the end of the season. With 9,000 miles separating our lab from our field camps, making sure that all our field gear gets to where it needs to be for the camps to open on time is our biggest challenge. Usually, getting our personnel to where they need to be on time is much easier.

Usually. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been only a small number of COVID-19 cases in Antarctica. Many countries have field stations in Antarctica and send scientists there each year. These national science programs are committed to keeping COVID-19 out of Antarctica, which means many of them have established new safety protocols for scientists entering Antarctic territory. Our program partners with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to open and close our field camps during their research cruises. Therefore, our field personnel—“the campers”—are closely following the NSF’s travel protocol, which is taking them on a somewhat indirect route to Antarctica. 

Step one: San Diego to San Francisco

To go south, first you have to go north. On October 19th, the campers departed San Diego for San Francisco for four days of quarantine in a hotel with other scientists from around the country going on the same cruise. They were confined to individual rooms, but were allowed outside for an hour each morning and evening to get exercise by walking socially-distanced laps around the hotel. Three meals per day were delivered to their rooms. One camper described the experience as entering into a courteous captivity where they could walk miles of small circles, like hamsters on a wheel. 

Step one-and-a-half: San Francisco to…San Francisco

The campers were scheduled to depart for Punta Arenas, Chile on October 23rd, aboard a flight reserved for just the science party. But, on October 21st, they learned of a scheduling conflict at their hotel in Chile. Their departure was delayed for a day. 

So, on October 24th, they and the rest of the science party boarded two buses at their hotel and headed to the Oakland Airport. Then, later on October 24th, they all boarded the same two buses at the Oakland Airport and headed back to the hotel. A problem with the airline’s permits prevented them from taking off.

Step two: San Francisco to Punta Arenas! For real this time!

Permit issue resolved! On October 25th, two buses were sent to the hotel to pick everyone up to take them to the Oakland Airport (again). However, only one bus made it to the hotel, as the other bus broke down along the way. Half of the science party boarded the bus, while the other half waited for a van that was hired to replace the busted bus. When the van arrived, it didn’t have enough seats for everyone. So, in the end, one bus, one van, and one Uber delivered everyone to the airport in time for their flight.

Step three: Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, Chile

The campers finally arrived in Punta Arenas after being on the plane for 21 straight hours. The flight from the U.S. to Punta Arenas is usually broken up by multiple stops, but because this flight was just for the science party, it stopped only once in Texas to refuel. No one was allowed off the plane to maintain the quarantine bubble. 

In Punta Arenas, the campers collected their luggage, only to be herded onto another bus for a three-hour ride north (north again?!) to Puerto Natales. They completed a 15-day quarantine there and were supposed to be able to freely roam about the hotel, as they were the only guests and the hotel staff were quarantining with them. However, for unknown reasons, they were also confined to their rooms in Puerto Natales, with the ability to go outside briefly every day during the second week. 

Finally, on November 10th–22 days after entering quarantine in San Francisco–everyone was bussed to the port in Punta Arenas (finally south!) and allowed to move onto the ship. That was a relief, but it didn’t mark the end of our field season struggles.

As it stands now, the campers are on the ship. But our field gear is nowhere in sight. 

Image
two staff on large orange and yellow ship ready to deploy
Campers finally on the ship at the Punta Arenas port. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
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