After weeks at sea, URI’s research ship returned to a different world

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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — URI’s Research Vessel Endeavor started its mission just before COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. The researchers and crew found themselves in true isolation.

“We were in a safe bubble,” URI researcher Rainer Lohmann said.

Lohmann left from Barbados in late February to conduct research across the Atlantic. He and the others aboard the ship were aware of the coronavirus.

“It felt so far away … seemed such a topic of no concern to the US,” he said.

Lohmann was even asked about his yellow fever vaccination since he would be going close to Africa.

“That was on the mind of the people at the time — yellow fever — nobody was worried about COVID,” Lohmann added.

“… the world we left was falling apart”

For three weeks, the researchers gathered sediment cores from the ocean floor. They were looking to see if carbon in those cores were from African wildfires, along with how much and how it got there. According to Lohmann, the sources and amount of carbon are linked to climate change.

Endeavor scientists and crew peer overboard as they await the retrieval of an oceanographic instrument from the seafloor. Courtesy: Rainer Lohmann/URI

The Endeavor was in true isolation on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Other than an occasional passing tanker, all they would see is water from horizon to horizon.

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The bow of the R/V Endeavor (WPRI)

“We followed the news with more and more disbelief that the world we left was falling apart,” Lohmann recalled.

Lohmann said they were hearing about the hoarding of toilet paper, cleaning products and pasta. It wasn’t until they heard classes at URI and Harvard were being canceled that they knew the impacts were becoming widespread.

When the mission was completed, the crew was supposed to fly out of Portugal but travel restrictions were being put in place.

 “So you had to make up your mind — either you try and get off and get a flight, you might get stuck, but you were not allowed to get back on the ship,” Lohmann said.

Revisit T.J. Del Santo’s time on the R/V Endeavor in 2018 »

A cruise back to Narragansett would take almost exactly 14 days, which would have satisfied their quarantine period, so no one got off the ship. They refueled in Cape Verde, had provisions delivered and set off for Rhode Island.

“There was a lot more disinfectant being used,” Lohmann said. “Things were cleaned more frequently.”

During the trip back across the Atlantic, the Endeavor’s officers took everyone’s temperatures daily and logged them so their time on the ship would serve as their quarantine. They spent the last day off Block Island. No one got COVID-19 or yellow fever.

 URI Oceanography Professor Rainer Lohmann (left) relaxes at the rail of the Endeavor with Harvard graduate student Ben Geyman and URI graduate student Sam Katz. Courtesy: Rainer Lohmann/URI

“Funny, surreal experience, and we all realized we were never going to forget this one,” Lohmann added.

Lohmann said when they got back, they were more worried about people on land being sick because everyone on the ship had been so isolated.

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