COVID-19 protocols implemented for vessels going to remote weather stations

Research vessel SA Agulhas II. Credit: STX Europe

Deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, the meteorological stations on Gough Island and Marion Island (2,600 km and 1,900 km southwest of Cape Town, respectively) form a critical link in the weather monitoring and forecasting systems for ships to safely navigate the often treacherous South African coast.

The islands are serviced by the icebreaker and polar research vessel, SA Agulhas II, which departed Cape Town on 17 September 2020 on its relief voyage to transport scientists and supplies to the weather stations. The vessel, owned by the South African Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries (DEFF), also services the South African National Antarctic Expedition (SANAE) base at Vesleskarvet in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.

Given the remote location and the current global COVID-19 pandemic, medevacing a critically ill patient would be extremely difficult. Therefore, the department had to adjust its schedule and procedures to accommodate a strict quarantine protocol and COVID-19 testing process before departure, as well as a strict adherence to sanitisation procedures during the loading of the vessel, DEFF said in a statement.

In addition, the lockdown requirements and quarantine procedures require a significantly reduced team for the relief voyage, which will focus on the logistical functions necessary to keep the bases operational. Under normal circumstances, the team comprises technical crew, scientists from various tertiary institutions and research projects, and medics of which 10 members are stationed on Gough Island, and seven each on Marion Island and at SANAE.

All team members were isolated for 10 days before departure (between 2 September and 12 September 2020) at a South African Department of health-approved quarantine venue. At the end of the quarantine period, they were transferred from the site directly to the ship.

There was a five-day waiting period before the departure to ensure that none of the team members developed symptoms.