UAF research vessel Sikuliaq gets exemption to National Science Foundation’s ban on sailings

The research vessel Sikuliaq will work in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas through November. (Photo by Emily Russell, KNOM - Nome)
The research vessel Sikuliaq will work in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas through November. (Emily Russell/KNOM)

The University of Alaska operated research vessel Sikuliaq is headed out on a cruise on May 4 to collect water and plankton samples in the northern Gulf of Alaska, as part of a long-running ecological survey.

According to the university, it’s the first time a National Science Foundation academic research ship is being allowed to leave port since the NSF halted sailings due to the coronavirus pandemic.  UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Dean Brad Moran said the Sikuliaq cruise has been granted an exception for several reasons, including the sampling project’s longevity.

“It’s a point-to-point cruise out of Seward, Alaska, where Sikuliaq is home-ported. So it’s not going to go from Point A to Point B. And the cruise length was shortened to seven days, and it’ll never be more than one day’s steam back to land, should there be health concerns,” he said.

Moran says UAF also developed a detailed plan to minimize chances of COVID-19 cases among Sikuliaq crew and research team members.

“All of the scientific staff members, three of them, are home-quarantined here in Fairbanks,” he said. “There’s nobody from out-of-state going on this cruise. So we feel like we have a pretty robust plan.”

Moran said other NSF funded research cruises planned for this summer, hinge in part on the success of next week’s trip.

“We are certainly hopeful that we are able to host more science. And this plan has been shared with all the ship operators in the nation, so all eyes are on this cruise,” Moran said.

Moran said that the pandemic has thrown NSF-funded research projects into a state of flux, and that cancelled sailings have made the already complicated business of vessel scheduling even more challenging.