• Nicole Pittoors

The Mississippi Trail

This past August we completed the second benthos-focused CYCLE cruise. The cruise was a success, but it felt like we beat some very slim odds to get on the ship in the first place. We were vaxxed and relaxed during the few weeks before departing, cases were declining and it felt like we turned the corner and COVID wouldn‘t get in the way of scientific expeditions.


Cue the delta variant...


The plan was to have our lab’s post-doc, my fellow grad student, an undergrad, and I, all depart Lehigh four days early with a pickup truck and a u-haul trailer full of gear. This was no simple trip like we had so naïvely thought. It was full of logistical complications. So many, that it became comical and we knew we needed to make this digital scrapbook.

Day 0

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Our first and what we thought would be our only challenge: getting the industrial-strength coolers (to be explained in a later post) and palette jack through the elevator doors. With the strength of four people and a running head start, the coolers made it into the elevator without a millimeter to spare.

Day 1

Ready for Departure

There were a lot of huge items (including a lander, that I picked up from Wolds Hole Oceanographic Institution during Tropical Storm Elsa) to fit in our trailer and pickup truck, and we were nervous about how much space we would have. We surprised ourselves by how quickly we loaded everything up. Things were looking great, we were optimistic about the journey ahead.



Day 2

Chattanooga

We left Bethlehem, PA, and headed towards Gulf Port, MS, and made it all the way to Virginia when we received the text that someone from the ROV crew tested positive. It was very likely that the cruise could be canceled. We continued to Chattanooga TN to stay the night in hopes that we could get a replacement crew member. Once we realized how close we were to Georgia, we decided to adventure to the state line which was spray-painted on the pavement of a Camping World parking lot.


Day 3-7

Mini Vacation in Ocean City, Mississippi

Things were looking up, we now had a replacement crew member to make this cruise happen, it would just be delayed a few more days. The new plan was to stay a few nights at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Station in Ocean City MS. The research station had a beautiful view of the coast, so we took these few days to get some writing and data analysis done; almost like a mini work retreat. Luke processed his fresh sequencing results and took breaks to fish off the dock, and I wrote a good chunk of a proposal for a series of experiments I hope to eventually perform. We turned one of our coolers meant for future samples into a make-shift fridge to keep groceries and treated ourselves to BBQ take-out in the evenings.



Day 8

Science Party Unites

It was time to meet up with the science team and get tested for COVID at a local urgent care. They didn't have our appointments in their system but luckily they still tested us before the clinic opened for the day. The results were supposed to take about an hour so it was the perfect time for trailer breakfast, which consisted of a fancy arrangement of cheerios and even plant-based milk. We sat in our ergonomic 5-gallon bucket chairs, a totally normal thing to see outside of an urgent care. After our 5 star breakfast, it was time for some last-minute shopping. We split up into teams- one to pick up a few hundred squids for a fish trap and another to grab groceries for lunch. Squid and groceries were acquired but we hadn't gotten our test results yet which was odd because it was a rapid test. So we loaded up the trailer once more and waited in the Rouses's parking lot until we got word that we could head to our ship.


Day 8 cont.

The Final Wait

We arrived at the port and could finally see the Point Sur sitting next to massive cargo ships; however, we were not yet allowed to board the ship as we still didn't have our test results. As the Point Sur crew kindly began loading pallets of equipment, we waited in anticipation of beginning our expedition. Cargo ships were unloaded and reloaded, container chassis zoomed around us, and the Oceaneering team was loading the ROV onto the ship. Everybody was hard at work while we sat on the concrete, unable to help. It soon was time for trailer lunch, where we made sandwiches and sought refuge in the Smithsonian's van from the hot sun. It did, however, give us a chance to get in some pre-cruise bonding! After days of waiting, it was suiting that in the very last moments before boarding the ship our patience was tested once more.


By mid-afternoon, we got our negative test results and we could at last board the Point Sur! It was a crazy pre-cruise week, but I could not be more grateful to have spent it with labmates capable of adapting to the constant logistical challenges and rolling with the punches. This trip was definitely a testament to never trusting plan 'A' in fieldwork, you need to always at least make plans up to 'E'.