ABOARD RESEARCH MARINE

How 7 African scientists got stranded at sea after Covid-19

Of the 21 scientists aboard, in the end, only 14 could disembark: 11 in Morocco and three in Spain.

In Summary

• According to the plan, the marine vessel first stopped at Agadir, Morocco en route back to Norway. 

• When virus broke out, 21 scientists from Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia and Spain were already partway through a voyage off the coast of northwest Africa. 

The Dr Fridtjof Nansen Marine Vessel.
STRANDED AT SEA: The Dr Fridtjof Nansen Marine Vessel.
Image: COURTESY

The Dr Fridtjof Nansen marine vessel was meant to sail along West Africa collecting data off the coast and in the deep seas for research into the state of marine resources and the health of oceans. 

The Nansen is the only marine research vessel to fly the United Nations flag and has been conducting deep-sea research since 1975.

However, as stated by the Food and Agriculture Organization, trouble started when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March. 

At this time, at least 21 scientists from Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia and Spain - in addition to the Norwegian scientific core team - were already partway through a voyage off the coast of northwest Africa. 

As the virus outbreak turned into a pandemic, more borders closed to stop the spread of the Covid-19, leaving the scientists stranded in the sea.

“This unprecedented scenario immediately mobilised the programme’s partners to take quick action and bring the vessel’s crew and scientists safe to port,” FAO’s Merete Tandstad, EAF-Nansen Programme Coordinator, said. 

Of the 21 scientists aboard, in the end, only 14 could disembark: 11 in Morocco and three in Spain. 

According to the plan, the marine vessel first stopped at Agadir, Morocco en route back to Norway. 

“At first, we were hoping that all African scientists could travel back to their home countries from Agadir. Unfortunately… only our Moroccan colleagues could disembark,” Nansen scientist and chemical engineer in Mauritania Mamadou Ba said.

“While in Agadir, we were so close to my home country, Mauritania, but it wasn’t possible for us to disembark,” he added. 

The border closures and restrictions on movement in many African countries meant that the seven scientists from Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal were unable to return home. 

“For the rest of us … we were headed to Norway,” Mamadou said.

Five days more on the sea took them past the European continent and along the south-western coast of Norway to the city of Bergen. 

Time spent in the vessel was treated as the required quarantine time, and those on board had to stay an additional four days before booking into a hotel.

Scientist and former Gambian Fisheries Officer Ebou Mass said they were disappointed when they unable to disembark in Morocco.

Despite being stranded in a foreign country, the African scientists made the most of their time in Norway and were given access to the IMR facilities to continue their work.

The programme staff at FAO worked non-stop with the Norwegian and African authorities to ensure their return home.

“During this time, I worked with data analysis for findings obtained during 2019 marine research,” Ebou stated.

 Norad Director General Bård Vegar Solhjell acknowledged how the scientists and FAO handled the difficult situation.

“I hope this exchange will continue and strengthen the future collaboration between Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal and the Nansen Programme even further,” he noted.

Luckily, last month when the border restrictions started easing, it allowed the African scientists to fly back to their countries. 

Edited by R.Wamochie