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The Work Must Go On: How to safely conduct fieldwork during a pandemic


In March 2020 the world as we know it was brought to a halt. At the Waitt Institute, much of our work involves travelingfrom meeting with our government partners and local communities to running scientific expeditions and studying remote areas of the globe.

In January 2020, team members from the Waitt Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Maldives Marine Research Institute, and many others set sail on an ambitious expedition to survey coral reefs on all 26 atolls of the Maldivian archipelago. By March, we had just wrapped up the first half, having surveyed 16 atolls with plans to visit the remaining 10 on a second trip later that month. As lockdowns began to take place and the COVID-19 outbreak turned into a global pandemic, we paused all of our travel, began to work from home, and did our best to continue supporting our partners around the globe from Zoom. Now, a year later, a minimal crew under strict COVID-19 protocol is getting back on the water.

This scientific survey is critical to moving our work forward with Noo Raajje, a partnership with the Government of the Maldives to protect at least 20% of the Maldivian ocean and develop the country’s ocean industries through a Marine Spatial Planning process. These projects are time sensitive and are informed by scientific understanding, so we need a comprehensive scientific baseline of the status of ocean health.

Waiting a year to complete the survey may seem insignificant, but ocean conditions change rapidly, and understanding the whole of the Maldives archipelago within a short time period will help us better understand how each atoll, island, and reef are being affected by localized pressures like fishing and development. As communities around the world are seeing the effects of a changing climate, there is little time to waste to better understand, and therefore better manage and protect, our ocean habitats.

The Maldives is inextricably tied to its ocean habitat; tourism accounts for the majority of its economy and 71% of Maldivians rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. It is important to continue understanding and thereby better managing these ocean resources through this first ever archipelago-wide coral reef survey to help the Maldives build back their Blue Economy as the world recovers from this pandemic.

What goes into designing a safety plan during a pandemic?

Protocols were designed in collaboration with the Maldivian Government, the Maldives Health Protection Agency, and the expedition team, using the CDC and WHO Guidelines. Crew and staff scientists completed a mandatory quarantine before traveling, either in the Maldives or in San Diego, and each team member underwent three COVID-19 tests before boarding the boat. All Maldivian scientists, staff, and boat crew members received their full vaccinations prior to joining the expedition.

Normal Safety Precautions

The safety of the crew is the first priority of any expedition, as working in the ocean environment is inherently challenging. With multiple divers in the water in remote locations, careful planning, strict safety protocols, and standardized regulations are in place to ensure every member of the team is safe. The introduction of COVID-19 protocols joined the ranks of these measures, developed and led by our team of experts.

Dive protocol

Joe Lepore is the Dive Safety Officer for the Waitt Institute and is aboard every scientific expedition creating safety plans and making sure the teams are prepared. He served in the US Navy for twenty years before retiring as a Master Chief Petty Officer and Master Diver in 2006, after which he joined the Waitt Institute team. He has been onboard as the Dive Safety Officer overseeing the safe completion of 40+ Waitt Expeditions all around the world.

SIO safety protocol

Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) also follows strict safety guidelines during all fieldwork. All SIO divers hold a Scientific Diver certification from AAUS (American Association of Underwater Science) which entails a thorough training program, protocol, and requires that divers maintain a minimum of 6 scientific dives per year. Additionally a comprehensive safety plan must be created and approved by SIO’s Dive Safety Officer, Christian McDonald, prior to any fieldwork.

Dives will be no more than 80 minutes in duration or whenever a diver reaches 500 psi (35 Bar). All dives will incorporate a 3-5 minute safety stop at 5 meters and no decompression dives will be permitted. All divers are required to carry an auditory signal, a visual signaling device, and knife. The dive team will carry a surface marker float (PAM) to identify the divers’ location to the surface tender. This will either be carefully tied to the reef benthos using a line and reel within the survey area or carried by one of the divers throughout the duration of the dive. Members of each dive team will also carry Nautilus LifeLines, a VHF marine rescue radio with integrated GPS. A first aid kit, emergency oxygen kit, and appropriate communication device will be present at each dive site.

To follow the expedition and see more from our dives, follow @NooRaajje on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow the hashtag #KanduFalhuDhiraasaa and #NooRaajje for all program related work. For more information about the program visit

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