The long journey home for scientists aboard the Dr Fridtjof Nansen

A COVID-19-provoked odyssey from western Africa to Bergen, Norway

COVID-19 hit mid-voyage for 21 scientists aboard the marine research vessel, the Dr. Fridtjof Nansen. When many national borders closed, seven scientists from Senegal, Mauritania and the Gambia couldn’t return home. ©IMR/Diana Zaera


2020 began as a normal year for the Dr Fridtjof Nansen, the only marine research vessel to fly the United Nations flag. With an ambitious schedule of survey voyages, the Nansen was meant to sail along West Africa, collecting data off the coast and in the deep-seas for its research into the state of marine resources and the health of our oceans, a mission it has held since 1975.

As one of the most advanced marine research vessels in the world, the Dr Fridtjof Nansen has explored some of the least studied waters on the planet, including those around Africa, Latin America, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the high-seas.

The vessel is an integral part of the EAF-Nansen Programme, funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and led by FAO, with the scientific and technical support of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR). For more than four decades, this collaboration has been successful in building the capacity of marine scientists from developing countries and from around the world.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 21 scientists from Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia and Spain, in addition to the Norwegian scientific core team and crew, were already part way through a voyage off the coast of northwest Africa. To support the improved management of fisheries, this particular mission was meant to study ecosystems and survey transboundary demersal resources - fish species that live near seabeds and are distributed in waters of various countries. 

The outbreak, however, quickly caused ports to close, and the Nansen and its crew had to radically change plans. Unable to continue with its research voyage, the Dr Fridtjof Nansen was recalled to its home port, thousands of kilometres away in Bergen, Norway.  

The Dr Fridtjof Nansen has sailed countless times around the globe, and its crew and research scientists believed they had seen it all. But even this 45-year-old programme found itself in unchartered waters with this situation.

As the COVID-19 outbreak turned into a pandemic and more and more borders closed to stop the spread of the virus, the vessel and its crew needed a plan for getting the scientists home.

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

Left/Top: Before COVID-19 hit, scientists were in full action sorting catches in the lab on board. ©IMR/Merete Kvalsund Olsen Right/Bottom: The Dr. Fridtjof Nansen is one of the most advanced marine research vessels studying the state of our oceans. ©IMR/Magne Olsen

The first stop along its sea route back to Norway was Agadir, Morocco.

“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,” explained Mamadou Ba, Nansen scientist and chemical engineer in Mauritania.

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

They then sailed northwards, stopping in Vigo, Spain, to drop off the Spanish scientists.

Of the 21 scientists aboard, in the end, only 14 could disembark: 11 nationals in Morocco and three in Spain. The border closures and restrictions on movement meant that the seven scientists from the Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal were unable to return to their home countries.

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

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, the home port of the vessel.

In total, it was a 10 day-journey. Thankfully this time spent on board was accepted as part of the required quarantine time, so scientists only had to stay on board for an additional four days, then they were able to move to a hotel. 

Scientist and former Fisheries Officer for the government of the Gambia, Ebou Mass Mbye, was anxious at first: “Initially, we were uncomfortable with the situation, especially when we were unable to disembark in Morocco. But, reflecting on it now, I am glad we came to Norway, where we knew we would be in good hands.”

“From the very beginning, we felt our partners present. Everything was managed quickly and all the information was shared with us. They didn’t leave us alone,” added Magatte Niang, Senior Fisheries and Aquaculture Technician in Senegal.

Though stranded in a foreign country and far from their homes and families, the scientists made the most of their time in Norway and were given access to the IMR facilities to continue their work.

“During this time, I worked with data analysis for findings obtained during 2019 marine research,” disclosed Ebou. “The Dr. Fridtjof Nansen’s Captain even took time to teach me how to repair nets, something I learned long ago and had forgotten." 

Another colleague, Magatte, agreed, “We’ve had numerous interesting interactions on fisheries matters and have engaged daily with renowned IMR scientists, who have all been very welcoming.”

The Programme staff at FAO made sure that their African colleagues felt as comfortable as possible in Norway and worked non-stop with the Norwegian and African authorities to ensure their return home.

Bård Vegar Solhjell, Director General of Norad, commented, “FAO, IMR and the scientists have handled a difficult situation in an outstanding way. I do hope that this exchange will continue and strengthen the future collaboration between The Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal and the Nansen Programme even further.”

The five scientists from Mauritania departed Bergen on 16 June. The other scientists should also be back home by the end of June. ©IMR /Kathrine Michalsen

 “Our African colleagues maintained a positive attitude throughout and were eager to benefit from the occasion to work with IMR scientists. On their part, IMR Nansen staff warmly welcomed the African scientists and have done everything in their capacity to make their stay as comfortable and productive as possible. The support provided by Norad and other Norwegian authorities to handle the situation was also exceptional,” stated Merete.

As of June, the border restrictions started easing, allowing the African scientists to fly back to their countries, and the families, colleagues and friends who have been eagerly awaiting their return. The Dr. Fridtjof Nansen is hoping to be back on the seas later this year to continue supporting countries in managing ocean resources sustainably. For now though, the modern-day odyssey has come to an end; the scientists are home, and while COVID-19 has brought many challenges, it has also brought opportunities for learning, growth, international collaboration and even a little adventure.

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