sa agulhas II
SA Agulhas II. Photo: Twitter/SAWS

The 2020 annual SA Agulhas II relief voyage to Gough Island will depart on Thursday under strict COVID-19 health protocols, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has announced.

Gough Island, some 2 600km south-west of Cape Town, is very strategic for South Africa’s weather observations and forecasting.

The weather data collected at Gough and Marion Islands, and at SANAE IV (South African National Antarctic Expedition) on Antarctica, is important for the navigation of passing vessels, warning South Africa of impending severe weather systems, in the case of Gough Island, as well as providing insight into climate change.

SA Agulhas II.
SA Agulhas II. Photo: Twitter/Explorers Club

These data sets are also key to improving the accuracy of SA’s global and regional weather forecast models.

In a statement on Tuesday, the department noted that within the current context of the Coronavirus lockdown period, the schedule and procedures were adjusted to accommodate a strict quarantine and COVID-19 testing process before departure, as well as a strict adherence to sanitisation procedures during the loading of the vessel.

“The recruitment process, including psychometric testing for the expedition members, was finalised on 24 August 2020. The team also undertook training in Cape Town. Most of the team members appointed have some experience of life on Gough Island,” the department said.

The department explained that strict lockdown requirements and quarantine procedures require a significantly reduced team for the relief voyage, which will focus on the logistical functions necessary to keep the base operational.

Overwintering scientific functions will be limited to maintaining the long-term meteorological record by the South African Weather Service (SAWS) and the seabird monitoring by the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) United Kingdom (UK).

All passengers will be quarantined for 10 days before departure (between 2 September and 12 September 2020) on one of the approved quarantine facilities and in accordance with requirements by the Department of Health.

The passengers in quarantine will be tested for Coronavirus and only participants with negative test results will be allowed to continue with the voyage.

At the end of the quarantine period, passengers will be transferred from the site directly to the SA Agulhas II.

There will be a five-day waiting period before the departure in order to monitor that none of the passengers develop symptoms, the department said.

Gough Island is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. A lease agreement for the island was concluded with Britain in 1956 and has been renewed over the years.

The annual relief voyage on the SA Agulhas II transports scientists from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, various tertiary institutions and research agencies with approved scientific projects.

The voyage takes place annually in September, taking approximately four days sailing time from Cape Town to Gough Island, through treacherous waters (see video below).

The SA Agulhas II is expected to return to Cape Town on 16 October 2020. –