• Melissa Pappas

An Unconventional Year Abroad

Updated: Sep 21

Leave it to the marine scientist to sail across the world during a global pandemic

Marine scientists of all career stages have experienced specific COVID-19 hindrances, impacting their ability to study and connect to the ocean. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, and continual postponements turning into cancellations of in-person research and teaching have put much of their work and professional advancement on hold. But it’s not just their work that has suffered.


Just like for many, COVID-19 restrictions have dampened ocean advocates’ mental health, especially for those locked down in landlocked states and countries. For most marine scientists, access to the ocean gives us more than the ability to do our jobs, it is also a requirement for a happy and healthy life.


Sophie Schönherr, a young marine scientist from Luxembourg had just finished her bachelor’s degree from Maastricht University when the pandemic hit, and while this time brought anxiety and uncertainty, she did not let it limit her exploration of the ocean. When travel by plane became impossible due to COVID-19, Sophie sailed a boat to get to her cross-Atlantic destination.



The quickest way to derail new year's plans - a global pandemic


In January 2020, Sophie was equipped with a bachelor’s degree, marine science research training and a budding network of international ocean lovers from her many research collaborations. Unaware of what 2020 would bring, Sophie planned a trip to the tropical waters of the Dominican Republic to get her Dive Master, another tool in her marine science tool belt that she was quickly growing. In February, it was cancelled as the news of a strange new virus spread. She tried again, this time looking in Mexico to advance her SCUBA certification. Again, it was cancelled just as COVID-19 was announced as a global pandemic in March 2020. Hopeful that the virus would be controlled quickly, she then applied to a Dive Master program a third time, this one in the Philippines that also included a course on 3D ocean imaging.


“This one had to work out, right? But of course, this program was cancelled too,” Sophie recalls. “At this point I had applied to three separate programs to get my dive master and they all were cancelled. So, I thought I better try something a little closer to home to make sure travel wouldn’t be a reason why my next plan wouldn’t work out. But, this also meant that I had to localize my search for marine science opportunities, which would likely steer me away from any tropical SCUBA diving.”


Coral reef research opportunities that actually get you in the water are hard to come by in general, but are especially rare in Europe in the middle of a pandemic. However, even though Sophie was disappointed by the lack of ocean immersion, she was happy to strengthen her skills in other scientific areas – coding and data analysis – skills as integral as field work in marine science.


“After accepting that the Dive Master was not going to work out, I had actually applied for a job that I wasn’t even eligible for,” said Sophie. “A student job was advertised from The Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen, Germany, and I decided to apply even though I was never a student there. I thought, ‘what’s the worst that could happen? They tell me no?’ At that point, I wasn’t bothered by rejection anymore, I just knew I had to find something worth my time.”


Fortunately, jobs like the one Sophie found tend to be flexible for the right person.


“One of the things I have learned in pursuing my passion in marine science is that there are countless opportunities, but it takes persistence to get your foot in the door,” says Sophie. “So, I did what I knew how to and I emailed the professor directly to explain that, even though I was not a student there, I would be a good fit for the position and the lab. And, it worked!”


She landed a remote job strengthening her coding skills in R which brought her to the end of June. As her contract with ZMT came to a close, travel restrictions began to soften in Europe, and she started reaching out to her marine science network. A friend and fellow marine scientist told her about the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI) in Galicia, Spain that was hiring interns for the summer.


“I could always count on my friends and colleagues to guide my next move,” says Sophie. “Once I heard about BDRI, I emailed them to express my interest in an imminent internship. However, once accepted into the internship, I had to find a way to get to Spain. Travel by plane was still too difficult due to COVID, so I drove three days straight to get to Galicia.”


After another push of persistence, Sophie was on a boat, dolphin watching off the coast of O Grove. After being offered an extension to her internship, the pandemic’s effects crept closer to home, and Sophie the need to help her family.



Getting to know her roots


“While working in Spain, I was talking with my mom and she told me that my uncle needed help in the vineyards as there was a COVID-induced job crisis at that time,” says Sophie. “I decided to leave my internship to come back to help him. I was actually really excited to go back and re-discover my family’s tradition. I think now that if I hadn’t found my passion in marine biology, I would have found it working on the vineyard.”



Sophie spent three weeks working with her uncle and reconnecting with her family, hoping that COVID would settle down, but always thinking of the next move if things remained uncertain.


“If things had gone to plan, I would have enrolled for graduate school in September,” says Sophie. “But, I didn’t think it was worth pursuing school when everything was remote and during the early days of remote university when classes were still being adapted to online study. So, I decided to postpone my studies and, of course, thought about the Dive Master again.”


Continuing the pursuit


For her fourth attempt, Sophie looked into a Dive Master program in Curacao, a location where she had already cultured connections through her undergraduate thesis work at the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) institute. While the internship was available, it required travelers to quarantine for two weeks in an all-inclusive resort at their own expense, something a young marine scientist cannot afford. Again, she looked a little closer to home, albeit the furthest place from continental land in Europe that is still considered Europe – the Canary Islands.


“I finally made it into a Dive Master program on my fifth try, and I was lucky enough to have found it in warm waters of Europe,” said Sophie. “I signed up for the five-week course, and stayed there for another six weeks to work and gain experience at the dive center. Then I had to make a tough decision.”



Sophie’s extension of internships and programs saw her through the majority of 2020. She had originally planned to go home and spend Christmas and New Years with her family in Luxembourg at the end of the year. However, before leaving the Canary Islands, a lockdown that would extend through the holidays was mandated in Luxembourg, and completely changed Sophie’s plans again.


Making a tough decision


“Just a few weeks before Christmas, I had to decide if I was going to go home and spend time in lockdown with my family and possibly see some friends from afar, or if I would try, yet again, to find another marine science opportunity,” says Sophie. “It was a really tough decision. I knew I wanted to see my family and that they missed me, but I also knew that lockdown in Luxembourg would be really challenging on my mental health because days were cold and short, and, more importantly, I had no access to the ocean.”


Sophie followed her gut and did not get on the plane back to her hometown that December. Instead she had her heart set on returning to the Caribbean to find work as a Dive Master. The position seemed simple enough, but getting there posed a challenge since international travel by plane halted again and this time she couldn’t rely on a road trip.


“After I ruled out flying, a friend made a comment, more as a joke I think, of me sailing to the Caribbean from Spain,” said Sophie. “I looked into it, at first just to entertain the thought, but then I realized that it was actually possible, and I fell in love with the idea of sailing to the Caribbean.


And she's off on a sailboat


A website called findacrew.net that matches ship crews and captains helped Sophie get her sea legs.


“I had found a boat that not only was leaving from the Canary Islands, but had a captain that was as much an ocean advocate as I was,” says Sophie, “and three days later, I was on a sailboat headed across the Atlantic during a pandemic.”


Sailing during normal times would have been difficult enough. Sophie had never sailed before and she had no time to learn the basics while on land. She hopped on board the Oceans and Captain Andy taught her both the terminology and the skill on the job.


“It wasn’t as easy as it sounds,” admits Sophie. “To begin with, it is very strange to meet people online, even stranger to meet people who you would be stuck at sea with for the first time online. I have to admit it was a very risky thing to do.”


Trips like this one and the seasonal hustling lifestyle is also not easy on the wallet.


“Luckily, the flight I had booked back to Luxembourg was changed by a few hours, and the change of itinerary allowed me to get a full refund for that half of my roundtrip ticket, shares Sophie. “The refund of the ticket funded a huge portion of my sailing trip, and without that, it would have been pretty difficult for me to afford.”



Trouble onboard


And sailing is not like flying. It is long and the vehicle of transportation is constantly exposed to harsh weather conditions. Wind patterns and storms dictate the success of the journey, and the absence of wind leaves the crew reliant on a working engine.


“After Andy and I trained for a few weeks in Cape Verdes, we thought we were ready to set sail on the big cross, says Sophie. “We didn’t get too far when the engine failed and had us living on an island for about a month waiting for it to get fixed. After the initial disappointment, I turned that month into a holiday for myself. I explored the island on land and underwater. Andy and I had our own dive gear and SCUBA tanks, allowing me to learn the reefs of that island better than any other dive site I have ever visited.”


Onward to Brazil


Once the engine was fixed, Andy and Sophie set sail to Fernando de Noronha, Brazil where Andy would help raise awareness of some of the reef conservation programs located there.


“Finally, we started our journey in February, 2021,” says Sophie. “It took 14 days at sea to get to Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, and it was amazing to be so far away from everyone and everything. One day Andy told me that being in the middle of the Atlantic, we were actually closer to the astronauts in space than to anyone else on the planet. That knowledge and the fact that days started to blend together did something to me. I felt completely separated from the problems in my life and in the world. It was so peaceful to listen to the waves and wind, to be fully immersed in nature.”


Approximately 2,000 nautical miles later, they had arrived at the coast of Fernando de Noronha a beautiful invitation for a crew who had only seen shades of blue for the past two weeks.


“However, once we arrived in Brazil, we were met with disappointed faces,” says Sophie. “Before we could even step foot on land, we were told that a new law was passed - Brazil was no longer allowing travelers to arrive into the country by private boats.”


While sitting on the boat and looking at the shoreline of a place the crew would never get to explore, Andy connected with Dominique Geysen, another sailboat captain and ocean advocate with connections across the sailing and marine science worlds. The next destination was arranged setting course to the Bahamas.


Then the Bahamas


“Finding our way again, Andy set up a new travel plan to Grand Bahama in the Bahamas, home of a new coral restoration organization called Coral Vita,” says Sophie. “We geared up for more days at sea and this time it would be twice as long as our last trip.”


A full month at sea had Sophie boiling the days down to two events – the sunrise and the sunset, the only time tellers in the ocean.


“While living at sea, there weren’t too many diverse sounds,” says Sophie. “All day every day, I heard waves, wind, Andy’s voice and my thoughts. Life became simpler, I forgot about a lot of things, I forgot about COVID.”



Docking in at Grand Bahama in the Bahamas, Sophie was flooded with an unfamiliarity she had not prepared herself for.


“Once we got to the Bahamas, the Coral Vita team of about 16 people came to greet Andy and me, and I was completely overwhelmed,” says Sophie. “So many faces, emotions, and voices were paying us attention, asking us questions, and intently awaiting our responses, but we were not used to socializing and the memory of COVID came rushing back along with social anxiety.”


After a month at sea even the most social person can find it difficult to re acclimate to community.


“It felt weird for about a week,” said Sophie, “then I slowly regained my ability to interact at a faster pace of social interaction. And the people were so friendly, making it easy to do. Eventually, I started helping out with coral restoration projects and did a lot of diving while I was there. I even got to meet Christina Zenato, the renown shark conservationist and cave diver.”


But it wasn’t long until Sophie began to feel the pangs of missing her family and, even more so, her parents missing her.


“I loved the adventure I was on, from sailing to diving to interacting with the conservation programs. I had really found a great way to spend time during a pandemic doing what I loved,” says Sophie. “But, I am an only child, and the many nights away from my parents, especially those at sea where they weren’t even sure if I was alive, were challenging for them. I knew it was time to go home and be with them and share my stories.”


Homeward bound


Deciding to leave the crew of the Oceans did not mean that Sophie was no longer connected to Andy.


“While I left the Bahamas in June to be with my family, Andy continued on sailing to Panama,” says Sophie. “To be honest, we were lucky that we were so good together. And, although Andy is pursuing a four-year Oceans Project sailing around the world, I plan to stay in contact with him to hear all about those adventures.”


Sophie recalls her year abroad with a golden-brown tan from the comfort of her bedroom in Luxembourg, again, looking for her next move. Another connection to her network of friends has her on the hustle again, this time with her eyes set on the Red Sea through the Visiting Student Research Program (VSRP) at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). While Sophie had always been interested in going to grad school a specific experience in the Bahamas strengthened this desire.



“In the Bahamas, I was asked to lead a benthic survey that would inform an environmental impact report to determine if coastal development was harming marine life in a certain location on the island,” said Sophie. “I started the project and quickly realized I did not have enough training for that amount of responsibility. I knew that before I could take on this level of responsibility, I needed a safe place to take risks and fail, I also needed a lot of help. The project was both a moment of feeling very proud of myself and feeling very humbled. So, now I am ready to embark on a journey that allows me to make mistakes with a supervisor to guide me.”


Next steps take her to another country


Sophie plans to apply for the VSRP at KAUST to conduct research and dip her toes into the academic world of publishing and graduate school life.


While her experience is rare and is not accessible for everyone, it does show how much persistence is required to push your passions forward. Networking, taking risks and going with the flow are skills that underlie success professionally and personally, and Sophie’s story shows us how they can also help get you on a boat in a pandemic, if that’s where you want to be.


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