I now have some of the equipment at my home in Belgium (and more is stored on site).
As it happens, this will be the first Biosphere Expeditions volunteer project that is back on after two years ! I am really grateful to all of you citizen scientists for signing up and making this happen. I am sure many of us have been longing to get back out into the field and meet new people, whilst contributing time and energy to conservation and to volunteer with whales and volunteer with dolphins.
My own travels start next Thursday when I fly out to the beautiful Azores, where I will be preparing for your arrival together with Lisa, our expedition scientist, and Claudia and James, our hosts at Banana Manor. On the cetacean front, there is some good news already. Lisa has been out at sea and spotted the first blue whales, several male sperm whales and lots of common dolphins, so the 2022 season is off to a good start.
The weather is a bit hit and miss at the moment, as is often the case in the Azores this time of the year, so lets hope we get treated to some fine weather days and whale volunteer and dolphin volunteer action. Out at sea, it can get very cold and windy, so don’t forget to bring enough thermal wear. I find that putting on different layers works really well, combined with a wind- and waterproof jacket.
And of course, lets all be Covid smart and travel safely, as chances are that if we get infected, it will most likely be in the airport or on the plane. Don’t forget to bring your FFP2 masks (and use them whilst travelling!) and Covid self-tests so we can conduct this first expedition as professionally and safely as possible for everyone.
Remember that as part of our Covid procedures, this year we will not meet for drinks at Peter’s Café as we normally do at 11:30. Instead we will welcome you at our expedition base at Banana Manor (see position here) with all your luggage between 12:30 and 13:30 so you can get settled. Be sure to have lunch before you arrive, because at 14:00 the expedition starts officially and we get into action with introductions, talks and training.
Once I have arrived in Horta, I will send out another diary entry with my local contact details. If your family and friends back home would like to stay up to date while you are away, they can keep an eye on the Biosphere Expeditions blog (or subscribe to it for automatic updates) where I will publish diaries and photos regularly. If you are curious to see which whales and dolphins are currently being spotted out at sea, I recommend the Facebook page of our local partner Whale Watch Azores.
We are delighted to report that – after exactly two years (!) – we are back on with expeditions. The Azores expedition 2020 was the first one that could not take place as planned and is now the first one to get us back in the saddle.
Thank you very much to all Azores expeditioners who will make this possible and to everyone else who supported us through this very difficult period. We are very grateful for all types of support we have received over the last two years: from donations to words of encouragement to everyone’s patience when expeditions had to be deferred. All this was and is much appreciated and has allowed us to get through the pandemic so far up to this point of being able to re-start expeditions. Thank you!
On the Azores, infection rates on the expedition island of Faial are very low with new cases and recoveries roughly balancing out. Caseloads are on a downward trend and are now below 200 and decreasing further. Hospitalisation and death rates are very low. Life for those with a booster vaccination (which all expeditioners are required to have to take part in the expedition) is approaching normal, with very few restrictions left. These include mask-wearing in public enclosed spaces. For the expedition, we will form a bubble as much as is possible, wear masks and observe social distancing inside, and all test for the first three days. If everyone is still negative after three days, we will drop the mask-wearing and social distancing requirement.
We are hopeful that the Azores expedition in March/April can go ahead for several reasons:
1. If South Africa and Britain are anything to go by, the omicron wave is short and sharp with those who are vaccinated at low risk of falling severely ill or having to be admitted to hospital. Despite high infection rates, health services are not being overwhelmed. These are all signs of the virus entering its endemic phase, alongside other endemic viruses such as the flu.
2. Restrictions are being relaxed or removed completely in many countries now, as governments realise we are entering a phase of having to learn to live with the endemic version of the virus.
3. Infection rates on the Azores are low and falling.
4. Travel to the Azores is currently not restricted and the requirements one has to fulfill to fly in are not laborious and what we have all become used to.
5. Almost all expeditioners on the expedition are keen for the expedition to go ahead.
In the interest of transparency for everyone, here are excerpts from e-mails to the Azores expedition team so that everyone can see how we are handling the situation and trying to move towards running expeditions again with the virus around:
30 January 2022
Following on from our e-mail below, a couple of people decided to defer, but these places were immediately taken up by new signups or people on the waiting list, so we still have a booked out, three group expedition on our books. Travel to the Azores is currently not restricted and the requirements you have to fulfill to fly in are not laborious and what we have all become used to – see https://www.visitazores.com/en/trip-info for more details. Infection rates on Faial are low and on a downward trend – see https://www.safecommunitiesportugal.com/type/situation-reports-acores/ for details. So the outlook is positive, especially if the collapse of the omicron wave in South Africa and Britain are anything to go by, as well as relaxation of restrictions in many countries now, as governments realise we are entering a phase of learning to live with the virus, alongside other endemic viruses such as the flu. Our plan at the moment is to all test for the first three days on the expedition at least and then again as required. Anyone testing positive must leave the expedition and quarantine away at their own cost, so make sure you have adequate insurance. We will also require you to bring your own antigen self test kits as well as FFP2 masks (we will provide details of what these are and where you can buy them locally to you). Make sure you bring them with you, as local supplies are limited and we do not want to strain island supplies for the local population. We will write all this up in a detailed document for you within the next couple of weeks and monitor the developing situation in parallel. If you at your end decide against participation based on your own risk assessment and what we say above, then please tell us NOW so that we can gauge how many people do not want to come and defer instead. If you have any other comments or questions, then please feel free to send them in also.
15 January 2022
Dear Azores expeditioners
You will no doubt be wondering whether the expedition will run this year. Our intention is to monitor the situation and start communicating with you again from mid Feb onwards, sharing our intentions and plans based on the latest information. We are cautiously optimistic, because the wave omicron causes seems to be steep and short with low hospitalisation rates. In any case, we believe that we now have to learn to live with the virus – as it will not go away – and as such develop procedures to run our lives – and expeditions – with it around. We will communicate whether and how we intend to do this for the Azores in month at the latest. If you have any questions or comments, please just press reply. If you have already decided you would prefer to defer for another year (see https://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/faq#coronavirus for how it all works), then please let us know also.
In the end, the decision made itself, because most citizen scientists were not comfortable with coming on the expedition, despite and perhaps because of stringent hygiene procedures. So we will defer the expedition for another year. The 2023 dates are very likely to be 12 – 24 February | 26 February – 10 March and we will confirm this within the next month or so
Hopefully this will be the last deferral of 2022, before we can run expeditions again. If not, things will get difficult for us again and we will have to start another survival fundraiser to make it through. More than two years of no expeditions have really had an impact, to put it mildly.
We certainly think that we cannot let Covid rule our lives forever and that we should develop procedures that allow us to live – and run expeditions – with the virus around, because it will not go away. We tried with this Kenya expedition and failed. May the next try with the Azores, starting at the end of March, be successful!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. 19 (out of 24) have replied. 9 do not want to defer (4 do), 3 want to defer if there is any quarantine at either end, 2 are undecided and 1 does not mind either way. Nobody has deferred already.
My decision for now is therefore to wait for another 3.5 weeks until Friday, 7 January at the latest to make a final decision on whether to run the expedition or not. Please do not make any balance payments until that decision is made and ignore the 3 January deadline on your invoices. Please also make sure you obtain adequate insurance cover.
It is extremely likely that we will require everyone to have had three vaccine shots, with the last not older than six months by the time your expedition ends and at least 14 days before your expedition starts. This should give you plenty of time to sort out your booster vaccinations between now and when you start your expedition.
Please feel free to continue to engage, ask further questions and share your news and opinions. We will also provide updates as necessary and will get back to you by 7 January at the latest, if not before.
Have a great Christmas and all the best for 2022. Stay healthy and hopefully we will see you all in Kenya.
thank for your patience and kind words of support and encouragement over the last 10 days or so.
We now have three people who have already deferred to the expedition 2023 and three more who are strongly in favour of deferring / about to defer.
This means that it is now well-nigh impossible to run the expedition, whatever happens with the pandemic or the omicron variant.
I have therefore taken the decision to defer the expedition for another year and hope you will understand and support this decision.
The dates of the 2023 expedition are 7 – 14 January 2023. If you would like to defer to that expedition, then please just e-mail back and we will do the rest for you. You can also defer to any other expedition on our portfolio within the next 30 months. You can tell us now or later which expedition and we will handle everything else for you. Details of how deferment works are on https://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/faq#coronavirus.
If you require any confirmation letters for insurance purposes, then please also let us know.
Thank you again for your support and understanding. Thank you for your patience. I am sorry for the disappointment and the inconvenience this decision will cause you.
Stay health, stay safe and we will see you on the other side of this in a year, if not before.
Thank you to you, our Friends and all donors of our coronavirus appeals. Through your support and generosity, we managed to raise over € 85,000 across three appeals! Thank you very much for this. This has given us a good chance of survival, even if the pandemic is coming back with an omicron vengeance and we are likely to have to defer expeditions early in 2022 yet again.
But for now, let’s celebrate this success and give you the thanks and honour you deserve for supporting us. You can see details of the appeals and an honour roll of donors here.
So thank you again from all of us at Biosphere Expeditions. We really appreciate your support and we probably would not be around today without it.
We were poised to re-start expeditions in 2022, but as we write this, Omicron is upon us.
We have just (in late November) placed our first two expeditions of 2022 (Arabia and Kenya) on a warning. This means that we now believe that there is a higher than 50% chance that we will have to defer these expeditions again.
Like everyone else on the planet, we can but wait, plan, react and adapt. So here is our plan:
1. We will keep monitoring the situation and re-open expeditions as soon as it is reasonable to do so.
2. We will start another survival fundraiser if this new wave of the pandemic threatens our survival.
3. Once we restart expeditions, we will take all reasonable precautions necessary to protect our citizen scientists, staff, helpers and the wildlife we are honour-bound to protect. This means that
(A) only fully vaccinated people (with certifications proving their vaccination status) will be allowed on the expeditions. All available vaccines will be accepted. The last vaccination must not be older than six months.
(B) Those that are not fully vaccinated may be allowed to take part if (i) there is a certified medical reason why they cannot be vaccinated – in that case they must provide a negative rapid / lateral flow / antigen Covid test immediately prior to the expedition commencing and will need to be re-tested at regular intervals during the expedition, or (ii) if their country of origin has not offered vaccinations to them – for local staff we will try to compensate for this via private vaccinations where they are available; where this is not possible, the testing scheme as above will apply.
(C) We will also require a rapid / lateral flow / antigen Covid test from each expedition member immediately prior to the expedition commencing and may repeat this test at regular intervals, as needed.
(D) Expedition leaders will also be fully vaccinated. As far as possible, we require all others (scientists, rangers, cooks, all other support staff who will come in contact with our citizen scientists) to be fully vaccinated too. For countries where this is an issue, we will have testing regimes and/or a vaccination programme for our local partners, where necessary, via private healthcare.
(E) Although there will be common threads (vaccinations, tests, hygiene procedures) on all expeditions, the exact procedures will vary from country to country. We will publish what the exact procedures are about six to seven weeks before the expedition starts, alongside your reminder to start preparing and settle your balance.
At the time of writing, only three people have complained about this and have been removed from the expeditions until such time that they see sense or that anti-vaxxers no longer present a danger to others.
Stay healthy, stay safe, keep up your spirits and wish us good fortune to get through this, as we do all readers.
We are expecting the new variant to spread rapidly around Africa and then the rest of the world. What measures countries will take to contain the spread is unkown and at the moment unknowable.
We are therefore placing our first two expeditions of 2022 (Arabia and Kenya) on a warning. This means that we now believe that there is a higher than 50% chance that we will have to defer these expeditions again. The outlook for Kenya is particularly bleak, because Kenya is in Africa, our expedition scientist comes from South Africa and is there at the moment.
Our recommendation is not to book any flights or make further arrangements for now (flights and other services already booked should have been booked with a cancellation insurance, as recommended in the dossier). If we have to defer, information on how deferment works is here.
We will keep monitoring the situation and keep you informed. We will make a decision about whether to defer or not at least four weeks in advance of the first day of the expedition (so for Arabia scheduled to start on 8 January, we will tell you by 8 December at the latest).
Please bear with us. We realise this is disappointing, inconvenient and annoying for everyone, but we are also sure you understand why we have to take this action.
The winter wave of coronavirus is in full swing over much of the northern hemisphere. However, lockdowns are few and far between and on the whole the world remains accessible and open, especially for fully vaccinated people. A good overview of worldwide entry regulations, flight bans, test requirements and quarantine regulations is here.
With this in mind, we fully intend to start expeditions again in 2022, commencing with Arabia in January – have a look at our portfolio for all other expeditions throughout 2022. Many expeditions are already almost full (Kenya is already full), so please join us early, if you can.
Most countries only allow fully vaccinated people to enter. This meshes well with our policy for the 2022 expeditions (see below).
Policy for 2022 expeditions
Our policy for expeditions in 2022, at least at the beginning of the year, will be:
Only fully vaccinated people (with certifications proving their vaccination status and the last booster vaccination not older than six months) will be allowed on the expedition. All vaccines that have been approved by at least one national or international approval body will be accepted (see list).
Those that are not fully vaccinated may be allowed to take part if (a) there is a certified medical reason why they cannot be vaccinated – in that case they must provide a negative rapid / lateral flow / antigen Covid test immediately prior to the expedition commencing and will need to be re-tested at regular intervals during the expedition, or (b) if their country of origin has not offered vaccinations to them – for local staff we will try to compensate for this via private vaccinations where they are available; where this is not possible, the testing scheme as above will apply. This also applies to cases where people are unable to receive booster shots in their country of origin and therefore fall foul of the six months rule in rule 1.
We will also require a rapid / lateral flow / antigen Covid test from each expedition member immediately prior to the expedition commencing and may repeat this test at regular intervals, as needed. The initial test will be provided by Biosphere Expeditions.
Expedition participants must bring at least four lateral flow home test kits with them for any additional testing we may require. Those whose last booster vaccination is older than six months and who are unable to get a booster vaccination in their country of origin, must in addition bring enough tests to test themselves every second day whilst on the expedition.
Our end goal is to run expeditions in a safe and reasonable environment, and empower all those who are not anti-vaxxers to be able to attend wherever possible.
Although there will be common threads (vaccinations, tests, hygiene procedures) on all expeditions, the exact procedures will vary from country to country. We will publish what the exact procedures are about six to seven weeks before the expedition starts, alongside your reminder to start preparing and settle your balance.
Expedition leaders will also be fully vaccinated. As far as possible, we require all others (scientists, rangers, cooks, all other support staff who will come in contact with our citizen scientists) to be fully vaccinated too. For countries where this might be an issue, we are working on testing regimes and/or a vaccination fundraiser for our local partners to acquire vaccinations via private healthcare, where this is possible. Also see our fundraiser for this below.
Third and final fundraiser under way
Our third and final fundraiser connected to the coronavirus pandemic is all about vaccinations for our local partners: In some of our expedition countries, vaccines are an expensive luxury. We want to make sure that all our local support staff and helpers (and their immediate family) are vaccinated. We need € 4,500 to achieve this and have raised over half of it to date (54% today). Please help us achieve our funding goal via www.biosphere-expeditions.org/appeal
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS POSED IN RESPONSE TO THIS BLOG
The following questions have been asked in response to this blog and we are providing answers for everyone to see.
What constitutes “fully vaccinated”?
You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after you get your second dose of a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, or two weeks after a single dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Currently, there is no time limit after vaccination on your fully vaccinated status, but this is likely to change soon in most countries. We, in any case, require your last vaccination to be no older than six months by the time you leave the expedition.
What vaccines do you accept?
We will accept all vaccines that have been approved by at least one national or international approval body. A list of such vaccines is here.
What type of proof of vaccination do you accept?
Any reasonable type. This may be a vaccination certificate on a national app, a letter by a doctor or vaccination facility, an entry in a vaccination booklet or on a vaccination card. All proofs must show your full name, the date of the vaccination and which vaccine you have been given. If your proof is a hardcopy, please bring the original with you, not copies or photos. If you are in any doubt, please send us a scan or photo of the proof for verification first.
My expedition ends on 4 May and my next booster vaccination will be on 10 December. Is that ok?
Yes, it is. We require your last vaccination to be no older than six months by the time you leave the expedition and count this in full months from the date that your expedition group ends. For example, if your booster vaccination is on 1 January, you can stay with us on expedition up to and including 1 July.
Boosters are not available in my country of origin – what do I do now?
In that case you fall under rule 2(b) of vaccines not available in your country of origin. You can therefore still attend the expedition, but you must bring enough lateral flow home test kits with you to test yourself every second day on the expedition (rule 4), plus four more tests in addition. Home test kits are cheap and easily available online or via pharmacies, supermarkets etc.
I will need to provide a negative test to get into the expedition host country. Do I still have to perform a lateral flow test immediately before the expedition departs?
Yes, you do. Everyone will have to undergo a lateral flow test before departure. The reason is that travelling will have exposed you to an increased risk of infection and we want to make sure – as much as this is possible – that we start the expedition infection-free.
Who provides the lateral flow test at the beginning of the expedition?
Do I need to bring additional flow tests?
Yes, you do. Please bring at least four more lateral flow home test kits with you from home. They are easily available from pharmacies, supermarkets etc. and not expensive. Please make sure you bring at least four kits for any further testing we may require you to do during the expedition. If your last booster vaccination is older than six months and you are unable to get a booster vaccination in your country of origin, you must – in addition to the four tests everyone must bring anyway – bring enough tests to test yourself every second day whilst on the expedition.
What happens when I or someone else on the expedition tests positive?
This will depend on the regulations of the country we are in. It may be enough to isolate the person who has tested positive and the rest of the expedition team can continue under a strict and frequent testing regime (this is where the home test kits you will bring with you will come into play, for example). Where isolation within the expedition base is possible, we will offer you the option of doing this. This is at the easy end of the scale. At the other end of the scale is stopping and disbanding the expedition with de-central isolation of the whole expedition team, if local regulations require this or if this is the prudent thing to do. We will always try our best to help you avoid additional costs and hassle, but you must come prepared, adequately financed and/or insured for eventualities and additional costs. For example, as soon as an expedition is stopped or when you are leaving an expedition (voluntarily or because you are required by local regulations to do so), then you must cover all costs yourself. This may include hotel or hospital stays for quarantine periods required by local laws, additional Covid tests, health care costs, missed flights due to quarantining etc. It is impossible for us to predict what the regulations in each expedition host country will be in the future. Suffice it to say that we will have a plan before each expedition starts (and communicate this to you), but you must also think about eventualities yourself and make sure you come on the expedition adequately financed/covered/insured for the example situations described above, as well as any others that may arise. In this context, insurances vary widely and it is up to you to decide what cover, if any, you want to purchase. Because policies vary widely and change frequently, we have no partner insurers or recommendations.
What about getting into the expedition host country?
This is your responsibility. The host country requirements for entry (there is a good worldwide overview here) will differ from our requirements for expedition participation. It is your responsibility to make sure you fulfil both so that you can firstly get into the expedition host country and secondly take part in the expedition once you have arrived in-country.
Why do you require a booster / what is the reason behind the six months rule?
There is very strong evidence, recently underscored by an Australian study, that protection decreases with time and that booster vaccinations are therefore necessary.
Why are you creating all these rules?
The end goal is to run expeditions in a safe and responsible environment, especially whilst the pandemic is still with us, and empower all those who are not anti-vaxxers to be able to attend. Therefore, if you are already vaccinated and if local conditions prevent you from having a booster within six months of your expedition group ending, then we will be reasonable about this (see explanations of rule 2(b) above).