By Darcy Herman
Over its 200-year history, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has employed men who are preeminent in their fields. Most of the time, their career successes follow traditional professional trajectories ‒ but at least one Coast Survey alum’s ultimate renown was born of his failure at Coast Survey.
James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), the American artist best known for his painting colloquially known as “Whistler’s Mother,” was briefly and unhappily employed in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1854 and 1855.
Whistler came to Coast Survey at the age of 20, after he was asked to leave West Point over an argument with a professor of chemistry there. As Whistler tells it, “The Professor would not agree with me that silicon was a gas, but declared it was a metal; and as we could come to no agreement in the matter, it was suggested — all in the most courteous and correct West Point way ‒ that perhaps I had better leave the Academy.”
Enter Secretary of War and fellow West Point expellee Jefferson Davis, who, after interviewing Whistler and learning of his talent in drawing, recommended him to an open post at Coast Survey. There Whistler met John Ross Key, and the two became good friends as well as office mates. In a memoir, Key recalls that Whistler was a bad fit for the job. “The accuracy required in the making of maps and surveys, where mathematical calculations are the foundation of projections upon which are drawn the topographical or hydrographical conventional signs, was not to Whistler’s liking, and the laborious application involved was beyond his nature, or inconsistent with it,” Key wrote. Apparently, Whistler’s nature was also inconsistent with regular office hours. Making a leisurely arrival to Coast Survey, Whistler once claimed “I was not too late; the office opened too early.”
When he did produce drawings, Whistler was often distracted, making small sketches in the margins of charts or on scraps of paper. One of these idle sketches was of his friend Key seated at his sketch board. Frustrated with the effort, Whistler threw the sketch of Key on the floor, where Key retrieved and saved it.
Whistler’s sketch of John Ross Key
Whistler’s work appears on two Coast Survey sketches. One, described by E.R. and J. Pennell, was found on a copperplate and saved by Whistler’s Coast Survey office mate, John Ross Key. It depicts a rocky shore, with sketches of several people, something Whistler was fond of drawing on many surfaces ‒ including the walls of the stairway leading down to the office of his boss, Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache.
Key saved Whistler’s copperplate etching
On the Sketch of Anacapa Island (1854), Whistler etched the view of the eastern extremity of the island and added birds flying overhead. When he was scolded for the addition, Whistler replied, “Surely the birds don’t detract from the sketch. Anacapa Island couldn’t look as blank as that map did before I added the birds.”
Sketch of Anacapa Island
Although he was criticized for including nonessential decoration on official government charts, the results of his doodling and experiments on copper plates showed Whistler’s true mastery of etching technique — a technique he learned while employed at Coast Survey and later used to great success and reasonable profit as an iconic American artist.
(For more information on Whistler, see Stanley Weintraub’s Whistler: A Biography, published in 1974 by Weybright and Talley.)
by Ensign Sarah Chappel, NOAA Ship Rainier
NOAA Ship Rainier recently surveyed Whale Passage, which separates Whale Island from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The area has never been surveyed with modern full bottom coverage methods, and some project areas were last surveyed by lead lines around a hundred years ago. The area frequently experiences 7 knot currents, making rocky or shoal areas particularly treacherous. Whale Passage is a high traffic area for fishing vessels, U.S. Coast Guard cutters, barges, ferries, and small boats, which is why updating the area’s nautical charts is so important.
Strong currents push around Ilkognak Rock daymark at the entrance of Whale Passage. (Photo by LTJG Damian Manda)
The dynamics of the passage and surrounding area create several challenges for the hydrographic survey teams. The local tidal and current models are not well-known. To resolve this, Rainier was instructed to install four tide gauges in the greater project area, compared to a typical requirement for one gauge. Two of these gauges are a mere 4.5 nautical miles apart, in and just outside of Whale Passage itself. Some areas are so narrow and experience such high currents that it is only possible to survey in one direction in order to maintain control of the launch. The coxswain must plan each turn carefully, to avoid being pushed into dangerous areas. Ideally, these areas would be surveyed at or near slack tide. However, the slack in this survey area is incredibly brief and the predicted slack periods did not match what survey crews saw in the field.
The bathymetry is so dynamic that, even in relatively deep water, boat crews must remain alert for rocks and shoals. The survey teams found several large rocks in locations significantly different from where they were charted. Furthermore, the presence of large kelp beds increases the difficulty of surveying: they can foul the propellers on the launches, add noise to the sonar data, and can also obscure the presence of rocks.
While the work within Whale Passage, and the neighboring Afognak Strait on the north side of Whale Island, is challenging, it is also high-value. In addition to correcting the positions of known rocks and hazards, Rainier and her crew found a sunken vessel. Most importantly, though, they found areas that were charted twice as deep as they actually are. When the chart reads 8 fathoms (48 feet) and the actual depth is only 4 fathoms (24 feet), commercial traffic utilizing the passage could be in serious danger of running aground. Thus far, Rainier has submitted two DTON (danger to navigation) reports for depths significantly shoaler than charted. These new depths are already published on the latest version of chart 16594.
Rainier‘s multibeam sonar data shows a sunken fishing vessel in the vicinity of Whale Passage.
NOAA Ship Rainier will continue to survey the vicinity of Whale Passage, as well as the waters near Cold Bay out in the Alaskan Peninsula, for the remainder of the survey season before heading home to Newport, Oregon.
NOAA Ship Rainier recovers a survey launch after a morning of surveying and data collection. (Photo by LTJG Damian Manda)
Knowing the locations of shipwrecks and other obstructions has always been important for safe navigation ‒ but mariners are not the only people who want to know about wrecks. They are also important for marine archeology, recreational diving, salvage operations, and fishing, among other interests. Now, Coast Survey has improved our Wrecks and Obstructions Database, giving everyone easy access to new records to explore.
Coast Survey’s wrecks and obstructions database provides info on thousands of wrecks.
Historically, Coast Survey has maintained two separate sources of information on wrecks. We recently combined the sources, bringing together information on nearly 20,000 wrecks and obstructions.
Coast Survey established the Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System (AWOIS) database in 1981 to help estimate the level of effort required to investigate items during a planned hydrographic survey, but maritime users were also interested in AWOIS’ historical records. However, because the emphasis is on features that are most likely to pose a hazard to navigation, AWOIS has always had limitations. Most notably, AWOIS is not a comprehensive record and does not completely address every known or reported wreck. Additionally, for a number of reasons, AWOIS positions do not always agree with a charted position for a similar feature.
Coast Survey compiles NOAA’s electronic navigational charts (NOAA ENC®) from sources on features that are navigationally significant. As the official chart data used in electronic chart and display information systems (ECDIS), ENCs are the authoritative source of information about known or reported wrecks and are much more comprehensive than AWOIS. However, the features in an ENC typically lack the historic information and context provided by AWOIS.
Correcting for some overlap between the two source databases, Coast Survey’s new wrecks and obstructions database now contains information on about 13,000 wreck features and 6,000 obstructions. Wreck features from each original database are stored in separate layers but can be displayed together. Users may also choose a background map from several options.
The new database also offers users additional data formats from which to choose. Historically, shipwreck data in AWOIS was available in Adobe PDF and as Microsoft Access Database (MDB) format. More recently, KML/KMZ files replaced PDF and MDB formats, making it easier for public users to view AWOIS data, by using freely available software such as Google Maps or Google Earth. Now, in addition to KML/KMZ and Microsoft Excel formats for general users, Coast Survey provides the data in ArcGIS REST services and OGC WMS services, for use in GIS software programs or web-based map mashup sites.
NOAA has issued a new nautical chart for the Delong Mountain Terminal, a shallow draft port servicing the Red Dog Mine, on the western coast of Alaska in the Arctic. New chart 16145 fills in historically sparse depth measurements, using new survey data recently acquired specifically for this chart.
“This chart is important to the Arctic economy, giving navigational intelligence for the vessels shipping zinc and lead from Red Dog Mine, one of the world’s largest producer of zinc concentrate,” explained Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The new chart offers vastly more navigational information than the only other available chart of the area.”
The Delong Mountain Terminal is a shallow draft port servicing the Red Dog Mine, which is located about 50 miles inland. The terminal uses self-loading barges to ferry the ore concentrates to the deep draft ships anchored several miles offshore.
“The shipping season from the terminal only lasts about 100 days, so shipping efficiency is vital,” Glang points out. “This chart will help to improve those maritime efficiencies, as well as safety.”
Previously, the only official nautical chart available to transit the near shore area was the 1:700,000 scale chart 16005, which shows one depth measurement within three nautical miles of the approach to Delong Mountain Terminal. New NOAA chart 16145 offers a much more usable 1:40,000 scale coverage, with updated shoreline measurements and newly acquired hydrographic information. It shows dozens of depth measurements in the approach to the terminal, representative of thousands of soundings, to give the mariner accurate depths for navigation.
This is NOAA’s third new Arctic chart issued in the past three years. Chart 16161 (ENC US5AK97) for Alaska’s Kotzebue Harbor were issued in 2012, and chart 16190 (ENCs US4AK8D and US5AK8D) for Bering Strait North were issued in 2013.
by Marcus Cole, Coast Survey’s Cartographic & Geospatial Technology Program
Many are familiar with hydrographic surveys used to update nautical charts.
It isn’t enough, however, to collect just bathymetry during a survey. Without the context, such as when the data was collected, what instrumentation was used, or which tide stations were used to adjust the bathymetry to a particular datum, the data can’t be compiled into a chart update. The data can’t be discovered for a fish habitat study, or an analysis of coastal erosion, or tsunami inundation modeling. And, until two years ago, this metadata (data about data) was collected in a paper document that hadn’t changed much during the last century.
Experts from NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) and Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Surveys Division recently ramped up the intensive process of overhauling their hydrographic survey metadata system ‒ an investment in resources that has increased efficiency, reduced errors, improved access, and enabled data discovery for anyone accessing the publicly available files.
Find descriptive reports from NGDC’s interactive map.
This particular effort centered on a new metadata format for descriptive reports (DR) that accompany every hydrographic survey. The report is a critical document that supplements and helps characterize the hydrographic data itself. For example, the DR lists the conditions under which the survey was performed, factors that might affect the survey’s adequacy and accuracy, who collected the data, how it was collected and processed, the equipment and procedures used, and the results. This metadata is essential for evaluating the survey, updating charts, and contributing to NOAA’s historical and legal archive.
Coast Survey’s new method of tracking metadata for DRs uses a format readable by both humans and computers: eXtensible markup language (XML). XML defines a set of rules for encoding documents that enables automation for many metadata-related processes:
- producing, editing, and transferring survey metadata;
- searching for text in a document;
- transforming data formats; and
- publishing standards-compliant metadata to multiple data warehouses from a single record.
Automation reduces the errors that may come from manual data entry, decreases the time needed to generate a DR, and enables data to be linked to other information pipelines. The biggest benefit from all these improvements in automation, however, is consistency. Just as datums are consistently defined and used in hydrographic surveys, metadata in the new XML DR architecture will be consistently generated and applied, leading to greater intercomparability between surveys. Furthermore, this change aligns with NGDC, where hydrographic survey data is archived. NGDC is adapting its data archiving and management infrastructure to take advantage of XML DR.
Not only does the new XML architecture make it easier to share data between Coast Survey and NGDC; it also helps integrate information from other branches of NOAA and the wider survey-interested community. Some of that information includes:
XML DR may also help Coast Survey integrate survey planning and ship resource management, extending its impact and utility even further.
A team of NOAA Corps officers, CIRES/University of Colorado contract staff, and Coast Survey experts worked together to foster these technology changes. As a result of their efforts to make data more consistent and accessible, it is as easy to learn something about H00001, the first survey conducted in 1837 in Long Island Sound, as it is to view H12381, a modern LIDAR survey from the Florida Keys.
Ah, the boat is ready, the safety vests are stowed on board, the sky is blue, and the water beckons… But hold on a sec, sailor! Where is your nautical chart?
A terrific t-shirt is sold in tourist shops at some of our nation’s harbors. It has a “definition” of a nautical chart splayed across the front: “chärt, n: a nautical map that shows you what you just hit.” It’s funny… but unfortunately, too true too often.
Resolve to get your nautical chart this year and consult it before you hit something. Advancements in Coast Survey’s digital processes now allow us to review and update charts weekly, and get them to boaters’ fingertips faster − and with less expense − than was possible years ago.
So, what product is best for you? Check out the options…
Paper nautical charts, printed “on demand.” Coast Survey maintains 1,025 nautical charts and provides the digital chart images to NOAA-certified agents, who print the latest version (incorporating weekly updates) when you order it. Order from any of our print agents – several with distribution to local marine shops – that offer different papers and optional premium services.
Free PDF nautical charts. Almost all nautical charts are available for download from our map-based interactive chart catalog or the numbered list. Crop, re-size, print or display them. (Just don’t use them for navigation if you are a SOLAS vessel, since regulated vessels need charts from NOAA-certified printers.)
Free BookletCharts™. For easy printing at home, choose NOAA BookletCharts. These PDFs have the same information as the regular paper charts, but they are sliced and diced into 8 ½ x 11” pages, so you can keep them in a regular notebook. Some boaters like to slide the pages into sheet protectors to protect them from the spray.
Free raster navigational charts. The NOAA RNC® is a geo-referenced digital image of the paper chart, used in a variety of commercial electronic charting systems.
Free electronic navigational charts. The NOAA ENC® is produced from a vector database of features. It supports real-time navigation as well as collision and grounding avoidance. ENCs are used by many computer navigation programs and mobile apps, as well as ECDIS.
Free historical charts (in jpg). Reflecting Coast Survey’s beginnings as the first scientific agency in the U.S. government, the Historical Map & Chart Collection has nearly 35,000 images of nautical charts, topographical maps, sketches, and more.
Okay, you’ve decided which product you want. Now, what chart do you need?
Coast Survey’s map-based interactive chart catalog makes it easy to find and download the chart(s) you need.
Chart catalogs are handy to have around. (Note: Coast Survey is transitioning from the large format to an easier 8½ x 11″ PDF catalog that you can print at home. Some of the catalogs are beginning to appear on Coast Survey’s website now, with all five catalogs scheduled for completion by the end of June.)
More information is available to make your trip more enjoyable.
The United States Coast Pilot® is a nine-volume book series (geographically based) that contains a wealth of information: regulations, facilities, weather, prominent features, radio procedures, currents, small-craft facilities, and more. They are now available as free PDFs, or you can purchase hard copies from NOAA-certified print agents.
nowCoast is a map-based portal that provides one-stop access to coastal observations and forecasts.
Coast Survey’s wrecks and obstructions database provides latitude and longitude on thousands of wrecks along U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes, along with some historic and descriptive details (where available).
Does a chart have wrong or outdated information? Report discrepancies.
Seafloors, channels, shorelines, and aids to navigation are constantly changing. Coast Survey applies corrections to charts and the Coast Pilot every week, but we need the public’s help pinpointing changes in the 3.5 million square nautical miles of U.S. charted waters. Report charting discrepancies.
Have a happy and SAFE boating season!