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.)
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.
by Meredith Westington, Coast Survey geographer
Good, informed decisions are often based on analyses of historic and present conditions. Researchers, decision-makers, and amateur history buffs find detailed documentation of past conditions in the thousands of Coast Survey charts, dating back to the mid-1800s, in our Historical Map and Chart Collection.
Just like present day nautical charts, historic charts contain a wealth of information about geographic features — including their names, shape, and condition. Geographic names are important locational references for today’s emergency responders, but current and historic names also convey important aspects of local people and culture, which may persist through time.
As Coast Survey’s nautical cartographers routinely apply new topographic and hydrographic data to improve decisions at-sea, a question arises about names when a geographic feature, such as an island, bay, or bayou, has changed: does the associated place name disappear when the geographic feature is no longer there, or does the local population still use the historic name to convey a shared sense of place?
Coast Survey cartographers raised this exact question after applying new shoreline information to charts covering Louisiana. When cartographers applied new shoreline data to charts 11358 and 11364 in 2011, they found that named features were no longer there (see the images below for a comparison of today’s landforms vs. the historic landforms in 1965). In early 2013, another new shoreline survey similarly affected fourteen geographic names on chart 11361. They removed these “dangling names” to reduce chart clutter, but are there new names for the areas where the features used to be?
Losing places (and their names) may mean losing important locational references. Some of these places have appeared on NOAA’s nautical charts of Louisiana since the late 1800s, so their removal raises concerns about a loss of cultural identity on the landscape. For example, Cyprien Bay was named for longtime resident Cyprien Buras. The names live on, of course, on the historic maps and charts in Coast Survey’s Historical Map and Chart Collection. Importantly, they are also retained in the lesser-known U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ federal repository of place names, the Geographic Names Information System. The system’s current and historical records make a great starting point for finding names that you can use to locate relevant historical nautical charts in the Historical Map and Chart Collection. The collection has an easy-to-use geographic place name search function. Just type in a name, and start to explore our nation’s geographic changes…
Search over 35,000 historical maps and charts, just using a geographical name.
The rebuilt “magenta line” will be a directional guide to help assure navigation safety.
The Office of Coast Survey announced today that future editions of nautical charts of the Intracoastal Waterway will be updated to include an improved “magenta line” that has historically aided navigation down the East Coast and around the Gulf Coast. Additionally, Coast Survey will change the magenta line’s function, from the perceived “recommended route” established more than a hundred years ago, to an advisory directional guide that helps prevent boaters from going astray in the maze of channels that comprise the route.
The decision comes on the heels of a year’s investigation into problems with the magenta line. In early 2013, after receiving reports of groundings by boaters who followed the line into shoals, Coast Survey started to remove the magenta line from Intracoastal Waterway nautical charts.
“We cannot deliberately include chart features that we know may pose a danger to navigation,” explained Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The problems of the magenta line’s misplacement, which had been developing over the past seven decades, were aggravated when some boaters assumed that the line indicated a precise route through safe water – although it actually went over land, shoals, or obstructions.”
This 1938 Coast Survey chart shows the Intracoastal Waterway Route after it was updated using funds from the New Deal’s Public Works Administration.
The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, a NOAA predecessor agency, first installed the line on nautical charts in 1912, when the advent of motor boating produced a demand for charts of the inland waters and shallower waters along the East Coast. The magenta line on Intracoastal Waterway charts received major updates in 1935, thanks to an influx of funding from the Great Depression’s Public Works Administration projects. Charts rarely recorded updates of the magenta line in the ensuing 70 years.
Boating public wants directional guidance
In 2013, while Coast Survey cartographers were removing poorly placed lines from charts that were undergoing regularly scheduled updates, Glang ordered a cartographic review of the magenta line’s function and maintenance. Simultaneous with an internal review of the issues, Glang issued a Federal Register Notice asking for public comments. Almost 240 individuals and organizations offered comments, saying that the line helped safe navigation on the Intracoastal Waterway.
“We asked Intracoastal Waterway users to let us know if they need the route designated on nautical charts, and the response was 99.9 percent in favor of keeping it on charts,” Glang said. “Many of the commenters explained how the magenta line saved them from dangerous or costly navigation errors. They also confirmed that we need to clear up any misunderstanding about what the magenta line is – and what it isn’t.”
The internal review and public comments confirm that the magenta line needs to be removed where it poses a danger to navigation, rebuilt to avoid shoals and other dangers, and reinstated to all the Intracoastal Waterway nautical charts. Importantly, Coast Survey will add notes to the Intracoastal Waterway charts, emphasizing that vessels transiting the waterway should be aware of changing conditions and always honor aids to navigation.
Improvements will take years to fully implement
“Today’s decision to reinstate the magenta line is not a quick fix,” cautions Captain Shep Smith, chief of Coast Survey’s Marine Chart Division. “It will take at least three years to fix problems that were 70 years in the making.”
Of Coast Survey’s 1052 nautical charts, 52 depict the magenta line. As charts are rotated through the update process, Coast Survey will evaluate and update the magenta line using charted information. When no depth soundings are on the chart, the line will generally be positioned in the centerline of dredged channels and natural waterways, avoiding shoals or obstructions less than the controlling depth. When the chart data is insufficient for determining the line’s preferred route, Coast Survey will attempt to gather additional data from partner agencies and reliable crowdsourcing.
“Most of the magenta line can be re-drawn by using the charted information, and we hope to get it done by mid-2015,” Smith explains. “On the other hand, resolving discrepancies between charted information and the line will require research, and new data acquisition and processing, with support from other federal agencies.”
Resolving chart discrepancies is a longer-term challenge, Smith says, and can conceivably take up to five years, or even longer. In cases where information is lacking and the line depiction can lead to risky navigation, Coast Survey will remove the line.
Background on the Intracoastal Waterway
The Intracoastal Waterway, extending about 3,000 miles, is essentially two waterways along the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) extends 1,200 miles from Norfolk to Key West, and is home to ports, Coast Guard bases, and a dozen military facilities. Plied by tugs and barges, passenger vessels, maritime businesses and recreational boaters, the waterways consist of a series of artificial canals and natural waterways. The AIWW will be the center of Coast Survey’s initial focus.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association estimates that the AIWW generates billions of dollars of commercial, recreational, and personal income annually. According to a 2006 report to the North Carolina Sea Grant Program, the AIWW produces $257 million in annual sales, over 4,000 jobs, $124 million in wages, $35.6 million in federal taxes and fees and $21.4 million in state taxes and fees in North Carolina. A similar survey in Georgia claims $33 million is total revenue generated by the AIWW. A study by the Florida Inland Navigation District shows $18 billion total economic output attributed to the AIWW.
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) is a 1,100-mile-long shallow draft man-made protected waterway that connects ports along the Gulf of Mexico from St. Marks, Florida, to Brownsville, Texas. The Texas Department of Transportation reports that the GIWW is the nation’s third busiest inland waterway, with 91 percent of the cargo classified as petroleum and chemical related products. According to Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Center for Ports and Waterways, 90 percent of Gulf Intracoastal Waterway barge traffic consists of petroleum products and petrochemical-related materials.