This week the NOAA Ship Fairweather is completing her 30-day hydrographic reconnaissance survey in the Arctic. The crew’s personal observations during this successful cruise brings home the importance of measuring ocean depths and updating nautical charts with precise and accurate modern data. Ensign Owen provides Fairweather’s last blog post for this project. – DF
by Ensign Hadley Owen, NOAA, Junior Officer, NOAA Ship Fairweather (S-220)
1200 hours, Sunday, August 26, 2012:55°57.2’N 166°01.2’W, Bering Sea, approximately 100 nautical miles north of Unimak Pass
We are back in the Bering Sea, sloshing around amongst multiple low pressure systems on our way back south to finish out the Fairweather’s 30-day Arctic recon. While it has appeared a lonely transit at times, our AIS (Automatic Identification System) has proved that there are others along this Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort Seas route who will benefit from the updated hydrographic data we are recording.
We have seen more than 50 vessels over the past few weeks, including tugs and towing vessels; cargo ships; fishing vessels; tankers; research ships; U.S Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels; and even a couple of small passenger vessels. The ships have ranged from 12 meters to over 200 meters, with drafts of up to 15 meters.
We met mariners with a boat – essential to the region’s economy – whose crew has had frustrations with inaccurate charted soundings. The Greta Akpik is a lightering vessel operated by Bowhead Transport Company. The Fairweather stopped mid-trip outside of Barrow in order to disembark three scientists who were returning home, as well as to pick up stores to provide the remaining crew with food and supplies for the second half of our trip. As the town of Barrow does not have pier facilities, residents depend on the services of shallow-draft lightering vessels to transfer supplies between ships and shore. In casual conversation, the crew of the Greta reported soundings on a chart marked at 30 feet which in actuality read 5 feet on their depth-sounder – a somewhat nerve-wracking discrepancy but not impossible for their shallow-draft vessel. However, this kind of variation can prove a significant deterrent to other maritime traffic looking to enter the region.
Two examples of this “other” traffic that we encountered near Barrow were the 194-passenger Hanseatic and the 165-stateroom The World. Both vessels are considered luxury expedition cruise ships, offering their patrons unique opportunities to visit the world’s last remote outposts. The Hanseatic was on a 27-day trip from Nome, Alaska, to Reykjavik, Iceland. The World is a “privately-owned, residential yacht” for 130 families who collectively chose their vessel’s annual destinations. Both were traveling along the North Slope of Alaska, preparing to transit the Northwest Passage en route to the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to bringing a modest level of tourism to the area, these expedition cruise ships also serve to increase the world’s awareness of the rarity of these remote Arctic Alaskan communities. They mark the beginning of increased and wider interest in the accessibility of the area and the ease with which services can be obtained.
Even with this level of traffic, we are quickly reminded of how much the area’s nautical charts need to be updated, as we transit across a 28 nautical mile square region, south of St Lawrence Island in the Bering — which is totally lacking in soundings. To date, vessels have operated safely by relying on a great degree of local knowledge and nautical good sense. Our recent transit, however, has not only emphasized the degree to which our charts of the area need to be updated, but reminded us of the range of traffic that will benefit from these corrections and additions.