A small hydro research vessel delivers big results

by Dawn Forsythe, Coast Survey communications

Remember when your mom told you, “The best things come in small packages”? It turns out that is true for more than diamonds, puppies, and kids who think they are too short.

Today it was my privilege to ride with the 57-foot Bay Hydro II, one of NOAA’s smallest research vessels, as she came into Baltimore Harbor for the Star Spangled Spectacular, a festival that celebrates the 200th anniversary of our National Anthem. As we sailed alongside the impressive NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, past historic Fort McHenry, a 19th century cannon boomed ‒ probably sounding much as it did 200 years ago during the War of 1812, when the British attack was turned back at Baltimore. With that historic reminder, I was struck by how the Bay Hydro II represents Coast Survey’s two-century commitment to the Chesapeake Bay, starting with our surveys in 1843.

The view from NOAA R/V Bay Hydro II, as the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer passes historic Fort McHenry
The view from R/V Bay Hydro II, as the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer passes historic Fort McHenry

(Historical note: Even though President Jefferson ordered the Survey of the Coast in 1807, the U.S. Coast Survey was not able to assist during the War of 1812. We were still organizing and, in fact, the first superintendent of Coast Survey was in England when war broke out. Ferdinand Hassler was trying to recruit surveying and cartographic experts and was searching for the proper equipment. He was not able to return to the U.S. until after the war. Some historians think Hassler may have been detained in England at what could euphemistically be called a “special invitation” of the British government.)

Bay Hydro II, the successor to the original productive Bay Hydrographer, was only commissioned five years ago. She was built for the Bay. As U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski wrote in 2009:

“The Port of Baltimore depends on accurate charts to ensure maritime traffic flows freely, and to help keep the Bay safe from environmental disasters that could result from vessels striking uncharted hazards… Investing in advanced technology, like the Bay Hydrographer II and the sonar equipment it uses, is especially important for keeping America competitive in a global arena. Much of the charting equipment and software currently used within NOAA’s hydrographic fleet was first tested and proven right here in the Bay using this vessel’s predecessor.

“I’m proud to have such an advanced test platform in Maryland’s backyard, keeping America safe, and keeping America innovative.”

The Bay Hydro II is meeting Senator Mikulski’s vision for safety and innovation.

BHII in Hampton Roads 2011
Bay Hydro II surveyed in Hampton Roads following Hurricane Irene, speeding the resumption of port operations

Bay Hydro II has an impressive record. She was the first vessel in Norfolk waters after Hurricane Irene and Sandy, searching for underwater debris to speed resumption of shipping and naval operations in Hampton Roads. In addition to leading Coast Survey evaluations of emerging hydrographic survey technologies, she has assisted U.S. Navy researchers who are testing new technologies. She has rescued stranded boaters and removed debris that posed a danger to navigation in the Bay. And by participating in local community events, the Bay Hydro crews have educated tens of thousands of people about the Bay’s marine characteristics and maritime importance.

Speaking of education… At Baltimore’s 2012 Sailabration, nearly 9,000 people toured this mighty little research vessel for an introduction to NOAA’s hydrographic surveys. With more than a million people expected for this year’s Star Spangled Spectacular, from Sep. 11 to Sep. 15, I’d be surprised if the three-person Bay Hydro crew has any voice left on Tuesday.

This weekend, a lot of people are going to discover how a small research vessel delivers big results.

O-I-C Buesseler
Lt.j.g. Bart Buesseler is the officer-in-charge of the R/V Bay Hydro II
Rob Mowery
Rob Mowery, physical scientist technician on the Bay Hydro II, explains survey preparations to a visiting media crew.

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