Everyday actions keep mariners safe aboard NOAA hydrographic survey vessels

Collecting bathymetric data for our nation’s nautical charts requires skilled work on the water. Whether survey data is actively being collected or the ship is transiting to its next destination, NOAA crews perform a number of ancillary tasks as they operate NOAA hydrographic ships 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Atmospheric and ecological observations provide context for the crew so they can avoid dangerous situations, while also supporting NOAA environmental databases and records. Drills and training are necessary to keep people and property safe. Below are some of the actions the mariners take while they are aboard the vessel:

1. Emergency drills – The crew regularly practices fire, man overboard, and abandon ship scenarios. Each drill is taken very seriously. For example, smoke and fog machines add realism to the fire drills. Each crew member has an assigned role to carry out for each type of emergency, and someone takes notes about the effectiveness of the first responders, firefighters, medical group, and central communications team. Following the drill, the executive officer of the ship leads a debrief so that the crew can receive feedback and discuss areas of improvement.

Video: NOAA crew members rescue a mannequin during a man overboard drill.

2. Position – While in motion, it is vital to know where the ship is, what direction it is heading, and where it will be moving next. To accomplish this, the team on the bridge takes position measurements every 15 minutes near landmasses and 30 minutes further from land. There are three ways to determine the position of the ship – using the Global Positioning System (GPS), using radar, or triangulating the position using an alidade (compass) to collect the bearings of landmarks. The measurements serve as a check for the ship’s GPS reading. In addition, the crew attends regular navigational meetings where the navigation officer shows the intended ship path and discusses any points to note such as narrow passageways, heavy traffic areas, and upcoming weather forecasts.

3. Watches – There is always someone on watch when a ship is transiting or surveying. To supplement the information collected by radar, the lookout uses binoculars to detect debris, other ships, shallow areas, and marine wildlife. If necessary, the crew adjusts the course of the ship to avoid entangling equipment or harming the ship or wildlife. In addition, daily observations of marine mammals are reported to the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

A NOAA Corp officer watches for hazards to navigation on board NOAA Ship Fairweather.
A NOAA Corp officer watches for hazards to navigation on board NOAA Ship Fairweather.

4. Training – Training helps the crew keep their navigation and emergency response skills sharp. Medical persons in charge (MPICs) act as the medical first responders on the ship and receive training on CPR, giving shots, and medical emergency protocols. They also attend informational sessions on topics of interest such as diabetes and transmitted diseases.

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NOAA crew practice deploying a launch boat from NOAA Ship Fairweather.

The navigation team practices skills like docking and undocking the ship, maneuvering in tight spaces, and lowering and raising launch boats. These drills are important ways for junior NOAA Corps officers to gain operational skills. To help new officers learn the basics, the executive officer of NOAA Ship Fairweather designed a video game where a person can issue commands to teammates who control the bow thrusters, engines, and rudders of an imaginary ship. The game has several challenging levels where players can practice their communication skills while getting a sense of how the boat might respond while docking, turning, or moving in rough environmental conditions.

5. Environmental conditions – The crew keeps track of the air pressure to detect upcoming storm systems. They observe and record cloud type and cover, wave and swell height and direction, and temperature. These measurements are recorded every hour while the ship is moving and are reported to the NOAA National Weather Service every four hours.

The information and training the crew obtains are vital pieces of the research vessel’s operation. By collecting environmental data and honing their skills, the crew ensures they safely navigate U.S. waters and perform their mission.

 

NOAA and Coast Guard survey shallow channels in eastern Chesapeake Bay to update aids to navigation

By Lt j.g. Patrick Debroisse

The area of the Chesapeake Bay along the Eastern Shore of Maryland is one of our nation’s treasures. Home to unique underwater grasses, fish, and shellfish, this complex transition from river to sea is also home to millions of tons of sediment delivered annually from eroding land and streams. Recreational boaters, fisherman, and cruising vessels are keenly aware of the shifting sands and sediment deposits in these shallow waters and rely on aids to navigation (ATON) — a system of beacons and buoys — to travel safely to and from the harbors and docks along the shoreline.

U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) from Crisfield, Maryland, recently requested the assistance of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey to help identify areas where ATON were in need of repair, relocation, or removal due to the shifting sediment of these nearshore areas. Crew from NOAA research vessel Bay Hydro II and from navigation response team (NRT) 1 (homeported in Stennis, Mississippi) operated an Echoboat autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) from a USCG vessel to survey these shallow waters. 

Lt j.g. Patrick Debroisse readies the Echoboat ASV for hydrographic survey
Lt j.g. Patrick Debroisse (NOAA, junior officer in charge, Bay Hydro II) readies the Echoboat ASV for hydrographic survey in the nearshore waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Alex Ligon (NOAA NRT1) works with USCG Boatswain Mate (BM) 1 Lee Durfee, BM2 Collin Blugis, and Machinery Technician 3 Matt Kemp to load the ASV on the USCG vessel.
Alex Ligon (NOAA, NRT 1) works with USCG Boatswain Mate (BM) 1 Lee Durfee, BM 2 Collin Blugis, and Machinery Technician 3 Matt Kemp to load the ASV on the USCG vessel.

The team first visited Slaughter Creek, near Taylor’s Island, where the USCG believed sediment in the channel was shifting, requiring potential ATON relocation. The second area was in Pocomoke River, east of Smith Island, where shoaling in the already shallow channel was of concern, as well as the existence of unused ATON anchors. The ASV, equipped with side scan sonar to search for underwater objects, and a multibeam echo sounder to check the contours of the channels, surveyed both areas.

Once the survey data is processed and delivered to the USCG ANT, they can make informed decisions about ATON maintenance. Finding old ATON anchors and recycling them back into service is a potential cost savings for the USCG. NOAA and the USCG plan to operate the Echoboat ASV in this area again, surveying the waters for a possible wreck in Fishing Bay and for old ATON moorings replaced by a day shape.

Echoboat ASV surveys in the Pocomoke River Channel to investigate possible shoaling.
Echoboat ASV surveys in the Pocomoke River channel to investigate possible shoaling.
Alex Ligon (NOAA NRT 1) watches the ASV data in real-time. The ability to watch the data real time allows real-time decision making for survey planning and preliminary products to be provided to the Coast Guard ANT.
Alex Ligon (NOAA, NRT 1) watches the ASV data in real-time, which allows for real-time decision making for survey planning and preliminary products.

Coast Survey recently surveyed the waters of Lake Champlain using the Echoboat ASV.  This portable unit provides flexibility and allows survey teams to further develop procedures and to train more individuals in its use for future operations around the country.

Crew of NOAA Ship Rainier surveys Everett, Washington, to update charts

By Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano
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RA-6 in Elliott Bay, downtown Seattle. Photo Credit: Lt. Andrew Clos

As NOAA Ship Rainier underwent repairs in South Seattle, the ship’s survey launches and their crews carried out a project to update nautical charts around the Port of Everett and its approaches in Possession Sound. The boats used state-of-the-art positioning and multibeam echo sounder systems to achieve full bottom coverage of the seafloor.

The ports of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett have experienced an increase in vessel traffic and capacity within the last decade. The Port of Everett serves as an international shipping port bringing jobs, trade, and recreational opportunities to the city. Across Possession Sound, Naval Station Everett is the homeport for five guided-missile destroyers, and two U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The data collected from this project will support additional military traffic transiting to and from Naval Base Kitsap in addition to the Washington State Ferries’ Mukilteo/Clinton ferry route, commercial and tribal fishing, and recreational boating in the area.

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From left to right: Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician (HSST)  Barry Jackson, Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technician (HAST) Amanda Finn, HSST Gregory Gahlinger, HAST Jonathan Witmer, Able Bodied Seaman Tyler Medley, HAST Carl Stedman, Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano, NOAA, and Lt Andrew Clos, NOAA, in Everett at the start of the project. Photo Credit: Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano

Some areas of the charts outside of Everett are based on data acquired between 1940 and the 1960s, a time when sonar technology did not allow acquisition of full bottom coverage. Complete multibeam coverage will provide mariners with modern, highly accurate information on shoals, rocks, and intertidal mudflat locations. During the first week of May, a team of nine Rainier crew members moved four survey launches from Lake Washington, where Rainier was docked, to Everett. The team, consisting of wardroom, survey, and deck department members, conducted 17 days of survey.

During this project, Rainier trained several individuals to become qualified hydrographers in charge and/or launch coxswains. Much of the multibeam acquisition in the Everett project was more gradual and shallow compared to the “steep and deep” coastline of Alaska that Rainier is more accustomed to seeing. This served as a perfect place for individuals to increase confidence and capability after a long winter repair period.

In addition to updating depth data, the Rainier survey team updated chart symbology information found on paper and electronic navigational charts of the area. Some examples of chart symbology include rocks, kelp beds, aids to navigation, traffic separation schemes, and other man-made and natural features. Traditionally, chart features are positioned using the ship’s 19-foot outboard skiffs. Equipped with a GPS positioning unit, the skiffs carefully approach a charted or new feature, and get as close as safely possible to determine the location and height. The Port of Everett contains many man-made shoreline features such as pilings, docks, and breakwater which are ideal for using a topographic laser to collect feature attribution.

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HSST Barry Jackson, HAST Jonathan Witmer, and Lt. Andrew Clos, NOAA, take RA-2 out for maneuvering training before starting the laser. Photo Credit: HAST Carl Stedman

For this project, the team used Rainier’s relatively new jet-propelled boat, RA-2, that is equipped with lidar. Using sixteen laser beams, light reflects off an object and is detected by a receiver; similar to how the sonar is used to find objects on the seafloor. Topographic laser feature attribution allows the surveyor to locate and place these features accurately with height information combined with precise positioning and orientation (roll, pitch, and yaw of the vessel) data.

The crew to gained experience and developed procedures using laser technology for feature positioning and height, which is safer for the crew than previous collection methods. Now, survey crews can collect highly accurate feature information from a distance. This experience, training, and procedure development was an important component of preparation for upcoming fieldwork in Alaska where the rocky and rugged Alaskan coastline experiences a large tidal range and contains many features that must be correctly identified and positioned. Rainier’s survey team received support on this project from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Systems and Technologies Branch, which provided additional training on lidar use and data processing.

Stay tuned for future Rainier survey updates as she heads north to survey Tracey Arm outside of Juneau, Alaska, and the ship’s adventures in California later this summer!

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Area surveyed for approaches to Everett.

Rainier would like to thank the Port of Everett for accommodating the ship’s launches throughout the duration of this survey project.

NOAA surveys Lake Champlain for improved flood modeling and mitigation strategies

At the request of the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (GLERL), NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey deployed a survey team and a new autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) to gather hydrographic data in and around the narrow causeway inlets that dot the Lake Champlain basin in Vermont. GLERL will use the data to improve flood forecast models and analyze flood mitigation strategies in the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River system as part of a U.S. and Canada study led by the International Joint Commission.

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Navigation response team (NRT) members watch from the launch vessel as a new autonomous surface vehicle, the Echoboat, surveys shallow waters in Lake Champlain. The Coast Survey team included Mike Annis from headquarters and Alex Ligon and Josh Bergeron from NRT1 (Stennis, Mississippi) to support the ASV operations, as well as Lt. j.g. Dylan Kosten, Eli Smith, and Michael Bloom of NRT5 (New London, Connecticut) to provide additional support.

Lake Champlain drains northward to the St. Lawrence River (via the Richelieu River) and is part of the Great Lakes system. In 2011, the lake reached record water levels due to large amounts of spring precipitation, snowmelt, and runoff. This water caused more than 60 consecutive days of severe flooding that affected thousands of U.S. and Canadian residents.

To gather hydrographic data that will improve lake modeling and forecasting going forward, a Coast Survey navigation response team (NRT) deployed a Seafloor Systems Echoboat to survey areas of the basin that are too shallow for traditional survey vessels to reach. In this way, the ASV acted as a force multiplier to the NRT survey vessel. Coast Survey acquired the Echoboat earlier this year, and it is Coast Survey’s first ASV to be equipped with multibeam sonar—the same type of sonar that larger NOAA survey vessels use to gather high resolution hydrographic data. With the use of this technology, the data gathered by the ASV system may be included on NOAA navigational products.

 

Video: The new autonomous surface vehicle, the Echoboat, surveys shallow waters in Lake Champlain. 

 

This was the inaugural operational use of the Echoboat, and allowed the team to gain experience setting up, running, and maintaining the ASV. Identifying and addressing software and hardware issues now prepares the team for future deployments.

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Survey data of a causeway in Lake Champlain collected by the ASV (in the green polygon) and the NRT survey vessel.

Prior to the survey, much of the hydrographic data for Lake Champlain was well over 100 years old and of sparse density. Developers at GLERL needed more detailed hydrographic information in several shallow water areas in the northern sections of the lake to complete hydrodynamic models. Lake Champlain is a complex system populated with islands spread across multiple basins, many of which are connected by bridges and causeways. Critical to the flow of water between the different basins of the lake are multiple narrow, shallow inlets bisecting these causeways. The survey dataset Coast Survey delivered to GLERL is key to knowing the volume of water that flows through these bottlenecks in order to model circulation, water levels, and the resulting floods in the lake.

Coast Survey spotlight: Meet Starla Robinson


Ever wonder what it’s like to be a member of the NOAA Coast Survey team? We will use the Coast Survey spotlight blog series as a way to periodically share the experiences of Coast Survey employees as they discuss their work, background, and advice.


Starla Robinson, Physical Scientist

“The work we do has real value and every sounding takes a team of professionals from multiple disciplines. I like being a part of something greater.”

Starla Robinson served as a crew member on the NOAA Ship Rainier. Photo credit: Lt. Damian Manda, NOAA Corps
Starla Robinson served as a crew member on NOAA Ship Rainier. Photo credit: Lt. Damian Manda, NOAA Corps
What were your experiences prior to working for NOAA Office of Coast Survey?

I worked a decade as a GIS Analyst and then four years as a Survey Technician on NOAA Ship Rainier. I have been working as a Physical Scientist for Coast Survey for three years, and in this position I plan hydrographic surveys.

What is a day in your job like?

Varied. I am a project manager. My responsibility is to plan surveys, identify risks and opportunities, and see the surveys through completion. I spend time on land researching existing data, analyzing opportunities, facilitating communication, and defining plans. Once a project is started I assist in answering questions, monitoring progress, and communicating the value of what we do.

I also have the great privilege to sail on our ships as both a project manager and survey crew. At sea I act as a liaison to land, maintain my skills, experiment with new methods, and stand a survey watch. Working on a ship allows me to see things that very few people get to see. We are explorers in a strange land, uncovering an environment no one has seen before.

Why is this work important?

Project managers are the opportunity makers and the communicators that stitch the team together for the execution of the surveys that maintain the nation’s charts. We get to be the experts, defining the requirements for national hydrography, and safeguarding quality, while making sure we effectively manage the taxpayer’s resources.

What aspects of your job are most rewarding to you?

I work with teams of brilliant, dedicated professionals who are passionate about our work. Our work provides me with a sense of purpose. I know the importance of our data to mariners. I have been in a ship looking for safe harbor. I know the importance of our data to commerce, fisheries, habitat analysis, offshore energy, sand mining, and resource management. I use my expertise in hydrography and GIS to answer questions and strategize for the future. The work we do has real value and every sounding takes a team of professionals from multiple disciplines. I like being a part of something greater.


We are celebrating World Hydrography Day all week! Check our website to see new hydrography- and bathymetry-related stories added each day.

From seaports to the deep blue sea, bathymetry matters on many scales

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By Rear Adm. Shep Smith, Director of the Office of Coast Survey

On Thursday, June 21, we celebrate World Hydrography Day. This year’s theme—Bathymetry – the foundation for sustainable seas, oceans and waterways—is very timely as many hydrographic organizations worldwide are focusing on bathymetry at local and global scales. While we work to perfect real-time data and high-resolution bathymetry for ports, we are still working to build a foundational baseline dataset of the global seafloor. Our work at both scales have implications for the local and global economies.

Let me start with the global seafloor. For the untrained eye, particularly those looking at a Google Earth image, it would appear that the monumental task of mapping the seafloor is accomplished. Geologic features appear detailed under a deep sea of blue. Little do most people know, however, that the majority of this surface is interpolated. In other words, we do a good job filling in the blank spaces between the sparse depth measurements we have. This creates a pretty picture, but does not provide valuable and much needed data for resource management, offshore energy planning, mineral extraction, and other fields of research that require high-resolution data to do meaningful work and build on existing scientific knowledge. In fact, the United Nations proclaimed a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) and calls for an increase in scientific knowledge of the ocean to support the sustainable management of marine resources and development of the blue economy. 

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Gap analysis of bathymetric data coverage in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (coverage indicated in purple).

Here in U.S. waters, we are working to help fill these gaps by supporting the Seabed 2030 initiative and maximizing the societal value of the data that is collected. Using multibeam echo sounders that survey large swaths of the ocean floor, we can collect a tremendous volume of bathymetry data along with water column and acoustic backscatter data aiding in habitat mapping. There is also increasing activity in seabed mapping to support offshore wind development and seabed minerals mining. Further, we are working with partners, state and federal agencies, and citizen science and crowdsourced programs to coordinate the collection and sharing of data. These efforts enable us to work toward increasing the breadth of data collection by covering an expanded geographic scope but also the depth of data by collecting data beyond simply bathymetry.

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Rear Adm. Shep Smith (while serving as commanding officer of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson) discusses bathymetric data collection with Erin Weller, a physical scientist with Coast Survey.

Zooming in from the global scale to individual ports, our focus changes. Our concern is no longer building a baseline dataset for longer-term research needs but getting ships in and out of port in the safest and most efficient way possible. Based on the success of the Long Beach pilot project, NOAA offices involved with precision navigation were awarded additional funding to support foundational program management, and established a dedicated team to support the expansion of precision navigation to more ports throughout the country in the coming years. 

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View from the M/V Ocean Wind as the ship transits down the Mississippi River. This region is the most congested waterway in the world as more than 10,000 ships pass through the port complexes between New Orleans to Baton Rouge each year. Plans are underway to implement precision navigation in the Lower Mississippi River Port Complex as well as in the Port of New York/New Jersey.

Whether working on the building blocks of a global high resolution bathymetric data set or customizing precision navigation port-by-port, the key to success is standardization. The latest edition of the International Hydrographic Organization’s (IHO) S-100 framework—increased standardization of maritime data products—will be published this December. NOAA plans to develop new services in line with these new standards, which will begin a new era in electronic navigation. 

It is an interesting time in our field. We are still learning, still discovering, still building. We are working every day toward mapping the ocean and developing precision navigation for our major ports. The global community first recognized World Hydrography Day in 2005 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution A/60/30. We have made a lot of progress in the past 13 years. In another 13 year’s time, we will have just surpassed the 2030 mark. I anticipate that by that time, we will be able to review with pride both our improved understanding of the ocean and sustainable growth of our blue economy.


We are celebrating World Hydrography Day all week! Check our website to see new hydrography- and bathymetry-related stories added each day.

NOAA announces launch of crowdsourced bathymetry database

By Lt. Cmdr. Adam Reed, Integrated Oceans and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) Assistant Coordinator

Today NOAA announces the end of a testing phase in the development of a new crowdsourced bathymetry database. Bathymetric observations and measurements from participants in citizen science and crowdsourced programs are now archived and made available to the public through the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry (DCDB) Data Viewer. The operationalized database allows free access to millions of ocean depth data points, and serves as a powerful source of information to improve navigational products.

The crowdsourced bathymetry database, displayed in the IHO Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry Data Viewer, has an updated user interface.
The crowdsourced bathymetry database, displayed in the IHO Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry Data Viewer, has an updated user interface.

NOAA began database development in 2014 with the IHO Crowdsourced Bathymetry Working Group. The database is part of the IHO DCDB and is hosted at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), which offers access to archives of oceanic, atmospheric, geophysical, and coastal data. Sea-ID, a maritime technology company, provided early testing and support and is currently working to encourage data contributions from the international yachting community. Ongoing participation from Rose Point Navigation Systems, a provider of marine navigation software, helped kickstart the stream of data from a crowd of mariners.

The crowdsourced bathymetry database now contains more than 117 million points of depth data, which have been used by hydrographers and cartographers to improve chart products and our knowledge of the seafloor. NOAA, working with George Mason University, is using the database depths to assess nautical chart adequacy, determine when areas require updated survey information, and identify chart discrepancies before an incident occurs. The Canadian Hydrographic Service used this dataset to update several charts of the Inside Passage, a network of coastal routes stretching from Seattle, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska.

Data are contributed to the database through a variety of trusted sources (e.g., partner companies, non-profit groups)—referred to as “trusted nodes”—that enable mariners to volunteer seafloor depths measured by their vessels. Contributors have the option to submit their data anonymously or provide additional information (vessel or instrument configuration) that can enrich the dataset. The trusted node compiles the observations and submits them to the crowdsourced bathymetry database, where anyone can access the near real-time data for commercial, scientific, or personal use.

Mariners provided millions of bathymetry data points to the crowdsourced bathymetry database by voluntarily submitting the depth data collected by their vessels.
Mariners provided millions of bathymetry data points to the crowdsourced bathymetry database by voluntarily submitting the depth data collected by their vessels.

NOAA invites maritime companies to support this crowdsourcing effort in their systems by making it simple for users to participate. For example, Rose Point Navigation Systems further promoted the IHO crowdsourced bathymetry initiative by moving the option to collect and contribute bathymetry data to a more visible section of their program options menu.

By submitting crowdsourced bathymetry data, mariners provide a powerful source of information to supplement current bathymetric coverage. Nautical charts need to be updated as marine sediments shift due to storm events, tides, and other coastal processes that affect busy maritime zones along the coast. Crowdsourced bathymetry data helps cartographers determine whether a charted area needs to be re-surveyed, or if they can make changes based on the information at hand. In some cases, crowdsourced bathymetry data can fill in gaps where bathymetric data is scarce, such as unexplored areas of the Arctic and open ocean and also shallow, complex coastlines that are difficult for traditional survey vessels to access. Crowdsourced bathymetry data is also used to identify dangers to navigation, in which case NOAA can issue a Notice to Mariners about the navigation hazard within 24 hours.

The utility of crowdsourced bathymetry data extends beyond the territory of the United States and into international mapping efforts. Seabed 2030 is a global mapping initiative to produce a complete, high-resolution bathymetric map of the world’s seafloor by 2030. GEBCO (which operates under the IHO and International Oceanographic Commission) and the Nippon Foundation launched the initiative in 2017, and received NOAA-wide commitment of resources and support.

Seafloor mapping is integral to many NOAA products, and crowdsourced bathymetric data supports NOAA’s Integrated Oceans and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) initiatives to maximize potential sources and use of mapping data. Crowdsourced efforts are poised to become a major source of information for improving nautical chart coverage and accuracy, and the crowdsourced bathymetry database contributes to national and international seafloor mapping efforts as a growing repository of bathymetric data.

Any mention of a commercial product is for informational purposes and does not constitute an endorsement by the U.S. Government or any of its employees or contractors.