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.

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.


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

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. 

gap analysis
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.

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. 

Ocean Wind - 6 (1)
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 releases documentary on women’s service in the NOAA Corps

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, NOAA announces the release of Women of the NOAA Corps: Reflections from Sea and Sky, a documentary that highlights the important role women play in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

Women of the NOAA Corps is a 31-minute historical documentary on the lives and stories of ten women in the NOAA Corps service: how they came to the NOAA Corps, their motivations and challenges, and views on their service.

The documentary serves to elevate public understanding and appreciation of the NOAA Corps, particularly women’s service in the Corps, and to inspire the next generation of women in scientific service. The NOAA Corps is one of seven federal uniformed services of the United States, and NOAA Corps officers serve on the sea, on land, and in the air to support NOAA’s environmental science and stewardship mission.

The project was funded through the 2016 NOAA Preserve America Initiative Internal Funding Program.

Rear Adm. Harley Nygren (NOAA ret.) and Cmdr. Pam Chelgren-Koterba (NOAA ret.). Nygren was the first director of the NOAA Corps and penned entry for women to serve. Chelgren was the first woman to join the NOAA Corps in 1972, under Nygren’s leadership.
Rear Adm. Harley Nygren (NOAA ret.) and Cmdr. Pam Chelgren-Koterba (NOAA ret.). Nygren was the first director of the NOAA Corps and penned entry for women to serve. Chelgren was the first woman to join the NOAA Corps in 1972, under Nygren’s leadership.
The production team interviewed two film subjects on location at the Aviation Operation Center in Tampa, Florida. (Left to right) Bob Schwartz (NOAA Office of Communications), Crescent Moegling (Co-Producer; NOAA Office of Coast Survey), Lt. j.g. Shanae Coker (NOAA Corps), Timi Vann (Producer; National Weather Service), and Cmdr. Cathy Martin (NOAA Corps). The team also included Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Matheson as a technical advisor and worked under the leadership endorsement of Rear Adm. Anita Lopez (NOAA ret.).
The production team interviewed two film subjects on location at the Aviation Operation Center in Tampa, Florida. (Left to right) Bob Schwartz (NOAA Office of Communications), Crescent Moegling (Co-Producer; NOAA Office of Coast Survey), Lt. j.g. Shanae Coker (NOAA Corps), Timi Vann (Producer; National Weather Service), and Cmdr. Cathy Martin (NOAA Corps). The team also included Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Matheson as a technical adviser and worked under the leadership endorsement of Rear Adm. Anita Lopez (NOAA ret.).

NOAA Coast Survey 2017 leadership team

NOAA Office of Coast Survey has some new faces on its leadership team this year.

Director, Coast Survey: Rear Admiral Shepard M. Smith

ShepardSmith-hsRear Admiral Shepard M. Smith was named director of the NOAA Office of Coast Survey in August 2016. As director, Smith oversees NOAA’s charts and hydrographic surveys, ushering in the next generation of navigational products and services for mariners who need integrated delivery of coastal data. Smith has served with NOAA for 23 years, during which time he has been deeply involved in advancing the state-of-the-art in hydrography and nautical cartography. He most recently served as the commanding officer of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson and previously served as the chief of Coast Survey’s Marine Chart Division, managing the privatization of paper chart printing and distribution. He also served on the interagency response teams for the search and recovery of TWA flight 800, EgyptAir flight 990, and the private plane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr. He also commanded the Thomas Jefferson during her six-week response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Rear Adm. Smith attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and earned a Master of Science in ocean engineering from the University of New Hampshire.

Deputy Director, Coast Survey: Kathryn Ries

Katie RiesKatie Ries has served as deputy director since 2001, co-leading the workforce of 235 employees and managing the day-to-day operations of Coast Survey’s national program. She also serves as a senior adviser to the director in his role as U.S. representative to the International Hydrographic Organization, and works to advance U.S. positions in IHO policy deliberations. From 2003 to 2012, she chaired the IHO’s MesoAmerican Caribbean Hydrographic Commission’s Electronic Chart Committee, where she led the development and execution of regional charting plans in Caribbean and Central America. With the opening of relations with Cuba, she led the development of a formal working relationship with our Cuban counterparts, resulting in a historic Memorandum of Understanding in 2016 to improve maritime navigation safety and related areas of mutual interest in the Florida Straits. Ries began her career in NOAA as a Presidential Management Fellow in the International Affairs office. She earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Master of Art in international public administration from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 1986.

Deputy Hydrographer (Acting), Coast Survey: Rachel Medley

IMG_0605Rachel Medley is the acting deputy hydrographer in Coast Survey, where she focuses on external engagement and messaging strategies, making connections and identifying opportunities between NOAA navigation services and maritime interests. Rachel has long held the mantra of science with purpose and has spent the last decade gaining expertise in charting, hydrographic surveying, and navigation outreach to better understand and communicate Coast Survey’s science, products, and services. Experiences sailing aboard the USCG Cutter Healy as part of an Arctic survey, surveying the Potomac River aboard a navigation response team, and participating in the NOAA response effort to Deep Water Horizon aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces have helped shape Rachel’s dedication and service to the maritime community. Rachel also represented NOAA while on a secondment to the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office acquiring knowledge of international standards, policies, procedures, market and product management, and corporate communications plans. Rachel attended Mount Holyoke College as an undergrad, holds a Master of Science in geosciences from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Master of Science in ocean mapping from the University of New Hampshire.  Rachel also has a Master of Science in project management from George Washington University and a LEAD certificate from the Office of Personnel Management.

Resource Manager, Coast Survey: Kathleen Jamison

kathleenjamisonSince 2012, Kathleen has worked for the Coast Survey’s resource management staff, formulating the President’s Budget narrative submissions and other budget scenarios for different funding levels, developing performance metrics for the annual operating plan, preparing testimony for the director, and helping the office strategically position itself for the changing world of nautical charting and hydrographic surveying. Kathleen started at Coast Survey as a nautical cartographer in 2006 before moving into managing hydrographic survey projects, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. Kathleen participated in NOAA’s Leadership Competency Development Program from 2014-16, including rotations at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, National Centers for Environmental Information, and National Sea Grant Office.  Prior to Kathleen’s career at NOAA, she worked as a grant writer for a non-profit supporting D.C. Public Charter Schools and as a division assistant for arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts. She received her Bachelor of Art in humanities from University of Maryland and her Master of Science in geographic and cartographic sciences from George Mason University.

NOAA/University of New Hampshire Joint Hydrographic Center: Andy Armstrong

andyarmstrongCaptain Andy Armstrong (NOAA, ret.)  is co-director of the NOAA/University of New Hampshire Joint Hydrographic Center where he leads NOAA’s role in the research, mapping, and educational programs of the center. He is also the bathymetric team leader for the U.S. Interagency Extended Continental Shelf Task Project where he has been responsible for mapping nearly 875,000 square nautical miles of the seafloor in the Arctic Ocean, the U.S. Pacific Islands, and along the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific margins.  Andy joined the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps in 1974, following 4 years of service in the U.S. Navy. He retired from the NOAA Corps in 2001, continuing with NOAA as Co-Director of the Joint Hydrographic Center in a civil service capacity.  He has served on several NOAA hydrographic ships and field parties, conducting hydrographic and bathymetric surveys in Alaska and Hawaii, along the Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico coasts, and in the Great Lakes. He served as commanding officer of NOAA Ship Peirce and NOAA Ship Whiting, and as chief of NOAA’s Hydrographic Surveys Division. He has a Bachelor of Science in geology from Tulane University and an Master of Science in technical management from The Johns Hopkins University.

NOAA Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping: Ashley Chappell

AshleyAshley Chappell has served as NOAA’s Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) coordinator since 2012, working across NOAA and with sister mapping agencies on strategies for data acquisition, stewardship, and re-use.  She also represents the National Ocean Service on the NOAA Arctic team and co-chairs the Committee on Marine Transportation System‘s Arctic team.  Prior to IOCM, Ashley supported Coast Survey and NOAA on budget formulation, performance metrics, policy, and legislation.  She started with NOAA as a cartographer, and nautical charting data is her first love.  Ashley’s undergraduate degree in geography came from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (winner of  2017’s NCAA men’s basketball championship, in case you had not heard).  She earned her Master of Science in geographic and cartographic sciences from George Mason University.


Chief of the Hydrographic Surveys Division: Captain Richard Brennan

rickbrennan-hs.jpgCaptain Brennan has served with the NOAA Corps for over 20 years, most recently as the chief of the Coast Survey Development Lab. He has sailed on nearly every hydrographic ship in the modern NOAA fleet. He has conducted surveys throughout U.S. waters, through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to the Gulf of Maine, and from the Oregon coast to Chukchi Cap in the Arctic Ocean. Brennan’s most recent sea assignment was as the commanding officer of the NOAA Ship Rainier, surveying Alaskan waters. Captain Brennan has also served as chief of Coast Survey’s Atlantic Hydrographic Branch and as the mid-Atlantic navigation manager. Earlier, Brennan pursued a Master of Science degree in ocean engineering at the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, specializing in ocean mapping, acoustics, and tidal error models. After that, he led the Hydrographic Systems and Technology Program at NOAA, with a focus on transitioning new technology into fleet operations. Captain Brennan graduated from the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. He completed the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executive Fellows program in 2013.

Chief of the Coast Survey Development Laboratory: Captain Edward (E.J.) Van Den Ameele

EdwardJVanDenAmeeleCaptain Van Den Ameele has served 23 years in the NOAA Corps, where he has spent the majority of his career in hydrographic survey operations, marine technology implementation, and business process improvements.  Prior to joining the Coast Survey Development Laboratory, he was commanding officer of NOAA Ship Rainier, conducting hydrographic surveys in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Arctic.  He has also previously served aboard NOAA Ships Mount Mitchell, Surveyor, Rainier, and Fairweather.  His previous assignments include serving as chief of business operations at Office of Marine and Aviation Operation’s Marine Engineering Branch in Newport, Oregon, and as the chief of the Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Systems and Technology Program. He has also held assignments at the Atlantic Hydrographic Branch in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Pacific Hydrographic Branch in Seattle, Washington. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, a master’s certificate in technology management from the University of Washington.

Chief of the Marine Chart Division: John Nyberg

John NybergJohn Nyberg served as the deputy chief of the Marine Chart Division from 2010 to 2014, and was named chief in July 2014. As deputy, he helped direct Coast Survey’s chart modernization to digital products, changing the operational focus from paper-based chart compilation to electronic navigational charts. Prior to his work in the Marine Chart Division, Nyberg was deputy chief of Coast Survey’s Navigation Services Division, moving to the leadership position after working as a technical advisor and United States Coast Pilot cartographer. During his 12 years with NSD, he helped manage the procurement of the research vessel Bay Hydrographer II, initiated the modernization of the United States Coast Pilot’s production system, and served as acting navigation manager for Long Island Sound. Nyberg has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, with a major in geography. In 2006, he earned his master’s in international management from the University of Maryland University College.

Chief of the Navigation Services Division: Captain James Crocker

Crocker - official head shotCaptain Crocker has served with the NOAA Corps for 23 years. Most recently, he was the executive director to the Deputy Under Secretary for Operations where he was responsible for executing operational management and policy coordination activities across NOAA’s line and corporate offices. His responsibilities also included serving as a senior advisor to the Deputy Under Secretary. Crocker has conducted hydrographic survey operations from Texas to Maine and from Southern California to the North Slope of Alaska. He recently completed highly successful back-to-back tours of duty as commanding officer of NOAA ships Fairweather and Thomas Jefferson. While serving as commanding officer on Fairweather, he led the first Arctic reconnaissance survey conducted by a NOAA ship to the U.S./Canadian border. Additional NOAA sea experience includes hydrographic survey operations as executive officer on Thomas Jefferson and Rude, and junior officer on Rainier and Heck. Prior to his commands, Capt. Crocker was the chief of operations for the Hydrographic Surveys Division. He holds a Master of Business Administration degree in general management from the College of William & Mary and Bachelor of Science degrees in physical oceanography and ocean engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology.