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20 June 2022 5 min read

The prosperity of an island nation depends greatly on the extent to which it achieves excellence in hydrography.

Commodore R. Nairn RAN, Hydrographer of Australia, 2010

For Australia, excellence in hydrography is vital. Understanding the shape and structure of our coastal areas and surrounding seafloor provides vital information to ensure safe navigation. It helps us to protect our marine and terrestrial environments, and sustainably manage the resources they contain.

Sailing in to save the day, meet the hydrographic surveyor!

What is hydrography?

Hydrography is an applied science. It deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes and rivers. It generally uses sound technology, such as echosounders, to measure and map these areas.

Phil points out that while hydrography was traditionally concerned with developing charts for safe navigation of ships, it has a far broader application.

"Hydrography supports many other marine activities, including economic development, fisheries, security and defence, scientific research and environmental protection," Phil said.

"Our work provides the foundation for all those activities."

Hydrographic surveyors use state-of-the-art technology. This includes sophisticated acoustic equipment and high accuracy positioning systems. In fact, they were at the forefront of developing the use of GPS (Global Positioning System)/GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). This enabled worldwide high accuracy positioning.

Undoubtedly, these developments were borne from need, as hydrographic surveyors can travel far and wide in their work.

How do you become a hydrographic surveyor?

Most hydrographic surveyors have a degree in hydrography, surveying, geomatics or a relevant subject such as spatial science, marine science or geoscience.

For Phil, his entry into the role flowed from a keen interest in the ocean and the subject of geography during his school years. From there, he studied oceanography, and subsequently marine geophysics and hydrography.

"Working in this field has allowed me to travel extensively around the globe, collaborate with great people and map some amazing areas and features," Phil said.

Phil now works with eight others in our Geophysical Survey and Mapping (GSM) team, which has a diverse range of backgrounds and skillsets.

"We have hydrographic and geophysical surveyors, acousticians, GIS analysts and data management professionals," he said.

"We also have several nationalities in the team, with staff from Australia, the UK, USA and, myself, from South Africa."

Taking soundings for science

In his recent career, Phil has become more immersed in deep-water mapping. This has included working on the search for MH370 and now taking to sea on board our research vessel (RV) Investigator.

Phil and our GSM team operate the advanced seafloor mapping systems on RV Investigator. They can spend up to 60 days at sea in some of the remotest places on the planet. The work they do has helped:

In addition, the team have even helped discover an underwater Eye of Sauron, a caldera (collapsed volcano) on the seafloor near Christmas Island.

Accordingly, many end users rely on our hydrographic expertise and data for a range of purposes.

Parks Australia use it in the management of our marine parks. The Australian Hydrographic Office use it to help ensure safe navigation for vessels, both above and below the waves. Geoscience Australia use it to understand the geology and structure of Australia’s extensive offshore territories.

Likewise, international initiatives, including the Seabed 2030 project, combine the data we collect in collaborative efforts. This produces updated and more accurate maps of the world’s ocean floor.

Indeed, the list of activities that the hydrographic surveyor supports is long.

Navigation, oil, gas and mineral resource exploration and recovery. Dredging, submarine pipeline and telephone cable installation. Environmental monitoring, aquaculture and oceanographic research. All depend on the hydrographic surveyor for accurate, reliable information.

However, being a hydrographic surveyor doesn’t mean you have to spend your life at sea.

Not just big ships and deep ocean surveys

Hydrographic surveyors map all bodies of water, including coastal environments and lakes. They can work on ships big and small.

Our team also conduct shallow water mapping via our Shallow Survey Facility (SSF) using coastal research vessels such as our RV Linnaeus and RV South Cape. They also work on our partners research vessels such as MV Bluefin (Australian Maritime College) and MV Noctiluca (IMAS).

The SSF works on a wide range of projects with many collaborators and stakeholders. They undertake projects Australia wide.

This work generally involves using portable echosounder units which are attached to these smaller vessels. Recently, in collaboration with research partners, they've helped develop novel algorithms to detect kelp while mapping shallow rocky reefs off Tasmania. They're also working to help advance remote sensing technologies for marine habitat analysis.

In addition to this, the team recently collaborated with Jacobs to produce the first complete digital twin (map) of the wreck of SS Lake Illawarra and Tasman Bridge in Hobart.

A new view of the wreck of SS Lake Illawarra lying next to the pylons of the Tasman Bridge.

Make a splash as a hydrographic surveyor

Phil says now is a good time to become a hydrographic surveyor and the role is in high demand.

"We’re presently in the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. This has a focus on delivering the science we need for the ocean we want," Phil said.

"Given the importance of hydrography for all aspects of marine research, this means hydrographic surveyors are in demand across the globe."

Indeed, there are also many commercial roles for hydrographic surveyors. For example, supporting coastal works, bridge and port construction, dredging and port maintenance operations, cable route and pipeline surveys, and offshore renewable energy projects.

Pili said it's a portable profession with travel perks.

"Importantly, it's also a role that contributes to the protection of our environment and prosperity of our communities," Phil said.

“With only about 25 per cent of the seafloor mapped to a modern standard, there’s many more shipwrecks to find and amazing underwater features to discover.”

Clearly, it's the perfect job for anyone who enjoys working on water, likes making amazing discoveries and has a sense of adventure.

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