Laura Guertin: NOAA, the NOAA Corps, and Thomas Jefferson, August 29, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Laura Guertin

(Just About!)
Onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson
September 2 – September 19, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 29, 2014

When I shared with my students that I was going out to sea for three weeks, they had many questions for me about not only my upcoming adventure but the process of oceanographic research in general.

  • What kind of ships do oceanographers use?
  • How long are typical oceanographic voyages?
  • Do they do research all year-round? Even in the winter?
  • Is oceanography a safe career?
  • I’d like to learn about life on a ship.

I’m hoping to answer all of my student questions (and more!) here on this blog. But to start, I want to share some more about the NOAA Corps, the NOAA fleet, and information about the specific ship I’ve been assigned to, the Thomas Jefferson.


What is the NOAA Corps?

When you see images of NOAA’s 16 ships and 12 aircraft being operated by “people in uniform,” you are looking at the amazing men and women that make up the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. The NOAA Corps has over 300 commissioned officers and is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. This amazing group of STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) professionals are direct descendants of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), the oldest scientific agency in the U.S. Federal Government. In fact, it was a bill signed by President Thomas Jefferson in February 1807 for a “Survey of the Coast” that started the national collection of accurate natural charts as well as information to address national concerns and discussions around natural boundaries, commerce, and defense (read more at NOAA’s History of Coast Survey and

The best way to learn about the NOAA Corps is to watch them in action. Check out the NOAA Corps recruiting video to get an overview of who they are and what they do.


What exactly is the NOAA fleet?

Recall that above, I mentioned that the NOAA Corps is responsible for 16 ships and 12 aircraft – yes, the NOAA fleet has boats and airplanes. Although I won’t be addressing the aircraft in this blog, I encourage you to read more about NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center and perhaps view this short video about NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters! The NOAA Marine Operations Center oversees ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for hydrographic surveys, oceanographic research, and fisheries surveys. Visit the NOAA Marine Operations Page to explore the ships in NOAA’s fleet.

And in addition to the commissioned officers aboard the ships, we have to acknowledge the wage mariners that are an integral part of running the NOAA fleet. Check out this video to learn more about the role of a civilian mariner on a NOAA ship.


What’s the role of the Thomas Jefferson in the NOAA fleet?

I have to say, I couldn’t be more excited to be heading out on the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson. This ship is part of NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessels and collects hydrographic data from depths of between 10 meters (33 feet) and 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), from Maine to Texas (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).  Its home base is Norfolk, Virginia, where I will be heading to get on the ship.  The Thomas Jefferson has a webpage and media stories that will give you all the details of the ship – its size, equipment on board, etc. (*students – I strongly encourage you to check out these links!)

So how does a ship conduct a hydrographic survey?  Check out this video to learn more about the technology (sonar) and how the data are used to create nautical charts. (Video from


And here’s a short video taken on the Thomas Jefferson in 2010 with science in action! (seeing this makes me even more excited and ready to get on board!)

B-Roll: DWH – NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson on June 2-8, 2010 from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson conducts oceanographic observations in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Deepwater Horizon BP/Gulf Oil Spill response. Filmed in June, 2010.


I am certainly ready to get all of my gear packed to head down to Norfolk – in just days, I’ll be out to sea for three weeks, ready to blog some more about my oceanographic adventures!


In the meantime to my students back at Penn State Brandywine, here’s your last pre-cruise blog post before my posts come from the ocean!  Please answer these questions online in ANGEL in the folder “Dr. G at Sea” in the link for Post #2.

  1. Based on the videos above (and anything else you discover while exploring the NOAA website), who and what does it take to run a NOAA ship on an expedition at sea?
  2. Why is the name Thomas Jefferson appropriate for a NOAA hydrographic research vessel? (*be sure to define “hydrographic survey” in your response)
  3. Summarize some of the past missions of the Thomas Jefferson. (*hint – this website should be a good source to scroll through  If you could have gone on any of these missions, which one do you wish you were a “visiting scientist” for, and why?

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