David Tourtellot: The Speed of Sound, July 15, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

David Tourtellot

Aboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson

July 9-26, 2018

Mission:  Hydrographic Survey – Approaches to Houston

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 15th, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 28° 49.4115’N

Longitude: 93° 37.4893’W

Visibility: 10+ Nautical Miles

Sky Condition: 4/8

Wind: Direction: 240°, Speed: 7 knots


Seawater: 31.7°C

Air: Dry bulb:31.5°C          Wet bulb: 27.5°C


Science and Technology Log


NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is well underway in its mission of surveying the seafloor. The primary tool that the ship (as well as its 2 Hydrographic Survey Launches) is using to accomplish this task is sonar. Sonar was originally an acronym for SOund Navigation And Ranging. If you are familiar with echolocation – the system that some animals (such as bats and dolphins) use to navigate their surroundings – then you already have a basic understanding of how sonar works. The sonar transmits a short sound (called a ping) that will travel down, away from the ship, until it hits the seafloor. At this point, it will reflect off of the sea floor, and echo back up to the ship, where it is detected by the sonar’s receiver. The crew aboard are then able to calculate the depth of the water.

To make the necessary calculations, there are 3 variables at play: the time that it takes for the ping to travel; the distance that the ping travels; and the velocity, or the speed, at which the ping moves through the water. If we know two of those variables, it is easy to calculate the third.

When using sonar to determine the depth of the water, distance is the unknown variable – that’s what we’re ultimately trying to figure out. To do so, we need to know the other two variables. Time is an easy variable for the sonar to measure. The sonar has a transmitter, which generates the ping, and a receiver, which hears it. These two components communicate with one another to give us an accurate measure of time. The third variable, velocity, is a bit trickier.

In saltwater, sound travels approximately 1500 meters per second. However, that rate can vary slightly based on water conditions such as temperature and salinity (how salty the water is). In order for sonar to get as accurate a reading as possible, it needs to calculate the precise speed of sound for the particular water it is in at the moment. The sonar is able to do that by using a component called a sound velocity sensor, known colloquially as a singaround.

Sonar 1 Singaround

The sonar on the hull of one of the Hydrographic Survey Launches. The orange rectangles are the projector (or, the transmitter) and the receiver, and the component in the green circle is the singaround

A singaround looks like a bar with a nub on each end. One nub is a projector, and the other is a reflector. The projector broadcasts a ping that travels parallel to the hull of the ship, bounces off of the reflector, and returns to the projector. We use that information to calculate velocity. The calculation uses the same 3 variables as above (time, distance, and velocity), but this time, distance isn’t the unknown variable anymore – we know exactly how far the ping has traveled, because we know how far the projector and reflector are from one another. The singaround electronically measures how long it takes for the ping to travel, and since we now know two of the variables (distance and time) we can calculate the third (velocity) for our particular water conditions at the face of the sonar.

Sound travels roughly 4 times faster in water than it does in air (this is because water is denser than air). To ensure that the sonar gets an accurate reading, it is important that air bubbles don’t get in the way. The boat’s hull (bottom) has a triangular metal plate directly in front of the sonar, which routes air bubbles around to the side of the sonar.

Sonar 2

The hull of one of the Hydrographic Survey Launches.


Personal Log

Each day, the ship’s CO (Commanding Officer) publishes a POD, or Plan Of the Day. This is full of important information – it tells us what the ship will be doing; if/when we will deploy the launch boats, and who will be on them; what time meals will be; and the expected weather conditions. Below is an example from Friday, July 13th.

Plan of the Day

NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson Plan of the Day for Friday, July 13, 2018

On Friday, I had the opportunity to go out on one of the Hydrographic Survey Launches. Because of their smaller size, the launch boats are great for surveying difficult to maneuver areas. For instance, we spent most of the day surveying an area near an oil rig, and were able to get much closer than the Thomas Jefferson could.

Mike Below Deck

Survey Tech Mike Hewlett collecting and analyzing survey data aboard a launch boat

Oil Rig and Boat

An oil rig and a supply vessel

I’ve been very impressed by how multi-talented everyone on the ship seems to be. In addition to analyzing data, the ship’s survey techs can also be found handling lines as the survey boats are launched and recovered, and do a lot of troubleshooting of the hardware and software they’re using. The coxswains (people who drive small boats) double as engineers, fixing issues on the launch vessels when away from the ship. I’m surrounded by some very gifted people!

Fixing the AC

Coxswain Francine Grains and Survey Tech Brennan Walters fixing the air conditioner on one of the launch boats that had stopped working unexpectedly. They had it up and running in no time

Did you know?: As president, Thomas Jefferson ordered the first survey of the coastline of the United States. Because of this, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is named for him. 

Latest Highlight: While surveying, we spotted a water spout in the distance. A water spout is a tornado that forms over water. Luckily, we were a safe distance away. It was an amazing sight to see!


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