Eric Koser: A Walk Through Ship Rainier, July 7, 2018


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Eric Koser

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

June 22 – July 9, 2018

Lisianski Strait Survey

Geographic Area: Southeast Alaska

Date: July 7, 2018: 1400 HRS

Weather Data From the Bridge
Lat: 49°11.7′          Long: 123°38.4′
Skies: Broken
Wind: 16kn at 120°
Visibility: 10+ miles
Seas:  2ft
Water temp: 15.5°C
Air Temp: 17.6°C Dry Bulb, 15.6°C Wet Bulb

Science and Technology Log

NOAA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 launch of Ship Rainier and Ship Fairweather this past spring.  These two vessels together have provided 100 years of hydrographc service.  Its amazing to consider this vessel has been cutting through the waves for 50 years!

It took a few days for me to get familiar with the layout of Ship Rainier.  Let me take you on a video tour of several sections of the ship and welcome you aboard.

First some orientation.  The decks are identified with letters – where A represents the lowest level and G is the highest level.  “A deck” is actually a collection of tanks and bilge areas…the work of the engineering team mostly takes place on B deck in the engine room.  The ship also uses numbers to address areas of the ship – starting with 01 at the bow and 12 at the stern.  This way, any location on the ship can be identified by an address.

So lets get started on a tour…

Often, work days start with a meeting on the Fantail of this ship. This is on the D deck – the deck with most of the common spaces on board.


This is a diagram of the fantail.

Fantail Safety Briefing

A typical morning safety briefing before a busy day of launches.

We’ll start our walk at the base of the stairs on the starboard side of the front of the fantail.  You’ll see the green coated bollards on several decks.  These are used for tying off the ship when in port.  The large yellow tank is gasoline for the outboard motors.  It is setup to be able to jettison over the side in a fire emergency.

Next, we’ll walk in the weather tight door amidships (center) of the front of the fantail. As we walk forward, notice the scullery (dishwashing area) on the left side followed by the galley (kitchen). To the right is the crew mess (eating area). Continuing ahead, we’ll walk through the DC ready room (Damage Control) and into the wardroom (officers eating area) and lounge.

Next, we’ll start in the Ward room and proceed up the stairs to the E deck. Here we’ll walk by several officers quarters on either side of the hall. Then we’ll turn and see a hallway that goes across the E deck and is home to FOO’s (Field Operations) and XO’s (Executive Officer’s) offices.   Then we’ll step out onto the deck and walk towards the deck on the bow (the front of the ship).

Starting once again at the fantail, now we’ll proceed up the steps to the E deck.  This is the level where the davits are mounted (small cranes) that support the launches (small boats).  After passing the base of the davits, we stop into the boat shop.  This is where engineering maintains the engines of all of the launches on board Rainier.   Next we walk up to the F level and turn towards the stern to see the launches from alongside.  Notice, also, the large black crane in the center of the deck that is used for moving additional equipment and launches.  Finally, we’ll walk all the way up the port side to the fly bridge on the G level.  Here you’ll see “Big Eyes”, my favorite tool on the ship for spotting things in the distance.  As I turn around you’ll see the masts and antennas atop this ship for communications and navigation.  The grey post with the glass circle on it is the magnetic compass –  which can actually also be viewed from the bridge below with a tube that looks up from the helm position.  You might also notice this where the kayaks are stored – great for an afternoon excursion while at anchor!

Here is a quick look in the plot room that is also located on the F deck just aft of the bridge.  This is one of two places where the hydrograph scientists work to collect and process the data collected with the MBES systems.

In the front of the ship on the F deck is the bridge.  This is the control center for the ship and the location of the helm.  There is more detail on the bridge in an earlier post.  The sound you hear is a printer running a copy of the latest weather updates.

Finally, visit my C-03 stateroom.  My room has two bunks and plenty of storage for two people’s gear.  There are four staterooms in this cluster that share two heads (bathrooms).  The orange boxes on the wall are EEBDs (Emergency Escape Breathing Devices).  These are located throughout the ship and provide a few minutes of air to allow escape in the event of fire.  Notice at the top of the steps were back to the hallway and steps just outside of the lounge on D level.

The entire engineering department is not included in these videos and exists mostly on the B level.  Please see my second blog post for more detail on engineering systems and several photos!

Personal Log

Sunday, July 8, 1000 hrs.
We’re coming around the northwestern most point of Washington State this morning and then turning south for the Oregon Coast.  The ship is rolling a bit in the ocean swells.  I’ve come to be very used to this motion.  Last night we had a chance to go ashore in Friday Harbor, in the San Juan Islands for a few hours.  I was surprised just how ‘wobbly’ my legs felt being back on solid ground for a while.  My ship mates tell me this is how it is the first few times back ashore after being at sea!

This has been a great experience – one of plenty of learning and a real appreciation for the work accomplished by this team.  I look forward to drawing in all I can in the last day on the ocean.

Who is On Board?

Mike Alfidi

This is our cox’n Mike Alfidi at the helm of Launch RA-3.

This is augmenter Mike Alfidi.  Mike has been a cox’n (boat driver) here on Rainier for about two years now, and has quite a bit of past experience in the Navy.  Mike is a part of the deck department.  His primary duties here are driving small boats and handling equipment on the decks.  As an “augmenter,” he makes himself available to NOAA to be placed as directed on ships needing his skills.

One of the things Mike loves about his work is getting to see beautiful places like Southeast Alaska.  And, he appreciates updating charts in high traffic areas like the harbor at Pelican.  He loves to be a part of history – transitioning survey data from the old lead line to the much more accurate MBES.  One of the toughest parts, he says, is riding our rough seas and plotting in less trafficked areas.  He did a great job of piloting our launch just as the hydro scientists needed to collect the data we were after!



Eric Koser: The Impact of the Work

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Eric Koser
Aboard Ship Rainier
June 22-July 9
Mission: Lisianski Strait Survey, AK
July 4, 2018: 1000 HRS

Weather Data From the Bridge
Lat: 55°57.7’          Long: 133°55.7’
Skies: Clear
Wind Light and variable
Visibility 10+ miles
Seas: <1 ft
Water temp: 7.2°C
Air Temp: 14.1°C Dry Bulb, 12.5°C Wet Bulb

Pelican Harbor

The harbor at Pelican, Alaska.

The Impact of the Work
“We’re a part of history!” This notion, shared by a colleague on a launch yesterday, brings home the importance of the work of this team and NOAA’s Hydrographic Branch. Lisianski Inlet was last surveyed in 1917 by lead line! The charts of the inlet were old and not likely accurate. This week – fresh data has been collected by Ship Rainier and her launches to bring the next century of mapping tools below their shores.

Pelican Harbor in the town of Pelican, Alaska was last surveyed between 1970 and 1989.–until we surveyed it yesterday with Rainier Launch RA-3. Our team drove in and out between each of the docks in the harbor, carefully pinging sound waves off of the floor of the harbor to construct a new digital map of the bottom.

Pelican Guys

Guys on a mission…walking to pickup the HorCon.

Pelican HorCon

This is the Horizontal Control station, or HorCon, setup on the breakwater at Pelican before we took it down.

Part of our task yesterday, in addition to conducting MBES survey from our launch, was to dock in Pelican and retrieve our HorCon (a GPS reference radio setup on land that we have used there all week). As we walked through the very small town carrying two car batteries in backpacks, a pair of antennas, tripods, and other gear back to the launch – surely people were interested in what we were up to. Several people stopped to chat as we made our way from the pier, along the boardwalk, and down to the docks to go back to our launch. People asked who we were – and if we were the NOAA team that was in town. There was much appreciation expressed to NOAA for the work being done in the inlet to update the nautical charts. Here in Pelican, the water is the primary mode of transport. Accurate nautical charts provide security and safety.





Here is a bit of history on the city!

Main Street, Pelican, Alaska

Main Street, Pelican, Alaska



It’s a comfortable place, here in Pelican!

There are no roads to Pelican. A few cars are in town – to pull trailers and move equipment. But the primary mode of land transport is four-wheelers. The ‘main street’ is really a raised boardwalk that runs along the rocky shore – and is the heartbeat of the community.   Folks that live up or down the inlet from the town get there in small launches – there are no roads. A ferry comes to Pelican twice a month and is how cars and trucks come and go here. A seaplane comes through a few times a week—often bringing tourists in and out – and the mail. It’s a beautiful spot centered in a small inlet on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.







Pelican Seaplane

The fastest transportation in many parts of Alaska.

Pelican House

A house up the shoreline from Pelican.

Science and Technology Log

It’s mission accomplished for Lisianski Inlet!

Nautical charts are broken up into sheets. And within each sheet, areas are broken down into smaller polygons for data collection. Each launch (small boat), as well as the ship itself, can bring in multibeam data with the equipment mounted on each hull to complete plotting polygons and eventually complete sheets.

The hydrographic survey team is working away today in the plot room and on “the holodeck” of Ship Rainier (an office area on the top of the ship behind the plot room) processing the data we have collected the past several days. A combination of ship and launch multibeam data in addition to bottom samples and shoreline updates have been collected. Now the work of the scientists continues and becomes data processing.


Part of the hydrographic team on the holodeck.

As the data is combined, it is reviewed and refined to make a complete picture of the survey area. Once the team on the ship has completed their work, the data goes to the Pacific Hydrographic Branch of the Office of Coast Survey of NOAA. Here, the PHB team reviews that data again and assures it meets the specifications and standards needed to become finalized for use.

From PHB, the data is passed to two places. One is the NCEI (National Center for Environmental Information) office. They archive all of the raw and processed data including the digital surfaces themselves and the descriptive reports written by the hydrographers here.

The data also goes to the Marine Chart Division, an office of NOAA Coast Survey. Here is where the nautical charts are produced in both ENC and RNC (electronic and paper versions). It is this branch that publishes the data for use by mariners and the general public. Anyone can see the charts at (try the “Chart Locator”).

Nautical Chart

Here is a finished chart we are using to navigate today. Notice the two buoys in purple and green on the chart, and the narrow space between them.

Flybridge Approach

This is the view from the flybridge as we approach these same two buoys that are indicated on the chart.


Who is on board?


Tyanne Faulkes is a hydrographic scientist with NOAA.

During this leg of the trip, we have a visiting scientist from NOAA’s is here on board. Tyanne Faulkes works as a physical scientist for the Pacific Hydrographic Branch of NOAA. She is a part of the team that processes the data from the hydro teams on NOAA Ship Rainier and NOAA Ship Fairweather. Her job is to assure that the data meets NOAA’s specifications–so that they can provide evidence of dangers of navigation and accurate depth information for all mariners.

Tyanne loves to be involved in making maps of the sea floor – and getting to see things others have not seen before! She loves that NOAA provides data for free to scientists around the world. Her job includes not only desk work, but also opportunities to make many mapping trips to understand where the hydro data comes from. Ms Faulkes has a bachelors degree in geography and GIS. It was a paid internship just out of college with NOAA that initially brought her to this work. And – she has a ton of fun with what she does. As a kid, Tyanne loved oceanography. Her GIS education tied well with the internship – and it all came together to take her where she is today!

Tyanne Mountains

When she’s not chasing the bottom of the oceans, Tyanne also loves to climb mountains!

She some advice to students – “Learn how to code!”

“Building Python scripts is a very powerful tool to allow us to automate the data review process. Being able to write the code – or at least understand the basic concepts that put it together – allows one to be much more efficient in your work!”

Understanding the concept of an algorithm that can save one hours of work is a very good asset. “I wish in college someone would have taught me how to do this!” One easy example is a bulk file renaming tool that the launch teams use. After collecting 50 some separate files of data in a day, this tool will take the individual file names and append any number of things to the filenames – all automatically.

Want to get involved? Next week, Tyanne and her team at NOAA’s Western Regional Center at Sand Point in Seattle, WA are hosting an annual camp for middle school and high school students! Students from across the US can apply to come to this camp each summer and have great experiences learning all about oceans and hydrography! Check it out on the web: NOAA Science Camp – Washington Sea Grant.


Heather O’Connell: Surveying Tracy Arm, June 20, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Heather O’Connell

NOAA Ship Rainier

June 7 – 22, 2018

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Seattle, Washington to Sitka, Alaska

Date: 6/20/18

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude and Longitude: 57°52.9’ N, 133 °38.7’ W, Sky Condition: Broken, Visibility: 10+ nautical miles, Wind Speed: Light Variable, Sea Level Pressure: 1013.5 millibars, Sea Water Temperature: 3.9°C, Air Temperature: Dry bulb: 17.8°C, Wet bulb: 14°C

Science and Technology Log

After the morning meeting of hearing everyone’s risk assessment before getting on the launches, I was part of the four person crew on launch RA-6. Our task for the day was to clean up the data, or collect data in places within the Tracy Arm polygon that weren’t already surveyed. We had to fill in the gaps in L and M polygons on the East point. The entire area of Tracy Arm needed to be surveyed because there are several cruise ships that are coming into this area now that Sawyer Glacier is receding and the area has not been surveyed since the late nineties. Navigation charts must be updated to ensure that the safety of the people that are visiting the area.

Launch going out to survey

Launch going out to survey

Once on the launch, the bright orange POS MV, or Positioning Orientation System Marine Vessel, must be powered to start the survey process. The new acquisition log was created as an excel spreadsheet to record the different casts along with the latitude and longitude, the maximum depth and the sound speed of the water at about approximately one meter. With all of the valuable data recorded, it is important to have a consistent system for managing all of the data so that it can be accessed and managed efficiently.

The EM-2040 Konsberg Sonar S.I.S., Seafloor Information System, program was powered on next. The EM processing unit, which is connected to the multi-beam sonar, has three lines of information when properly communicating with sonar. The right hand monitor in the launch displays the information from the sonar. Creating the file name is another crucial way of ensuring that the data can be managed properly. It is from this computer that you can manually adjust the angle of the beam swath with the sound pings.

Sonar Computer Systems

Sonar Computer Systems

Once the computers were started and communicating with each other, we completed a C.T.D. cast to obtain the sound speed profile of the water. There is also a device that measures this right on the multibeam sonar, but it is important that two devices have a similar sound speed profile to ensure data accuracy. If there is a large discrepancy between the two values, then another cast must be taken. Initially, the measuring sound speed profile at the interface was 1437.2 and the C.T.D. sound speed was 1437.8. The final algorithm that determines the depth of the water will take this information into account. Since we were somewhat close to a waterfall, the fresh water input most likely affected the sound profile of the water.

Preparing the CTD

Preparing the CTD

After viewing the data acquired in the sheet, or the assigned area of Tracy Arm to survey, Greg found areas where there were holes. He put a target on the map on the monitor on the left hand side computer. This HYSWEEP interface for multibeam and side scan sonar (which is a subset of HYPAC which is the multibeam software) screen shows a chart of the area with depths in fathoms and any rocks or shoals that would impede driving ability along with a red boat image of the vessel. This display is what the coxswain driving above also sees so that he or she is aware of what direction to travel. Once logging data, this screen also displays the beam so that you can ensure that all necessary data is being acquired. Previous surveys are depicted in a more subdued color so that you can see that the missing data is being collected. From the monitor, the survey technician must control the view of the map to be sure that it includes the targeted area, along with the path of the boat so that future obstructions can be avoided.

Multi-beam Sonar Work Station

Multi-beam Sonar Work Station

Since we were avoiding icebergs in the initial part of the clean up, we were going at about two knots. This slow pace allows for an increase in returns, nodes and soundings that increase the data density. Shallow waters take much longer to survey due to the smaller swath width. It is important to have accurate, high resolution data for shorelines since this is the area where many vessels will be traveling.  When a sonar pings, every swath, or fan-shaped area of soundings, returns five hundred soundings. Five hundred soundings times a rate of seven pings per second means there are thirty five hundred soundings per second total. This data density enhances the resolution of the maps that will be generated once the data has been processed.

Since there are sometimes safety hazards when surveying there are several different approaches that can be used to ensure the entire area is surveyed in a safe manner. Half stepping included going back over previous coverage far enough away from the hazard. Scalloping is another method which involves turning right before the rock or obstruction. This sends the beam swath near the rock without putting the vessel in danger. Some areas that were too close to icebergs could not be surveyed since it was not safe. But, this hydrographic survey was able to acquire data closer to the Sawyer Glacier than ever before. Being a part of this data collection was gratifying on many levels!

Personal Log

Seeing a white mountain goat amongst some of the most beautiful geological features that I have ever laid eyes on was another benefit of being out on the launch for the day. When a grizzly bear cub ran by a waterfall I continued to appreciate a day on the launch. Seals perched on icebergs were always a fun sight to see. And, the endless pieces of ice drifting by in the sea during our surveying never ceased to amaze me. 

Seals on an Ice Berg

Seals on an Iceberg

After a day of surveying, kayaking to a waterfall in William’s Cove and exploring proved to be another fun adventure.


Waterfall in William’s Cove

Growing Muscle like Growing Character

The other day as I ran on the treadmill, I had a realization. While looking at the lifting weights, I realized that in order to build muscle, one must tear old muscles and rebuild new strands of protein. When these new fibers build on top of each other, muscles grow. I realized that new officers go through a similar process of developing skills and character. Junior officers come in with a two year responsibility where they learn an incredible amount. They are constantly put into new and challenging learning experiences where they tear their muscles. As they acclimate to these experiences, they build character, or muscle. The cycle repeats with subsequent occurrences.

Junior Officer ENS Airlie Pickett has a small triangle tattooed on her inner left bicep. When I asked her the significance of it, she said that the only way that you can truly understand something is to observe how it changes. In math, integrals and derivatives explain this change.

As I appreciated her tattoo, I considered that she must learn quite a lot about herself as a junior officer constantly learning new things. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to experience and observe myself in an unfamiliar surrounding on Rainier. It’s humbling to not understand the nautical terms, endless acronyms of surveying and NOAA Corps structure of life. I appreciated that all hands on Rainier made me feel welcomed, and were patient with explaining new concepts to me. I am grateful for the opportunity to experience the Inside Passage while learning about hydrographic surveying. Living on a ship, learning about navigation and meeting all of the hard working people on Rainier has been an unique experience. Overall, this has been an incredible opportunity. Mahalo nui loa! (Thank you very much). A hui hou Rainier! (Until we meet again)!

Did You Know?

Barometers measure atmospheric pressure in millimeters of mercury or atmospheres. An atmosphere is the amount of air wrapped around the Earth and one atmosphere, atm, is the amount of pressure at sea level at fifteen degrees Celsius. As altitude increases, the amount of pressure decreases since the density of the air decreases and less pressure is exerted. A decrease in altitude increases the amount of pressure exerted and the density of the air increases.

Changes in pressure can signify weather patterns. A drop in barometric pressure means a low pressure system is coming in and  there is not enough force to blow away the weather. Weather indicative of this includes windy, cloudy and/or rainy weather. An increase in barometric pressure means a high pressure system is coming in and  cool, dry air pushes out the weather resulting in clear skies.


Eric Koser: Navigation + Hydrography = Great Charts! July 1, 2018


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Eric Koser
Aboard Ship Rainier
June 22-July 9
Mission: Lisianski Strait Survey, AK
July 1, 2018: 0900 HRS


Weather Data From the Bridge
Lat: 58°06.8’          Long: 136°32.0’
Skies: Broken
Wind 10 kts at 220°
Visibility 10+ miles
Seas: 1 ft
Water temp: 7.2°C
Air Temp: 11.6°C Dry Bulb, 10.9°C Wet Bulb

Science and Technology Log

Aboard Ship Rainier, it takes a team to manipulate this ship. But first, much planning must occur to prepare for each day!

The FOO (Field Operations Officer) creates the plan for each day. Each evening, around dinner time, the FOO publishes the POD (Plan of the day) for the next day for everyone aboard. Here is a portion of July 1’s POD developed by FOO Ops Officer Scott Broo:

7.1.18 RA POD

The “Plan of the Day” for July 1, 2018. Notice the shoreline window indicates the best time for the launches to work.

Today at 0515 was M/E Online.  This is when the Engineering Department starts both 12 cylinder diesel locomotive engines–after being prepped and inspected ahead of time.

Next the Deck Department “weighed the anchor” at 0600 to get underway. Note – this term refers to when the ship holds the weight of the anchor – as it is pulled OUT of the water so we can get underway.

The principal work of Ship Rainier is hydrographic mapping. All operations here focus on creating the best charts possible of the ocean floor. As we are logging (using the MBES to take data from the ship), the plot department communicates to the bridge to indicate where they need the ship to go. The bridge can view a computer display showing the current plots the hydro team is working on – and uses this and the guidance of the hydrographic team to direct the ship. Over time, the ship covers the area of the current sheet while the hydro team captures the data from the MBES. As the process proceeds, the whole sheet gets ‘painted’ by the MBES so we have a complete chart of the bottom.


This display in the plot room shows the hydrographers the incoming MBES data in real time. Note the line of travel of the ship in the center pointing WestSouthWest as this sheet is ‘painted.’ Various colors represent different relative depths.

It really takes a team on the bridge to control the ship when underway. The bridge is the control room of the ship.

Bridge Location

The bridge is the room with all the windows (in the blue box) just below the fly bridge.

Imagine standing on the bridge (the room where the driving happens) and noticing who is there. From port (left) to starboard (right) we have: Navigator, Lee Helm, Helm, Lookout, and OOD.

The Bridge

Here the lookout, the JOOD (junior officer on deck), the OOD, and the helmsman (left to right) are on the bridge.

Bridge Diagram

This snippet from the ship’s plans illustrates locations of tools on the bridge.

The navigator’s job is to always be aware of where the ship is and where she is to be heading. The lee helmsperson operates the controls for the engine speed and the pitch of the props [forward or backwards]. The helmsperson turns the wheel to control the rudders or sets the helm in autopilot to steer a fixed bearing. The lookout maintains awareness of all other vessels around the ship and any potential obstacles in the ship’s path. The OOD orchestrates the whole team and is directly responsible for the motion of the ship. The OOD gives commands for any changes that are to happen to the course of the ship – and also communicates with Plot to know where they need the ship to go to create the charts.

Lee Helm

The lee helm is the control panel for the engines located on the bridge. The propeller pitch is controlled by the levers at the center. The bow thruster is controlled by the lever on the right.

The Helm

The helm is the ship’s steering control. The current bearing is show at the top and bottom and the auto pilot bearing is on the display at the center.


The radar displays what is around us. The yellow indicates land (we were anchored in a bay at the time of this photo). Radar also senses other vessels in the water. Two radar units run at two different ranges all the time.












Personal Log

Shoreline from Launch

This is a shoreline view from launch RA-7 as we were charting features along Lisianski Inlet.

The wildlife in this part of Alaska is great and easy to find. We’ve seen humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, eagles, gulls, deer, and bears. Last night as we were anchored at the end of the inlet I watched a grizzly bear on shore. I was able to use the large mounted binoculars on the flybridge affectionately called “big eyes” to take photos. I watched the bear move along the shore as a pair of eagles flew overhead.

Here are a few of the wildlife photos I’ve taken the past several days!

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Here is a video of the same bear lumbering along the shoreline in the evening.

Shore Bear

Questions to Ponder

Why do you suppose the shoreline window for launch boats to conduct hydrographic surveys matches up to the times of the lowest tide of the day?

What role does the tide play in creating accurate charts of the sea floor?

How can a ship or launch make an accurate map of the seafloor if the vessel is constantly changing pitch, yaw, and role as it moves in the waves?
[There is a system to account for this!]

Who can access the charts created by NOAA?  Anyone!
The United States is the only country to provide freely available navigational charts to anyone.  Visit to see what these look like!

Eric Koser: Hydrography 101 – and the Tools to Make it Happen, June 28, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Eric Koser

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

June 22 – July 9, 2018

Mission: Lisianski Strait Survey

Geographic Area: Southeast Alaska

Date: June 28, 2018: 0900 HRS

Weather Data From the Bridge
Lat: 57°52.59′ Long: 133°38.7′
Skies: Broken
Wind 1 kt at variable
Visibility 10+ miles
Seas: calm
Water temp: 5.6°C

Science and Technology Log

Long Line Boat

A typical longline fishing boat. The fishing lines get spread out behind the boat from the large booms on either side.

The ultimate focus of Rainier is to assure accurate navigational charts are available to all mariners. This task is critical to the safety of many industries. About 80% of all the overseas trade in the US (by weight) is moved over water. Here in SE Alaska, it appears the largest industry is commercial fishing. Many boats fish both with nets and long lines to catch halibut, rockfish, cod, and several varieties of salmon.

Another major industry here is certainly tourism. As we conduct our work, we often see very large cruise ships. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to be in a narrow inlet surrounded by mountains, ice, and wildlife and then come across a large ship.  We passed the brand new ship Norwegian Bliss around 11 PM on our transit to Tracy Arm. This ship is 1,082 feet long, carries a crew of 2,100 people and has a guest capacity of 4,004 people! The safe navigation of all of these vessels depends upon the accuracy of charts produced by NOAA.

Norwegian Bliss

The cruise ship Norwegian Bliss as we passed her port to port in the evening.

The freely available charts offered by NOAA are created with three essential steps. First, the bulk of the depth data in this area is measured with MBES (Multi-Beam Echo Sounder). This creates a three-dimensional digital image of the bottom.

Secondly, important features to navigation that are shallow are best identified by our launches which travel along the shorelines and inspect for rocks, ledges, and other potential dangers. The locations of features are identified by GPS location and charted digitally by hydrographers on each launch.

Thirdly, bottom samples are collected by launch crews to confirm the type of material present on the bottom.

The MBES systems aboard Rainier and the launches come from Kongsberg Maritime. Two transducers (devices that transmit and receive) work in tandem. The transducer that is oriented front to back sends out an array of sound signals in a wide beam. The width of the beam on the sea floor depends directly on the depth – deeper water allows the beam to spread farther before reflecting. The transducer that is oriented side to side in the water receives a narrow swath of the ‘pings’ of sound that were transmitted. The time it takes any ping to get to the bottom and reflect back to the ship is recorded. The greater the time, the larger the depth.

MBES on a launch

This shows the position of the MBES on the bottom of one of several launches.

MBES transducers

This is the pair of MBES transducers on a launch, looking from the bow towards the stern.

Hydro Sonar

This image, courtesy of NOAA, depicts an MBSS beam below the ship and the mapped results off the stern.

A couple of issues provide challenges to this technique. One, the speed of sound in water depends on several factors. The salinity (concentration of salt in the water),  the conductivity (how easily electricity passes through the water), and the temperature each fluctuate as the depth changes and affect the speed of the sound waves. As hydrographers receive data, the system has to account for these changes in speed to produce an accurate depth measurement. One way to do this is with a static CTD sensor. This device is lowered from the launches all the way to the bottom as it measures the speed of sound in the water.  It provides a set of three charts as the depth changes which are used to adjust the time data from the MBES accordingly. There is also a version of the CTD, called a MVP (Moving Vehicle Profiler or ‘fish’), that can be pulled behind Rainier as we are moving and take dynamic data.

Here is a NOAA article on hydrographic surveying.  Here is further explanation of MBSS.

Deploying Depth Profiler

Here the crew lowers the profiler “fish” into the water.

Speed Profiler Data

These three plots represent the speed of sound, temperature, and salinity (from left to right) vs. depth (on the vertical axis).

A second issue is GPS signal drift. Over time, the location information can shift slightly. To account for this potential problem, the scientists place a HORCON (Horizontal Control) station onshore in the area where they are mapping. I described this tool in my previous post.

Another interesting technology that is currently being developed is called “backscatter” mapping. Here scientists look not only at the time it takes the sound waves to bounce back to the transducer, but also at the quality of the return signal. Different materials on the seafloor reflect the sound differently – hard surfaces like rocks have a sound signature that is much different than soft surfaces like silt or plants. NOAA is continually improving the tools they use to learn!

Here is an example of the chart that we are updating in Tracy Arm.

Personal Log

I had a chance to take the helm yesterday! It’s interesting how sensitive the steering on this large vessel really is. The rudders are able to turn from “amidships” or their center position, up to about 35° to either side. But while traveling at about 8 knots, we tend to use a maximum of about 5° of rudder to alter the ship’s direction. While at the helm, we keep close track of the heading (compass bearing) of the ship as indicated by the gyro compass and magnetic compass on board. Then we provide steering input to hold the ship to the course ordered by the CONN. I had the chance to help steer around several icebergs as we transited into Tracy Arm. Careful attention to detail – and willingness to promptly follow commands make for success!


My opportunity to take the helm of Rainier.

I also took an opportunity to head out in a kayak from the ship where we are anchored! Two of my new colleagues and I paddled across this bay and had a great chance to look very closely at pieces of ice. The ice is really beautiful and forms many interesting shapes. The quiet of the bay – hearing only the distant waterfalls, birds, and our paddling was beautiful!


This piece of ice drifted through Tracy Arm from the glacier. It was temporarily ‘grounded’ on the bottom by the receding tide.

It’s crazy to consider the ice we were seeing may have been formed thousands of years ago in the glacier – and it just now melting as it floats away.

Did You Know?

President Thomas Jefferson signed a mandate in 1807 ordering a survey of the nation’s coasts. This fundamental task is always ongoing, with 95,000 miles of US Coastline.

About 90% of any floating piece of ice will be submerged below the salt water.  Because the density of frozen fresh water just slightly less than salt water, the ice floats very low in the water!  Read more here!

Who is Onboard?

I’d like you to meet HST (Hydrographic Survey Technician), Amanda Finn! Ms. Finn has been with NOAA since last September – and started working aboard NOAA Ship Rainier in October of 2017. As an HST, Amanda works with the team of hydrographers to collect MBES data from either the ship or any of the launches. Amanda graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2016 with a bachelor of science degree in GeoSciences and a minor in Oceanography. At the end of her college experience, she knew that seafloor mapping was her passion but wasn’t sure how to make that into a job. But it all came together when she found NOAA through a friend of a friend!

HST Amanda Finn

HST Amanda Finn with recently acquired depth data for Lisinaski Inlet!

Amanda was performing at her first harp concert (another skill!) when she met a relation of a hydrographer who works on a NOAA ship! Based on her experience, her advice to students is: “When things don’t seem to be going the way you want, take time to focus on something else you like instead. In good time, things will work out!”

One positive challenge Amanda shares working here on a hydro ship is developing an understanding of systems integration. Many different pieces must come together to create the finished charts. The people aboard Rainier make the experience very positive!  The passion for seeking the unknown is the drive to continue!


Heather O’Connell: Using a Sextant, Distilling Glacial Water and Kayaking to Icebergs, June 18, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Heather O’Connell

NOAA Ship Rainier

June 7 – 22, 2018

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Seattle, Washington to Southeast, Alaska

Date: 6/18/18

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude and Longitude: 57°55’ N, 133 °33’ W, Sky Condition: Broken, Visibility: 10+ nautical miles, Wind Speed: 10 knots, Sea Level Pressure: 1023.5 millibars, Sea Water Temperature: 3.9°C, Air Temperature: Dry bulb: 15.0°C, Wet bulb: 12.0°C

Science and Technology Log

Using a Sextant

Greg Gahlinger, H.S.S.T., hydrographic senior survey technician, shared his knowledge of using a horizon sextant. He traveled to Hawaii from San Diego and back using this technology when he was in the navy. Utilizing his Cassens and Plath horizon sextant when there was an atypically sunny day in Tracy Arm allowed me to experience this celestial navigation tool. While the sextant is easy to use, the calculations for placement can be more involved.

A sextant is used for celestial navigation by finding the angle of a celestial body above the horizon. Originally, the graduated mark only measured sixty degrees, thus the derivation of the name. The angle between two points is determined with the help of two mirrors. One mirror is half silvered which allows light to pass through and this is the one used to focus on the horizon. The other mirror attached to the movable arm reflects the light of the object, such as the sun, and can be moved so that the light reflects off of the first mirror. A representation of the object, or sun, superimposed on the horizon is seen and the angle between the two objects is recorded. Angles can be measured to the nearest ten seconds using the Vernier adjustment and it is this precision that makes the sextant such a useful tool.  One degree is divided into sixty minutes or sixty nautical miles. Each degree is divided into sixty seconds.

Horizon Sextant

Horizon Sextant

To use a horizon sextant, you hold onto the arm piece and look for the reflection of the sun from the mirror and through a horizon reflection onto the scope or the eyepiece. There are several different filters that make it safe to view the reflection of the sun. After you adjust the index, the rotating part on the bottom of the sextant, you align the reflection of the disk of the sun onto the horizon. If there is no actual horizon, as was the case when we were in the fjord, then you can align the image of the sun onto a false horizon. Once the reflected sun is sitting on the horizon, you can swing the frame back and forth until the sun lies tangent to the horizon. From here, record the angular measurement and use a table to determine your position of latitude. If you have an accurate time, you can also determine longitude using another set of charts.

Taking a sight of the sun at local apparent noon with a Sextant

Taking a sight of the sun at local apparent noon with a Sextant

Salt Water Distillation

While in transit to our survey location, First Assistant Engineer Mike Riley shared the engine room with me. There is a control panel for all of the different components of the ship along with the electrical circuit board. Amongst all of the parts that contribute to making the ship function, I was interested in the two evaporators.

The two evaporators change saltwater into potable water in a desalination process. These two stage evaporators are filled with seawater that comes into the vessel via suction into sea chests. If the ship is going at full speed, 12.4 knots, which varies depending on currents and tides, the distillers will make about 500 gallons of freshwater an hour, or 3,000 gallons a day. Engine heat is used to boil the sea water for the evaporation. The water goes through a booster heater to make it even hotter before coming into the tanks. The distilled water comes from the tank next to the current generator in use.

Two Stage Evaporator

Two Stage Evaporator

The two stage distillers have a demister screen in the middle. There are about twenty metal plates with grooves between them located on both hemispheres of the spheroid shaped distiller. The plates are sealed and the metal groove space, or gaskets, between them is open. Jacket water, a mixture of coolant, or propylene glycol, and water, that is already at about one hundred and seventy degrees comes in and fills the metal plates. The jacket water is heated from the exhaust from the generator. It is further heated from going through a vacuum and turns into steam. Salt water from the salt chest comes into the space between the metal plates over the grooves.

Metal plates and gasket inside of evaporator

Metal plates and gasket inside of evaporator

The porous demister screen keeps salt water droplets from going above and the brine water collects at the bottom and goes out the ejector pump. Once the steam from the lower part of the tank heats the water and it enters the upper part of the tank, the water is cleansed and condenses on the plates. From here it goes to a tank where it is heated before being stored in another tank and then being allocated to the appropriate area. This water is used to cool the engine, flush the toilets and provided distilled drinking water while in transit.

So, currently, all on Rainier are consuming filtered artesian drinking water and showering in distilled glacier water. Ship Rainier has been consistently surpassing all expectations.


Personal Log

After dinner I decided to tag along with Able Seaman, or A.B., Dorian Curry, to kayak up close to some icebergs. Leaving the safety of the ship  docked by Point Asley, we headed towards Wood Spit Island. After about twenty minutes of paddling, I saw three distinctive spouts followed by some black dorsal fins surfacing to the northeast towards Sumdum Glacier. Orca whales were off in the distance. Soon these orca whales appeared closer and they were now about two hundred yards away. While the whales made the majestic sound of blowing bubbles in the water, I feared that they would approach the kayak. Putting the boats together in the hopes that these massive mammals would not think of us as prey seemed to be the logical thing to do.  It appeared that there was a mother and two juvenile killer whales.

Video Credit: Dorian Curry

This incredible opportunity to be so close to these creatures along with the terrifying reality that they may mistake me for a seal, proved to be an invigorating experience. The whales dove under and then once again appeared behind at a distance that was slightly too close for comfort in a kayak. At this point, I thought paddling away from these carnivorous predators would be the best approach. I paddled towards the smaller island south of Harbor Island and Round Islet, the place where the base station was set up just a few days earlier. After docking on the island shortly, I was grateful to be on shore post such a stimulating and intimidating experience.

Blue Iceberg

Blue Iceberg

Walking the kayaks over the beach and watching the channel where the Endicott Arm and Tracy Arm channels converged, proved to be a good strategy before paddling onward. A strong, circular current resulted from the two channels merging but was relatively safe due to the fact that it was ebb tide. After paddling strongly for a few minutes, smooth waters followed and I approached one of the most spectacular blue icebergs I have ever seen. The definition from all of the layers of different snowfalls that created this still existing piece of ice was truly amazing. Observing it from different angles overwhelmed me with the brilliance of this natural phenomenon. Next, I found myself paddling towards an iceberg with an eagle perched on it towards Sumdum Glacier.  Again, the different vantage points displayed various concentric circles and patterns of frozen ice accumulating over thousands of years. With only about an hour before sunset, the return journey to Rainier began and choosing to go to the west of Harbor Island to avoid the difficult channel of the now incoming tide made the return safe.



After almost four hours of paddling over a distance of about 8.4 nautical miles, or 9.6 miles, I found it difficult to use my upper body strength to ascend the ladder. Thanks to Airlie Pickett I safely stepped onto the Rainier and began to process this magnificent adventure that I had just embarked upon.

Did You Know?

Wind direction can be calculated by using a wind plotting board calculator. This dial allows you to rotate until the line matches up with the coarse bearing, then mark the wind speed on the clear dial with a grease marker, and then match this up with the angular measurement of the wind and mark this. Then, line up your two marks on a vertical line and this will provide the true wind direction.

Eric Koser: Let the Science Begin! June 27, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Eric Koser
Aboard Ship Rainier
June 22-July 9
Mission: Lisianski Strait Survey, AK
June 27, 2018: 1500 HRS

Weather Data From the Bridge
Lat: 57°52.9’          Long: 133°33.8’
Skies: Overcast
Wind 15 kts at 011°
Visibility 10+ miles
Seas: Calm
Water temp: 3.9°C

Science and Technology Log

Rainier Hat

This insignia cap is worn by the NOAA Corps members on the ship.

Let the science begin! We departed from Sitka about 1300 on Monday enroute for Lisianski Inlet. Getting out to sea has been a wonderful experience. Ship Rainier is truly run by a dedicated team of people. I have been able to spend quite a bit of time on the bridge – first watching and then participating with the Junior Officers on the deck. It quickly became obvious to me that this is a teaching operation. The hands on the deck represent a variety of experience levels, quite by design. More experienced NOAA Corps Officers coach Junior Officers through each procedure that happens on the Bridge. It’s a great example of a team based ‘on the job’ teaching system!

On the bridge there is always an OOD (Officer On the Deck) that is in charge of operations. This person then helps to administrate the work of the CONN (responsible for the conduct of the vessel), the helm, the lee helm, the lookouts, and the navigator. The CONN gives commands to the others on the team, which are then repeated back to assure clarity.

Chart Table

This is the chart table where the Navigator works on the bridge of the ship.

The first task I learned was to plot our course on the charts. The CO (Commanding Officer—in charge of the entire ship) selects waypoints for an upcoming course in a digital mapping suite called Coastal.   Coastal sets a series of digital paths that each include a compass bearing (direction in degrees) and range (distance in nautical miles) between each waypoint. Then the navigator takes this same series of points and plots them by hand in pencil on the series of chart {the nautical term for maps]. Each point is a pair of latitude and longitude points plotted as a small square. Given the expected cruising speed, the navigator can also estimate future positions of the ship, which are referred to as “dead reckoning” and are plotted with a half circle.




Sheet Route

A route that I plotted on our charts.


A view from the Coastal software of a route.

Periodically the navigator measures the location of the ship either digitally with GPS or by measuring distances to adjacent land features with radar. A pair of dividers is used to plot these distances on the sheet as small triangles and confirm the current location of the ship. By these methods, the navigator assures the ship is on the planned track and/or adjusts the track accordingly.

The person at the helm (the steering wheel) is directed by the CONN to point the ship at the necessary bearing. As changes are needed to the bearing, the person at the helm responds to the CONN’s commands to adjust.

In Lisianski Inlet the team of hydrographers started collecting data with the multibeam sonar system around midnight Tuesday morning. As we traveled along the entire length of the Inlet overnight, this initial data was collected. When we arrived at the small town of Pelican, AK (pop. 88) a crew on a launch (small boat deployed from Rainier) traveled in and set up a HORCON (Horizontal Control) reference station. This is a high precision satellite receiver. It provides a very accurate way to measure potential drift in satellite indicated GPS over time. After taking data from the ship, the latitude and longitude are corrected with data from the HORCON.

Launch RA

This is one of several small(er) boats called “Launches” that are used for surveying.

Ship Rainier

This is a view of our ship from the launch.

After this initial work was complete at Lisianski, we began transit to Tracy Arm Fjord. While the multibeam sonar work was completed here last week, three crews deployed in launches to ‘proof’ the shoreline information on the charts. This is essentially confirming and updating the existence and location of particular features (rocks, ledges, etc).

Tracy Arm

This was the view as we approached the glacier at the end of Tracy Arm.

Launch Team

NOAA Hydrographer Amanda Finn and I together on the launch.

At this point, the hydrographers are processing much of the data obtained in the past few days. Additional data will be collected tomorrow morning. Then in the evening we’ll transit back to Lisianski to begin further work there.

Ship among ice.

The ship parked here while the launches moved closer to the ice.

Glacial Ice

The glacial ice shows a beautiful blue color.

Ice Blue

Different pieces of ice appear slightly different colors.

Personal Log

Every member of the team on this vessel has a job to do. Every member matters. The success of the entire operations depends upon the teamwork of all. There is a positive sprit among the group to work together for the tasks at hand.

I’ve been welcomed to learn to chart our course. I had an opportunity today to operate the helm (steering). I went out on a launch today to visit waters that were yet uncharted as the glacier at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord is receding. It was incredible to see not only the beauty of the ice among the water, but to also witness from afar the calving of the glacier. A rumble like thunder accompanied the crashing of two small walls of ice into the ocean below as we watched from afar.

I enjoyed capturing many photos of the ice and the wildlife among it. Many harbor seals were relaxing upon chunks of glacial ice as we traveled through the Arm. The natural beauty of this area is best represented by a few photos.

An adult seal and pup

This adult seal was watching us closely with the pup.

Ice Dog?

What can you see in this ice? Might it resemble a dog?

Did You Know?

Junior Officers in the NOAA Corps learn in a 19 week program followed by 2 weeks at sea on a tall ship called Eagle.

There are approximately 320 commissioned officers in the NOAA Corps internationally.

NOAA Operates 16 Ships and 20 Aircraft!