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Hydrographic Surveys: Surveying Australia – Part 1

Give Industry a Chance to Help

by Michael Beard & David Donohue, Brisbane

No day too long, no task too arduous’ is the Hydrographic Surveyor’s maxim. However, given the magnitude of Australia’s national hydrographic effort, there remain some long days ahead for those charged with the hydrographic survey task across Australia’s area of surveying and charting responsibility.

zSurvey Vessel Wyatt Earp

Antarctic Survey Vessel Wyatt Earp Surveying Newcombe Bay. Credit: CofA

This is a significant undertaking for Australia’s national hydrographic authority, not just because of the enormity of the task but because of mounting pressures to achieve the national surveying program and the relatively small number of Royal Australian Navy ships and aircraft available to conduct the hydrographic work. Increasingly, there are calls for greater industry involvement in contributing to this international responsibility, not to supplant the endeavours of the Australian Hydrographic Service, but to help progress the survey rate of effort and realise potential cost savings and economic benefits in the process.

In focusing on the national hydrographic task, this article shows how industry has the capacity to shoulder some of the burden and the benefits of pursuing a more meaningful engagement strategy with industry. In the continued absence of a helping hand from industry, and without a shift in strategic mindset, this vitally important program will continue to be an arduous, expensive and interminable undertaking.


Australia's hydrographic survey obligations

As a signatory to the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and in line with recent amendments to the Navigation Act 2012 (Cth), Australia is required to provide a national hydrographic service to aid safe navigation for vessels transiting Australia’s coastal waters. Delivery of this ‘public good’ (that is, a service to the benefit or wellbeing of the public that would otherwise not be provided for by market forces alone) remains the intrinsic responsibility of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) through the efforts of the Australian Hydrographic Service (AHS).

The RAN assumed responsibility for the conduct of hydrographic surveys on the Australian station in October 1920, and for the publication of charts in 1942. In 1946, the Federal Government assigned the Commonwealth Naval Board responsibility for the surveying and charting of Australian waters, which was re-confirmed in 1988 after a review of Commonwealth mapping activities. Since this time, the AHS organisation has provided survey and maritime charting services as the Commonwealth agency responsible for the conduct of hydrographic surveys within Australia’s area of charting responsibility, a responsibility that extends to the waters of Papua New Guinea and Antarctica.

Australia’s charting area

Australia’s area of charting responsibility is large, very large. Comprising approximately ten per cent of the world’s oceans, it represents one eighth of the world’s surface. With a total of some thirteen million square nautical miles (nm2) and a total mainland and island coastline of 32,255 nm (59,736 km), Australia’s hydrographic surveying interests are substantial.

The Australian Exclusive Economic Zone alone encompasses an area of some 2.5 million nm2, in which the coastal margins, where depths are typically less than 200 metres, cover an area approximating 760,000 nm2.

Large parts of Australia’s coastal and offshore estate remain unsurveyed or are inadequately charted. Only 35 per cent of mainland coastal waters have been adequately surveyed to a modern standard, while 20 per cent require resurvey to meet contemporary international standards. The rest of Australia’s charting area, including extensive coastal areas of Papua New Guinea (72 per cent) and much of Antarctica, remains largely unsurveyed. There is much work to be done.

To fulfil the responsibility of undertaking the requisite hydrographic surveys in this area in order to provide the foundation data from which to produce nautical charts and products, the AHS operates and crews a relatively small Hydrographic Survey Force (HSF). This force comprises two Hydrographic Ship (HS) platforms, four Survey Motor Launches (SML) catamarans, the Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS) aircraft, and a number of Deployable Geospatial Support Teams. When compared to the extent of Australia’s charting area and the magnitude of the hydrographic task, particularly the work that remains outstanding, the capacity and ability of the HSF is thrown into sharp relief.

Progress against the national hydrographic task

Since the early 1990s, the AHS’s progress of the national hydrographic survey task has been modelled around an annual rate of effort figure of some 20,000 nm2 across a range of depth bands down to 1,500 metres. This arbitrary target was assessed as being required in order to make sufficient inroads into this hydrographic task. This figure has proven challenging in the extreme and difficult to achieve, despite HSF assets being available and despite best efforts to efficiently schedule individual ship programs. Of greater concern is that in more recent years, more contemporary survey rate of effort targets have not been consistently met, either.

Hydroscheme details the AHS’s three-year rolling national hydrographic survey and charting program. It is through Hydroscheme that the annual schedule of planned survey activities and chart production for the next three years is promulgated. This program includes details of annual survey day targets (i.e. days actually on the survey grounds or directly contributing to the survey effort at sea) for the HSF. However, even with the development of more considered and practical rate of effort targets that factor in competing demands and priorities placed on the HSF, there is evidence to suggest the capacity to consistently meet annual targets remains problematic, particularly for the HS and SML capabilities.


AHS Survey Days

FY 10-11
HSF Capability Planned Achieved
HS (x 2) 226 64
SML (x 4) 336 206
LADS 196 134
DGST 136 70
FY 11-12
HSF Capability Planned Achieved
HS (x 2) 254 80
SML (x 4) 350 233
LADS 140 140
DGST 73 66
FY 12-13
HSF Capability Planned Achieved
HS (x 2) 205 53
SML (x 4) 438 154
LADS 140 140
DGST 43 41
Source: Australian Hydrographic Office

There are good reasons for lower than planned success rates over the years. There will always be a need to balance rate of effort considerations with reality due to the complex nature of hydrographic work itself, the requirement to operate in diverse and often challenging sea environments, and because of the operating capabilities and limitations of individual HSF platforms.

Vessel (or aircraft) downtime due to significant maintenance, adverse weather and sea conditions, and the re-assignment of survey ships to support higher-priority military operations such as border protection and surveillance operations across Australia’s northern and north western approaches, all come at the expense of the national hydrographic task.

This situation is exacerbated by imposed thresholds on the maximum number of days that a ship may spend at sea in a two-year period, and the minimum length of time a ship is required to be alongside in her home port. Like other RAN Fleet units, the HSF is also constrained by non-discretionary maintenance periods that invariably need to be completed in the vessel’s home port (which requires ships to come off task), and the requirement to program block leave periods alongside home ports in order to provide personnel with adequate rest and recreation.

All these factors and considerations coalesce to limit time on the survey grounds and thus a reduced survey rate of effort, especially when one considers that the bulk of the HSF is home-ported in Cairns, while nearly half of all current Hydroscheme tasks involve lengthy transits to Australia’s northern and north western coasts.

This should not be viewed as a criticism of the RAN in the way it manages its fleet or, indeed, the manner in which the AHS goes about its business. Rather, it is because of these very reasons which tend to shape and influence HSF activities, which in turn, can restrict the amount of square miles sounded and so hamper the achievement of planned survey days, that serious consideration should now be given to asking how the current trends in rate of effort can be reversed.

Increasing hydrographic output is rapidly becoming a priority discussion point, simply because external pressures to improve current rates of effort are intensifying.

Related Tag: Marine Survey

Michael Beard is the current vice chairman of the SSSI Hydrography Commission and a former RAN hydrographic surveyor. David Donohue also spent a number of years as a hydrographic surveyor in the RAN and is currently the Managing Director of iXblue in Brisbane.


  1. Australia’s area of charting responsibility comprises approximately 10 per cent of the world’s oceans, and represents one eighth of the world’s surface.
  2. Areas surveyed by the Royal Australian Navy since 1945.

David Donohue

As Managing Director David's role is to ensure clients' surveys are undertaken with precision and to meet budgets, schedules and relevant survey standards. His particular driving passion is innovation and process improvement.

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