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Diving Deeper: World Hydrography Day and the Robert J. Walker

Episode 49 (June 20, 2013)

HOST: Today on Diving Deeper we will talk about World Hydrography Day and some history related to NOAA's Office of Coast Survey. I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

To help us explore this topic, we will be joined by Rear Admiral Gerd Glang. Rear Admiral Glang is the director of NOAA's Office of Coast Survey as well as the U.S. National Hydrographer. Hi Admiral Glang, welcome to our show.

RDML GLANG: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me here today.

HOST: So Admiral Glang, we have a lot to cover today! First, we're going to talk just a little bit briefly about your office, NOAA's Office of Coast Survey. When was the Coast Survey founded and why did we need to have such an office?

RDML GLANG: So the history of Coast Survey goes back to the very beginning of the United States when our country was just 15 states and territories and we were all clustered on the East Coast of America. Nearly all of our commerce had to move between the states by coastal shipping. There weren't really roads or ways to move things over land. And all foreign trade too, that had to come to us from overseas as well into our ports and that really was important especially for a brand new nation like the United States.

So we were very much a leading maritime nation right from the beginning. In February 1807, the Congress acted on President Thomas Jefferson's recommendation and adopted a resolution for a Survey of the Coast, and this was partly in response to recognize that for ships coming in and out of our ports and harbors they really needed to have accurate nautical charts. So Jefferson, being a man of science, understood that if you wanted to safely bring a ship in and out of our ports or sail up and down the coast that it was really important to have accurate charts or surveys. These are the nautical charts that mariners still use to this day. This Act of 1807 authorized the President to cause a survey to be taken of the coast. And in this way the U.S. Coast Survey became the federal government's first scientific agency.

HOST: And what is the Coast Survey responsible for today?

RDML GLANG: Well, so the Coast Survey is still the nation's chart maker, just like we were 200 years ago. We still do the same mission of producing over a thousand nautical charts. It's a charting mission that's not going to end soon because the sea floor is always changing. Coastal storms will change where the shallow areas are, new marine debris or obstructions appear on the sea floor, we discover old wrecks, sometimes new wrecks happen. It's important that we chart these wrecks accurately to help inform mariners so that they can navigate their ships safely.

HOST: What makes charting or surveying different today than it was 100 years ago?

RDML GLANG: What makes charting different nowadays is that we use much different technology. We use sonars that generate a complete picture of the bottom of the sea floor with very accurate depth measurements. It's the way that nautical charts are being used nowadays that's changing as well. While we still have the traditional paper charts, more and more mariners, and soon they'll have to, use electronic navigation charts. So these are the charts that operate the electronic displays and systems on the bridges of these large ships that mariners rely on more and more.

HOST: Admiral Glang, when I introduced you today to our listeners, not only are you the director of NOAA's Office of Coast Survey, but you also are the U.S. National Hydrographer. What are your responsibilities with this position?

RDML GLANG: Navigation is a global enterprise. Ships come and go from our ports, go around the world, come back. There are mariners from other countries that sail across the oceans and come to our ports. So the chart, the nautical chart, is really a graphical tool to communicate to mariners how to come into our ports. It gives them the directions, it tells them what's dangerous.

In order to portray the nautical chart in a standard way, so that mariners from all around the world see a common picture with the same kinds of symbology, the same kinds of colors, the same way to identify wrecks and obstructions, we have to collaborate around the world with other hydrographic organizations. So as the U.S. National Hydrographer, I represent the United States navigation charting interests to these other countries. And we work with them very closely to try to make sure we've got standards on what a chart should like look and especially important are the standards used to collect the depth measurements that are portrayed on the charts.

HOST: So I can see how these two positions are connected and how it would make sense to have one person hold the role of both director of NOAA's Office of Coast Survey as well as U.S. National Hydrographer. Can you tell us a little bit about what is hydrography, maybe define this term for the audience?

RDML GLANG: Sure, I talked about the nautical chart and the science that lies underneath the nautical chart is hydrography. Hydrography is this work of mapping the ocean floor, of getting the accurate depth measurements and locations for things like these rocks, wrecks, shallow areas that are dangers to surface navigation. Hydrography is really the original science from which oceanography came. But the way we talk about hydrography here in NOAA and Coast Survey it's really the science that lies underneath the nautical chart.

HOST: So let's switch gears a little bit from the history and the current mission of Coast Survey to the significance of tomorrow, June 21, or World Hydrography Day. Why is this day important?

RDML GLANG: So June 21, World Hydrography Day was adopted by the International Hydrographic Organization. It's our annual day when the 81 maritime nations that belong to the International Hydrographic Organization take time to explain to the public what hydrography is and what we do and why it's important.

HOST: And what is the theme or the focus for this year's World Hydrography Day and how do different countries celebrate?

RDML GLANG: This year's theme for World Hydrography Day flows right along with one of the top global concerns - the economy. So, key to a strong and growing maritime economy is safe and efficient shipping, that's what gives us reliable commerce, that's what helps us protect lives at sea and lives at shore as well, and that's what helps protect the environment. And we get all those benefits out of accurate and timely navigation charts.

HOST: Admiral Glang, besides the fact that World Hydrography Day is celebrated every year on June 21st, is there another reason that this date has significance for your office?

RDML GLANG: Sure. At NOAA, we're using World Hydrography Day to acknowledge the sinking of one of our own Coast Survey vessels, the Robert J. Walker. One hundred and fifty three years ago on June 21, 1860, Coast Survey had the largest disaster in our history. As a result of the sinking of the Walker, we lost 20 of our own sailors.

HOST: And what can you tell us about this tragic sinking of the Walker?

RDML GLANG: So this is probably one of the historical injustices, I guess you could say, because we don't know a whole lot. What we know about the sinking of the Walker is what we've obtained from some of the contemporary newspaper articles that reported the sinking of the ship.

Sometime in the early morning on June 21st, as the Walker was sailing from Norfolk to New York, it was hit by another ship. The newspaper articles tell us that seas were somewhat rough, the ship went down quickly, and no formal investigation was ever undertaken out of that.

HOST: How truly tragic to have lost 20 staff that evening with this ship's sinking. How are the crew remembered for this ultimate sacrifice?

RDML GLANG: Well, just as there was no inquiry into what happened, what were the circumstances of the sinking of the ship, we haven't yet had any formal recognition for the loss of this crew or the fact that they paid the ultimate price in the service of the country.

HOST: And Admiral Glang, how will Coast Survey honor the lost crew of the Walker this year, on, what you've noted, is the 153rd anniversary?

RDML GLANG: So purely by coincidence, tomorrow is the anniversary of the accident and it's the celebration of World Hydrography Day, so we're going to use that opportunity to officially honor these 20 lost sailors. They gave their lives while supporting hydrographic surveys while supporting our Survey of the Coast mission.

One of the activities we've got planned is the NOAA Survey Ship Thomas Jefferson will actually be searching for, where we believe, the wreck site is of the Walker. They're going to take a moment and pay tribute to the crew by laying a wreath out over the area of the wreck. At the same time, here in Silver Spring, we're inviting NOAA employees to come and observe the day with us, it'll be just a very brief ceremony. While the Thomas Jefferson is laying the wreath at the approximate site of the wreck off the coast of New Jersey, we'll have a ceremony here in which we'll ring the ship's bell 20 times - once for each of the sailors who died.

HOST: Admiral Glang, what do we know about the location of the Walker?

RDML GLANG: Well, we think we know where the wreck is, but it's never been officially documented. We're working with NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program and a researcher from East Carolina University to use contemporary accounts from recreational divers and some of our other wreck database information to try and confirm where we think the potential site is and then by actually having divers go down from NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program - these are actually experts in marine archaeology - they're going to try to take a look at where we think this spot is and where we think there's some wreckage from the Walker and try to make a positive identification.

HOST: I'm not sure if there's statistics out there for this, but are we safer today, when navigating U.S. waters, than 150 years ago? Of course I understand that we know more about our waters now, we have surveyed and produced more nautical charts, but there are also more vessels in the water. What can you tell us about navigation safety today?

RDML GLANG: Well, certainly our charts are much more complete, much more accurate than they were 150 years ago. Keep in mind that the mission the Walker was on is the same mission that we pursue today. Our challenge, as always, is to survey a continuously changing coastal area and coastal ocean sea floor. We need that hydrographic data to update our charts and to make sure we know where these dangers to navigation are so that ships can sail safely.

That's an ongoing challenge - in many ways we're always playing catch up because of these changes and we also have a pretty large area that we're responsible for charting. There are over three and a half million square nautical miles of U.S. coastal waters that are represented in our nautical charts. And earlier I talked about ships being much bigger now than they were, they have much deeper drafts, so charting precision and accuracy are now even more important than they were 150 years ago.

HOST: Admiral Glang, in wrapping up our conversation today, do you have any final closing words to leave our listeners with?

RDML GLANG: I think there are two thoughts maybe I could leave with your listeners. The first is, if you're hearing this on Friday, June 21, take a moment to think about the 20 sailors who died in the service of their nation, in this particular case working for the Coast Survey. The second point is to think about the purpose of World Hydrography Day and how nautical charts enable reliable commerce, create jobs, keep our goods flowing in and out of our country.

HOST: Thanks Admiral Glang for joining us today on Diving Deeper for a great history lesson on NOAA's Coast Survey, World Hydrography Day, and the tragic collision of the Coast Survey Steamer Walker back in 1860. To learn more, please visit

That's all for today's show. Remember, if you have questions on this episode or the National Ocean Service in general, you can contact us at And if you're on social media, don't forget you can find us, it's usoceangov, on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube; and noaaocean on Twitter and Pinterest. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.