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Office of Coast Survey

Rapid Response Surveys

NOAAmads: Life on a Hydrographic Field Party

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MEET: Kathryn Simmons

Physical Scientist, Office of Coast Survey

I’m the team leader of Navigation Response Team 3, one of seven teams around the country that quickly responds to navigational emergencies that require hydrographic-survey expertise. Some of the team’s jobs include locating sunken vessels, investigating uncharted shoals, and updating NOAA nautical charts after a hurricane has passed through an area or if an earthquake shifts the shape of the ocean floor. The team works out of a mobile office trailer and operates a survey vessel that can be towed on a trailer. When not involved in emergency responses, the team performs routine hydrographic surveys, validates digital shoreline products, and verifies the positions of aids to navigation, such as buoys and beacons.

Kathryn Simmons


What do you like most about working at NOS?

Since joining the field team in California, I’ve worked in every major port and most of the minor ones along the U.S. West Coast and in Puget Sound. I also participated in an adventurous six-week project on Shemya Island at the west end of the Aleutian Chain, and, in 2004, in the response to Hurricane Ivan on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

What is the hardest part of your job?

A field team is nomadic by nature, which is one of its attractions or its biggest drawback, depending on one’s point of view. It often seems to be ruled by Murphy’s Law, and every project is different. It can be demanding and challenging, but it can also be rewarding.

What is your educational background?

Before settling on a degree in geography, I studied communications and history. It was flying that eventually turned me to geography. I had a private pilot’s license and was working toward a commercial license with instrument rating when I decided I needed to find a career that involved flying. I knew by then I didn’t want to be a bush pilot, so I thought about aerial photography. Who needs it? Cartographers do, don’t they? So I signed up with the Department of Geography at the University of Washington. I got the degree, with an emphasis on the geography of natural resources, but never went back to flying.

What inspired your interest in the ocean and coasts?

My first assignment with NOAA was with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Status and Trends project aboard the NOAA Ship MacArthur. It didn’t seem like work at all. My part of the project ended at the Mexican border, while the ship continued down the Pacific Coast. Somehow I managed to be in the right place at the right time, and I immediately joined the survey department of the NOAA Ship Surveyor, which was en route to the Arctic Ocean. With another rare bit of luck, I was able to stay on board for a voyage to Antarctica. In two years, I traveled twice to the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Ocean and twice to Antarctica. These were unforgettable experiences.

Following those voyages, I joined what was then the Pacific Hydrographic Party (PHP) working in California on the Sacramento River. This mobile field team was updating nautical charts in navigational waters along the western seaboard. In 1999, the PHP became Navigation Response Team 3.

How did you end up working at NOAA?

My degree eventually paved the way to my career at NOAA, although a detour to West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer intervened. I have also been a legislative assistant for a U.S. Senator, a staff writer for a China trade journal, and a coordinator for a medical residents’ program.

What advice do you have for young people wanting a career in the "ocean realm"?

Prerequisites are adaptability, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and versatility. A sense of humor, as well as a sense of adventure and a healthy measure of curiosity, are also big assets.