NOAA mariners set sail for science

The Fairweather is one of the current charting and mapping vessels in the NOAA fleet.
The Fairweather is one of the current charting and mapping vessels in the NOAA fleet.
The Fairweather is one of the current charting and mapping vessels in the NOAA fleet.

No matter the flag, language, or sea conditions, the work of a professional mariner is universal and somewhat standardized in terms of experience from the deck to the bridge to the engine room. 

But aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research vessels, a mariner can be assured of participating in a variety of missions, all carried out in the name of science be it working on mapping operations to produce accurate and up-to-date nautical charts, collecting data to inform commercial and recreational fishing, or surveying the ocean floor to study deep-sea marine animals and plant life.

The agency’s fleet of 15 research vessels work under NOAA’s mission of science, service and stewardship and are operated, managed, and maintained by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO).

NOAA ships have several different staffing roles. 

The positions are filled by the uniformed NOAA corps – commissioned officers who hold command roles on the ships – and civilian professional mariners – federal employees who focus on the day-to-day operation of the vessels, according to OMAO Public Affairs Specialist Keeley Belva. 

Recovery of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) aboard the NOAA ship Pisces in July 2022. The AUV was used to conduct high-resolution seafloor mapping in the Gulf of Mexico.
Recovery of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) aboard the NOAA ship Pisces in July 2022. The AUV was used to conduct high-resolution seafloor mapping in the Gulf of Mexico.

The officers and crew provide mission support to the embarked scientists working on various surveys and projects.

According to Belva, NOAA regularly has openings for civilian mariners to serve aboard the agency’s ships – mates, engineers, technicians, communication or navigation experts, or engine, steward, and deck department crew.  

There are a variety of ways to serve as a mariner aboard one of NOAA’s ships, and employment with the agency offers some unique benefits, said NOAA Commissioned Corps Capt. Jeff Shoup, director of Marine operations. 

“One of the best things about working with NOAA, for me, is the people I work with,” he said. 

“I find that in some way or another everyone involved in working on our ships is dedicated to contributing to NOAA’s science and stewardship; having an impact that directly benefits every citizen with the work we do.”

Being a professional mariner with NOAA also allows an individual the opportunity to see some very different parts of the world – the agency has ships working both in U.S. waters as well as ships that sail internationally. 

It also can be a great way to acquire new skills, like diving and operating uncrewed systems.

These scientific sailors play a “key role” in helping improve NOAA’s understanding of the ocean and atmosphere, officials said on a hiring website for the agency. 

They also bring a mariner’s specific knowledge and experience to the scientific mission by “directly participating in the operation and handling of scientific gear in the tumultuous ocean environment,” said Shoup. 

Operations include nautical charting, bathymetric mapping, fisheries research and surveys, ecosystem and marine environment baseline assessments, coastal-ocean circulation studies, atmospheric research, and more. 

OMAO supports these missions from other NOAA line offices by overseeing the vessels’ operations.

“A lot of this wouldn’t be possible without the work that is happening on our research ships,” Belva said.

Through regular maintenance and investing in mid-life repairs, NOAA is working to maximize the service life of the ships. 

As of 2023, the average age of a NOAA ship is 30 years and as they reach the end of their operational period, agency officials are planning for the future and the next generation of vessels.

Professional mariners deploy equipment used to measure the seawater’s salinity, temperature and depth from NOAA ship Reuben Lasker.
Professional mariners deploy equipment used to measure the seawater’s salinity, temperature and depth from NOAA ship Reuben Lasker.

The current fleet consists of four hydrographic survey vessels and a single coastal survey ship, while NOAA’s Coast Survey deploys navigation response teams equipped with small boats primarily tasked with surveying port areas. 

The agency “will continue to build on the approach of purpose-built ships that are designed with NOAA’s scientific mission in mind from the ground up,” according to a recent OMAO article about keeping NOAA’s marine science-related work afloat.

Moving forward with its growth plan, Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors, LLC is currently building a pair of research-survey ships for NOAA with deliveries planned in 2025 and 2026. 

The terms of the $624.6 million contract with the Houma, La.-based shipbuilder included an option for two additional vessels, which is being exercised. 

The additional two ships are slated for completion in 2027 and 2028. 

According to NOAA, the two just-ordered ships will primarily focus on ocean mapping and charting and will have additional capabilities to help assess and manage living marine resources and collect data for oceanographic monitoring, research, and modeling activities. 

The two hydrographic survey vessels – Discoverer and Oceanographer – will incorporate the latest clean energy technologies, including vessel emission controls and high-efficiency diesel engines.

“These state-of-the-art ships will ensure that we can continue to meet NOAA’s mission to support safe navigation, coastal resource management and the nation’s blue economy,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad. 

“I’m also proud that these new vessels will harness modern engines and design that will move NOAA forward in reducing its own emissions with an eye towards achieving a net-zero fleet.”

The planned vessels, he added, will be designed to coordinate, acquire, and process large data sets like those gathered from mapping the seafloor and characterizing marine habitats. 

The pair also will  have the ability to deploy crewed survey work boats, scientific equipment, and uncrewed systems, which will enhance their mission-related capabilities.  

NOAA also recently started construction on two oceanographic vessels. 

The ships will support a wide variety of NOAA missions, ranging from oceanographic research and exploration to studying marine life, climate, and ocean ecosystems 

“NOAA ships play a vital role in supporting safe navigation, commerce, marine resource management and ocean exploration,” Spinrad said. 

Currently, NOAA has the ships Rainier and Fairweather working on mapping – a massive job as, quite remarkably, only 50 percent of U.S. waters have been mapped as of January 2023.

The remaining half, say NOAA officials, is considered unmapped, which means that either no direct survey measurements of the seafloor have been acquired over those areas or that data has been collected and not shared for broader use. 

The agency is working to increase the total area mapped to 52 percent by 2024.

“Our ships and personnel are integral to NOAA meeting that mission,” Shoup said.

The work the agency completed in Alaskan waters earlier this year chipped away at that task.  

From May through September, experts from NOAA and several partner agencies aboard NOAA’s ship Okeanos Explorer conducted a series of telepresence-enabled ocean exploration expeditions “to improve knowledge about unexplored and poorly understood deepwater areas offshore Alaska, with a particular focus on the Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and Aleutian Trench,” said OMAO’s Belva. 

The data, she said, “will contribute to Seascape Alaska, a regional campaign aimed at fully mapping U.S. waters off the northern state.”

A lot of factors determine which ship is deployed to a specific mission, including the equipment onboard, geographic location in relation to the research area, and the type of mission. 

It depends on “the work that’s happening and the tools that they need,” explained Belva.

The agency’s ships are paired based on the particular needs of the mission, said NOAA’s Shoup. 

That’s quite a challenge when the requirements of the task at hand – diving support, survey and mapping equipment, trawling, vessel characteristics, endurance, and crew accommodations, to name a few – need to be matched with the specific characteristics and capabilities of 15 vessels.

Additionally, he said, other factors need to be considered to assure the right ship is assigned to the task, such as the geographic location and the seasonal timing of the work such as the spawning season of fish or the likelihood of severe weather. 

Taking all those factors into consideration, he said, “We develop a Fleet Plan to best optimize and utilize our ships.”