What lies beneath
Federal ship discovers wrecks, underwater 30-foot sand dunes and boulders
That big white boat going back and forth between Orient Point and Rocky Point in Long Island Sound isn’t lost. And the people aboard aren’t glued to binoculars keeping track of every fish you catch, nor are they spies working for some multinational energy corporation.
With specialized echo sounders, multi-beam and side-scan sonars, this boat’s mission is to update Long Island Sound’s nautical charts, some of which haven’t been updated in more than 100 years — like a section near the coast off Orient Point with huge underwater boulders that have never before been documented.
“We work up and down the East Coast, whichever channel needs to be done,” Thomas Jefferson crew member Ensign Megan Nadeau said. “Some haven’t been done since before 1900, which can be dangerous in navigation. We make sure the depths are the same.”
The boat is named after Jefferson, the man who founded the Survey of Coasts in 1807, back when surveyors dropped lead weights from rowboats to determine depth. The ship’s home port is Norfolk, Va., where about half its current crew of 27 live. It’s the only one in a fleet used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assigned to chart the entire East Coast of the country, using hydrographic surveys and employing civilian physical scientists and government-appointed officers.
According to Dan Wright, chief survey technician, NOAA’s operation involves the Department of Defense but mostly the Department of Commerce, since the main goal is to keep waterways clear for commercial ships.
“People can relate what we do to everyday life when they walk into a store and buy something,” Mr. Wright said. “Ninety-five percent of our commerce comes by sea.”
Mr. Wright said the ship, a 1991 “hand-me-down” from the Navy, is extremely productive, and that NOAA’s tradition of perfectionism in bathymetry, or underwater topography, continues today, from collecting the hard data to how it’s actually processed.
“There’s a lot of detail,” he said. “It all becomes part of the national record and goes to the Library of Congress. We’re very, very concerned that everything is perfect.”
Sitting at his deck in the surveying office, the “brain” of the ship (where Dave Miles, the only electronics technician on board, keeps the ship’s computers, phones, cable and satellite TV running), Mr. Wright pulled up on his computer screen the swatch of the Sound’s floor that the ship had been going over with a “fine-tooth comb.”
“The Sound right now has completely different ages of surveying in it,” he said, adding that the data from before 1900 isn’t necessarily inaccurate — it’s just incomplete.
“It’s very accurate,” he said. “But what they could never have known is the level of detail we have now. We’re getting a complete picture of the bottom.”
That colorful picture, with reds indicating average and shallow depths and blues indicating deep crevasses, includes a 275-foot hole with a 77-foot hill next to it. It includes 30-foot underwater sand dunes and large boulders closer to shore. It includes shipwrecks old and new.
“A lot of wrecks are known,” Mr. Wright said. “But many are not.”
He said finding shipwrecks is a matter of history.
“If an area has had commerce and trade for 400 years,” like New York and Boston harbors, he said, “you’re going to have a lot of wrecks.”
He said if the Thomas Jefferson finds an underwater obstruction that is truly new, it’s labeled a danger to navigation, or a DTON, and is immediately reported to mariners.
Lobster pots are probably the biggest obstruction to the ship itself, at least in the Sound, according to Commander Tod Schattgen. He said he does his best to avoid them for the lobstermen — and to keep from losing the Moving Vessel Profiler, or MVP, a $100,000 piece of surveying equipment, which looks like a torpedo when lowered into the water off the back of the ship. The MVP, according to senior survey technician Peter Lewit, allows him to collect accurate ocean data without the need to stop the vessel.
He said that data involves six to 15 sonar pings per second bouncing off the bottom of the Sound and into the MVP’s sensors.
“We never have to stop what we’re doing,” Mr. Lewit said. “So much data comes into this thing. It’ll make your eyes swell.”
Mr. Lewit got his start in surveying in upstate New York, making above-ground maps.
“I thought I knew everything,” he said of his early days. “But when I came here, I was amazed.”
Cmdr. Schattgen said the ship, or any NOAA vessel, is not working on behalf of Broadwater, which proposes building a floating liquid natural terminal on the Sound, or any other special-interest or private company. The surveys are done for public record and public use only, he said. So, he said, if someone working for Broadwater wants to look at an updated nautical chart provided by NOAA, they can. And, he added, if the Town of Southold requests that NOAA survey the Mattituck Inlet’s floor for whatever reason, they would send in a small boat called a launcher, the type used to survey shallower coastal waters, and do so.
In 1972, NOAA restructured to include studies of fish and the natural world of the Sound. The agency also added atmospheric studies, with planes flying through hurricanes. NOAA marine vessels also come in during and after natural disasters, like they did during Hurricane Katrina, to survey what lies beneath the floodwaters to make way for rescue vessels.
With the Thomas Jefferson being the only survey boat working from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine, according to Mr. Wright, the job can seem overwhelming. He said there’s “200 years of surveying left to do,” but, he said, that might take less time if the need arises.
“It’s a national choice when it comes to infrastructure,” he said, adding that if more people wanted to take ferries everywhere, then waterway survey probably would be updated at a faster rate.
“We make sure our highways are maintained,” he said, adding that 200 years ago, “the waterways were the highways. “