How cruise companies can contribute to science while sailing

Cruise ships can provide valuable information by observing the uncharted waters they visit

How cruise companies can contribute to science while sailing

Seabed 2030

Only areas marked grey or red on the world map have been mapped at 100 metre resolution or better

By Matthew Zimmerman |

For passengers with a thirst for adventure, the prospect of voyaging through the most exclusive waters to pristine island chains and along coral reefs or ice flows is what drives them to expedition cruising. These unique experiences stem from a fundamental urge to explore our world and be immersed in its beauty. This means venturing into the unknown and in turn, uncharted waters. The message from Seabed 2030 – a global initiative by the Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans to map the world's oceans by 2030 and make it available to all – that “we know the topography of the Moon and Mars in greater detail than that of our own planet” surely resonates with expedition cruise passengers. Perhaps they are not surprised that we’ve only mapped less than 24 per cent of our oceans.

The most basic information needed by the crew to ensure safety when sailing is knowing the water’s depth. Mapping the seafloor’s bathymetry is a critical key in safety. It is also important in scientific endeavours to understand ocean circulation, tides, tsunami forecasting, fishing resources, sediment transport, and environmental changes. Commercial endeavours such as infrastructure construction, cable laying and pipeline routing also need the depth to be successful.

Even in well-charted areas, passengers might assume that everything one needs to know is already on our nautical charts. However, mariners know they would be mistaken. The US has some of the best charts in the world, yet according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “about half of the depth information found on NOAA charts is based on hydrographic surveys conducted before 1940,” and “in too many cases, the data is more than 150 years old. Sometimes, particularly in Alaska, the depth measurements are so old that they may have originated from Captain Cook in 1778.” Take a moment to think about the reliability of the chart data when you’re navigating in the ‘exotic’ locations your guests’ itineraries demand.

Fortunately, cruise ships have a wide range of navigation sensors they can use in conjunction with their charts to help them navigate such waters more safely. While navigating in these locations, cruise ships can be a part of the solution through a worldwide crowdsourcing initiative. They have the opportunity to contribute to the global community by recording their depth and position observations along the way.

“Measurements collected by the cruise ship industry during the course of their normal operations are a valuable contribution to the International Hydrographic Organizantion’s (IHO) crowdsourced bathymetry efforts,” says Jennifer Jencks, director of the IHO Data Center for Digital Bathymetry at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information and chair of the IHO’s Crowdsourced Bathymetry Working Group. “Contributions to the IHO's Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry are made available for public use and are included in the Seabed 2030 initiative."

Participation in these types of initiatives is an easy way for the cruise industry to contribute to the wider, global community, while operating in their typical manner. One example of such industry participation is collecting recordings from FarSounder’s Argos 3D Forward Looking Navigation sonars.

Of course, knowing what’s underwater ahead of your ship is also paramount to safe navigation. FarSounder’s Argos series sonars are designed primarily as real-time, forward-looking sensors for obstacle avoidance. These navigation systems can provide a 3D image of waters, the riverbed and the seafloor ahead of the ship out to a 1000-metre range. However, the Argos sonars also include a Local History Mapping feature, which builds a map of the bathymetry everywhere the ship transits. The size of this map is only limited by the hard drive space available on the bridge computer.

FarSounder’s Argos display software includes both a 3D view of the sonar data as well as a chart view with sonar, automatic identification system, and automatic radar plotting aid data as overlays on standard S57/S63 format charts. Real-time, forward-looking data is available inside the sonar’s field-of-view (also known as the ‘pie wedge’), with Local History Mapping data stored indefinitely and displayed anywhere the vessel has previously transited.

The standard configuration of Argos sonars is a standalone system which keeps all the data inside the software. However, FarSounder customers can choose to participate in the company’s Expedition Sourced Ocean Data Collection Program. As part of this programme, participants are sent a USB hard drive, which records all the raw data received by their system. When the drive is full, it is sent back to FarSounder for compilation.

“Observations collected and contributed by the cruise ship industry provide depth measurements from locations often not covered by formal surveys,” says Dr. Mathias Jonas, secretary general of the IHO. “These unique contributions play a key role in our crowdsourcing efforts.”

FarSounder is an official trusted node for the Data Center for Digital Bathymetry and all contributions to the IHO’s database are available for public use. Through the Data Center for Digital Bathymetry, the data is also shared with Seabed 2030. This programme is optional for select current customers and is focused on those who are traveling to exotic locations (though data from any location is of value to Seabed 2030).

Crowdsourced data has many known uses, and new applications for the data are being developed by engineers, scientists and hobbyists around the world. One example is using crowdsourced data from trusted sources to help fill in the gaps in traditional hydrographic surveys. The Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) recently produced an update to chart 7053 using data collected by The World, a cruise ship equipped with an Argos sonar, and made available through the Data Center for Digital Bathymetry. In this case, the CHS had no survey data from this part of the Northwest Passage. Using the customer submitted recordings and metadata about the vessel, the CHS was even able to assess the quality and reliability of the measurements.

In another example, five ships operating off the coast of Antarctica during last year’s season participated in the FarSounder programme, with additional ships recording during this year’s season. When those drives are returned, it is hoped that there will be recordings of multiple voyages over similar locations which will allow for the generation of a large surveyed area. There are plans to repeat this effort in subsequent years through the FarSounder data collection programme, with the hope of not only expanding the coverage of the surveyed area but also producing information about the seafloor as it changes over time. Such observations of the Antarctic seafloor have never previously been collected and could provide a unique perspective for scientists who are studying climate change and polar ice caps.

Expedition cruise ships often operate in locations that are outside the standard, commercial shipping routes. Unfortunately, these types of locations are often bypassed from official hydrographic surveys. Heath Henley, senior application engineer at FarSounder, says: “Cruise ships can offer access to scientific observations which may otherwise not be made. It would be a shame to waste such opportunities, especially when they can be achieved with no significant cost while the ship operates normally. We’re proud that our customers are able to contribute in this way.”

Through participation in crowdsourcing activities, the cruise industry has an opportunity to provide unique and valuable contributions to the global community and expand the limits of our understanding of our world. FarSounder is proud to do its part in connecting their customers with the Seabed 2030 project. Keeping the oceans safe is a mutual goal for all and it is pleased to have the partnership in place to provide Seabed 2030 with bathymetric data.

Matthew Zimmerman is CEO of FarSounder

Contact author


Subscribe to the Cruise & Ferry newsletter

  • ©2024 Tudor Rose. All Rights Reserved. Cruise & Ferry is published by Tudor Rose.