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United Kingdom Hydrographic Office

The BAS fuel dump on the ice
HMS Endurance's lynx returning to the ship
HMS Endurance's Lynx transfering the fuel barrels

Charting the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic

By Stuart Osbourne (UKHO)

The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) is based in Taunton, Somerset and employs approximately 950 people and one of its main objectives is to provide worldwide navigational chart coverage for both military and merchant shipping. Each chart assists the mariner by graphically representing the following:

The depth of water from the sea surface to ocean floor

Tidal information to allow the mariner to adjust the depths to the state of the tide.

Dangerous underwater obstructions such as wrecks, cables and pipelines.

Position of the coastline or ice fronts.

Positional information in the form of a grid and magnetic compass. The former allows the mariner to plot the ships current position by latitude and longitude, and the latter allows the mariner to plot the ships direction and course.

Navigational aids such as lighthouses, beacons and buoys. The chart provides the position of these structures (relative to the aforementioned grid), the light and radar emitting characteristics, colour, shape and where available their name.

Anchorage areas, restricted areas and traffic separation schemes.

Topographic information that would be a useful reference to the mariner. Examples would include church spires, radio masts, vertical cliff faces and heights of coastal hills and mountains.

One of the roles at the UKHO is as a cartographer maintaining the existing chart coverage, and producing new chart coverage, of the Falklands Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Due to its outstanding natural beauty, remoteness and its abundance of wildlife the southern ocean, its islands and the Antarctic continent have become the subject of increased levels of tourism over recent years. The tourists travel to these areas by an ever increasing number of cruise ships, some of which have the capability to carry upwards of 1000 passengers. With the combination of the amount of vessel traffic, limited rescue facilities and the fragile nature of the environment it is imperative that the navigational charts of the area aids safe and informed navigation.

Each year the RN and the UKHO decide on which geographical areas require surveying during the following season. This is usually decided by looking at recent tourism statistics collated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and defence / FCO requirements. Once an area to be surveyed has been decided upon HMS Endurance is issued with a 'Hydrographic Instruction' which sets out the geographical limits of the survey and details on how the area should be surveyed.

HMS Endurance is equipped with a single beam echo sounder, as are her two small motor boats the James Caird and the Nimrod. When surveying HMS Endurance undertakes the deep water surveying, while the two smaller boats survey the bays and harbours. This provides me at the UKHO with one of my only sources of large areas of accurate depth information in the Southern Ocean. In addition to her survey capabilities HMS Endurance carries 2 lynx helicopters which are equipped with cameras to allow them to take vertical aerial photographs of the coastline and offshore islands.

Towards the end of the season all this information is sent in digital format to the UKHO where it is processed and analysed. Both the survey work and the aerial photographs are compared against what is currently shown on the published navigational chart. More often than not, this reveals certain differences that the mariner should be made aware of. The UKHO has various ways of providing the mariner with this information. Firstly, if the survey has revealed something of a very serious nature it will be issued as a Radio Navigational Warning. This is a radio message that can be sent to vessels in the area of the danger alerting them to it immediately. Secondly, less serious dangers are issued as Notice to Mariners every week by the UKHO, both in paper format as well as on our website UK Hydrographic Office 1. Finally the survey information is included in either a new edition of an existing chart, or alternatively an entirely new chart is generated.

This current season HMS Endurance has carried out some valuable survey work and aerial photography around South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula which will enhance the existing chart coverage of the area. Due to my work at the UKHO I have been lucky enough to be invited on board HMS Endurance for her final work period down towards Halley Research base in the Weddell Sea to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula. This provides me with a unique opportunity to experience the work of a large survey vessel 'at the sharp end', helping to process the data that she has collected, which I will eventually include on the charts when I return to Taunton. Another valuable experience that I have gained is being able to witness the navigational charts in use up on the ship's bridge, and the reliability that is placed upon them.

The main task of this work period was to liaise with the BAS supply vessel RRS Ernest Shackleton and create a temporary aviation fuel depot site on the Antarctic mainland, from where the BAS fixed wing aircraft could move the fuel onto various permanent Antarctic bases around the continent. HMS Endurance supplied her two lynx helicopters for the operation enabling the movement of the barrels from RRS Ernest Shackleton to the temporary 'skiway' on the mainland. I was invited to be part of the shore party on the first day of the depot laying. I was flown ashore by helicopter and joined the permanent shore party where our task was to unload the barrels from the helicopters under slung carrying net, and to assist with the transfer of the fuel barrels to the BAS temporary skiway and ultimately on board their Twin Otter aircraft. This proved quite a demanding task in temperatures of -15C combined with the weight of the barrels and the soft underfoot conditions, but it was a most unique and enjoyable experience nonetheless.

Now that the main task of the current work period is completed, there is still a lot to achieve as we have to recover BAS personnel and survey equipment from James Ross Island before finally returning to the Falkland Islands.

Read all the latest news about the ship's deployment by following the links below, with additional pictures in the Picture Gallery.. HMS Endurance Tracking Project pages