Hydrographic surveying is a specialised and highly varied role, demanding a deep understanding of the physical environment underwater. Hydrographic surveyors, otherwise known as hydrographers, specialise in data acquisition, precise positioning and processing in both offshore and onshore marine environments primarily for the safety of navigation. It’s vital to know about the shape and nature of the seabed — for example, plans for new shipping routes need to take into account areas of shallow water and sandbanks which could be hazardous, and engineers building offshore wind farms need to know if the seabed will support new structures. 

What do hydrographers do?

Hydrographers use state-of-the-art technology to produce detailed plans of seabeds, harbours and waterways showing depths, shapes and contours. Some of the work involves geomatic surveying or geospatial engineering – collecting the precise information needed to draw up all kinds of detailed charts, maps and plans. In order to carry out their work, hydrographers use sophisticated technology such as satellite positioning systems, echo sounders and computer-aided design packages. 

Hydrographers may be involved in gathering information for:  

  • predicting the effects of proposed and existing marine developments on the environment 

  • producing charts and information related to navigation 

  • finding out whether channels used for shipping are being altered by silting or erosion 

  • dredging projects 

  • exploring sites to extract minerals from the sea 

  • advising on the location for offshore wind turbines, oil rigs and subsea cables 

  • planning dock installations 

  • environmental impact assessments 

  • search and recovery 

What skills and personal qualities do you need?

  • practical problem-solving skills 

  • technical and logical mind 

  • patience and the ability to maintain concentration 

  • a good head for figures 

  • financial and legal expertise 

  • current driving licence 

What about entry, training and qualifications?

Most hydrographic surveyors have a degree in a relevant subject, such as geology, marine science or geography, followed by a postgraduate qualification in hydrography, geomatics or another specialist subject. There are also a handful of specialist undergraduate degree programmes in hydrography that might suit your needs better. The IMarEST accredits a number of higher education courses around the world. Higher education courses can be completed through full or part-time study. In addition, to gain professional registration, a period of structured training in employment leading to a professional assessment is required. 

Who employs hydrographers?

  • Port and harbour authorities 

  • National charting agencies 

  • Contract surveying companies 

  • Defence navies, such as the Royal Navy 

  • Client survey companies 

  • Equipment and software companies 

  • Freelance surveyors and consultancies 

  • Organisations involved in land reclamation 

  • Coastal protection agencies 

  • Companies involved in offshore exploration 

  • Pipe and cable laying firms 

What about future prospects?

Generally, hydrographers start at graduate entry level in a trainee surveyor, geophysicist or engineer (depending on specialism). Once training is complete, you progress to become a full surveyor (geophysicist or engineer). Progression beyond that is to senior then principal surveyor. Principal surveyors can be assigned management roles as a project manager or party chief. However, another alternative is to move into a specialist technical support and development role. 

After gaining around five years’ experience within a company, many hydrographic surveyors become self-employed contract surveyors, gaining contract work with various organisations, or set themselves up as consultants. Although this is a small and specialist area of employment, as governments around the world look to develop greener sources of energy offshore, the need for hydrographers’ looks set to increase.