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 (also known as hydrographic surveyors) 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. The work usually involves periods onboard survey vessels, drilling rigs etc.
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, and if so, at what rate
- 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 (e.g. unexploded ordinance or missing planes)
What skills and personal qualities do you need?
A hydrographer/hydrographic surveyor needs:
- Practical problem-solving skills
- Technical ability (data processing, equipment knowledge)
- To be a logical thinker
- Patience and the ability to maintain concentration
- A good head for figures
- Financial and legal expertise (for some jobs)
- A driving licence is often required for many positions
As positions in hydrography are limited, it is very beneficial to put yourself ahead of other candidates, by making yourself stand out. You can achieve this by working on improving both transferable soft skills and more niche technical skills specific to the hydrographic sector, beyond that which you may have learnt in a higher education course. Key skills to develop include:
- Knowledge of global positioning systems, geographic information systems and emergency procedures
- Experience and some proficiency in the use of modern computer equipment such as GPS, SONAR and sound navigation systems.
- Some practical application in the profession – conducting an internship or work placement to demonstrate you can apply theory to practice
- Wide knowledge of marine construction and law
- Navigation and experience/qualifications in handling small marine craft
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. Check that the course you take is accredited by an appropriate professional body, such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or the IMarEST. 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. Please visit our accredited courses webpage to look for a course in hydrography that might be of interest to you, which we have assessed to be of an acceptable standard to apply for professional registration. 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.
Professional registration is a globally recognised professional credential, offering international recognition for your skills, qualifications and experience by identifying that you possess key competencies that employer’s value.
Entry requirements for technical and support staff vary, but you are likely to need A level or equivalent qualifications; some technicians hold qualifications at Higher National level. Support staff in hydrography may be able to work towards the NVQ level 3 in weather observing or an NVQ level 4 in weather forecasting.
The IMarEST provides distance learning degrees and higher education qualifications through its learning arm, the MLA College, in a range of marine-related subjects. The courses allow you to gain the extra skills you may need to enter the workplace in a marine science profession, through its broad range of access, undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
Who employs hydrographers?
Employers of hydrographers/ hydrographic surveyors include:
- 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.
Generally, there are only a small and limited number of management roles, so some hydrographers move into a related role that focuses on areas such as:
- Staff manager
- Health and safety
- Management of offshore projects
- Client liaisons
- Procedural matters
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.
The IMarEST keeps an up-to-date Jobs Board, on which it advertises job vacancies from across the marine sector, including those in hydrography professions. Please visit the board regularly for a job that may be of interest and to give you an idea of the types of jobs that exist in this domain.
One of the IMarEST’s Marine Partner’s, Marine People, is a specialist partnership based recruitment business aimed specifically in placing candidates in high-quality permanent UK and International jobs across the marine industry. Get in touch with them to assist you in your job search and entry into the field of hydrography.
What else can you do to improve your employability?
Joining a professional institute, such as the IMarEST, provides you with a range of benefits and services that will help support your professional development, raise your profile and connect you with other like-minded professionals from around the world.
Once you have joined a professional institute like the IMarEST, you can join your local branch to become involved in local activities and communities to get more from your membership, and further boost your profile. Additionally, you can join a Special Interest Group (SIG). The IMarEST has a Hydrography SIG, a joint hydrographic advisory panel established with the Hydrographic Society. It focuses primarily on themes such as marine infrastructures, maritime defence, conservation schemes, resource exploitation and modelling environmental disasters. It also aims to contribute to the work of the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO), at which the IMarEST has observer status.
Other SIGs that may be of interest include the Offshore Renewables SIG, that focuses on addressing issues concerning Offshore Renewable Energy projects, processes and management and the Offshore Oil and Gas SIG that aims to discuss the issues involved with the onshore-offshore skills gap, addressing the strict health and safety restrictions and handling the decommissioning of sites that are no longer viable. You can get involved with the wealth of activies these SIGs are involved in by joining either as a corresponding member or if you are advanced enough in your career, as a member of a committee and start influencing the profession at a higher level.
You could also gain relevant experience by volunteering. Many non-governmental organisations run conservation research expeditions that you can gain practical fieldwork skills and research skills, whilst also having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Check out the list of the IMarEST’s NGO Partners for ideas as to where you could go. The IMarEST also offers a variety of volunteering opportunities. Take a look at our ‘get involved’ brochure as well as our volunteering brochure to find out more!
Where can I find out more?
- The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) – https://www.imarest.org/resources/weblinks
- The Science Council – www.sciencecouncil.co.uk. Careers information in the mining and minerals industries can be found at www.uk-rocks.net
- The Hydrographic Society UK – www.ths.org.uk
- Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining – www.iom3.org
- The institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors – www.ices.org.uk
- International Federation of Hydrographic Societies – www.hydrographicsociety.org
- The International Marine Contractors Association – www.imca-int.com
- Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) – www.rics.org/careers
- The Science Council – www.sciencecouncil.co.uk Careers information in the mining and minerals industries can be found at www.uk-rocks.net