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Charting the Waters: NOAA works to update Apalachicola’s Nautical Charts

Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 6:03 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Every day, sailors from Apalachicola to Carrabelle take to the gulf, filling nets with the day’s catch.

Those who work on the water often rely on nautical charts provided by NOAA to stay safe at sea.

Now, for the first time in more than 50 years, NOAA is spending millions of dollars to update the nautical charts around Apalachicola.

There are some unusual boats anchored at the Dockside Marina in Carrabelle. They’re equipped with state of the art technology, designed to scan the gulf’s sandy bottom.

For the last three years, scientists have set sail, re-mapping the waters around Apalachicola.

Updating Apalachicola’s charts is only one component of a larger venture to update charts across north Florida.

“Trying to find these areas that have very, very old hydrography, or very, very old maps and charts of the area and update them and Apalachicola is one of those areas,” Tim Osborne, NOAA’s Regional Navigation Manager for the Central Gulf of Mexico said.

NOAA contracted with a company named Fugro to update the charts. Fugro provided two small boats, a large offshore vessel and an unmanned boat for its team. The boats are equipped with sonar technology to map the ocean floor,

“We have multi beamed sonars, we have sound velocity probes that measure the conductivity and speed of sound through water,” Allison Stone, Fugro’s field team lead for the project described.

The technology works by sending sound waves down to the bottom of the gulf. The sound waves then hit the bottom and bounce back up to the sonar. Computers then analyze the sound waves that return.

"To really simplify it, it's like throwing a tennis ball at a wall and catching it, so we're just measuring the two-way travel time, from when we send the beam to when we get the beam back," Stone explained.

So far the crew has charted over 30,000 line miles off Apalachicola, which is the equivalent of traveling across the United States six times.

The team’s secret weapon is their state of the art unmanned boat, otherwise known as a USV or unmanned surface vehicle; the vessel is like a robot that is programmed to collect data.

“We plan out the entire route, we send her on her way and while that is doing that, we can also utilize another vessel as that force multiplier to collect other data on the side,” Adam Fuselier, Fugro’s active party chief for the project, said.

Cutting edge technology revealing Apalachicola Bay's watery secrets.

Once completed, the nautical charts will be available to the public and won't just be beneficial for fishermen.

The data will also assist researchers such as marine biologists studying the area’s ecosystem and meteorologists updating storm surge models.

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