Hydrographic surveying is a varied and specialised role, which demands an understanding of the environment

Hydrographic surveyors, also known as hydrographers, specialise in precise positioning, data acquisition and processing in onshore or offshore marine environments. Time is usually spent on board survey ships and drilling platforms.

The role involves measuring and mapping the world's underwater surfaces and studying the morphology (construction) of the seabed, showing the depth, shape and contours. The information is used in:

  • the production of charts and related information for navigation
  • dredging
  • locating offshore resources (oil, gas, aggregates)
  • positioning offshore wind farms, oil platforms and subsea cables
  • planning dock installations
  • monitoring erosion.

Responsibilities

As a hydrographic surveyor, you'll need to:

  • use specialised technical software and equipment including satellite and terrestrial positioning systems, sonars, single and multibeam echo sounders, laser scanners and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) equipped aircraft to provide data for the production of nautical charts and maps
  • use remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles to acquire data in deep oceans
  • operate specialised technical software and geographical information systems (GIS) to manage the integration, processing and presentation of data to clients
  • deal with clients to provide tenders and results in appropriate formats
  • manage projects, both onshore and offshore, as vessel-based managers
  • produce reports
  • provide accurate and reliable information for other disciplines such as navigation, dredging, coastal works, seabed telephone cables, environmental monitoring, aquaculture, marine wind farm development, oceanographic research, bridge construction, and oil, gas and mineral resource exploration
  • work in a variety of different situations and applications including seabed mining, oil and gas exploration, the construction of ports, the provision of navigational charts, and the positioning of navigational aids
  • source information on seabed type, water movements and waves
  • provide data for oceanographic studies
  • respond to technical queries from onshore engineering teams and problem-solve for colleagues working offshore - if working onshore
  • review company procedures and software projects, and provide feedback on courses and in-house training
  • work as part of a team of technical specialists.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries range from £14,000 to £25,000 plus an allowance of £70 to £110 per day for each day spent offshore.
  • Salaries for hydrographic surveyors can vary greatly depending on the sector, type of employer, location and experience. For example, salaries are likely to be higher with oil and gas and dredging companies than with environmental research companies.
  • If you work offshore, you will typically spend between 130 and 180 days at sea, earning an additional £10,000 to £17,000.

Salaries for those working offshore with oil companies are linked to the price of oil and a crash in oil prices is likely to affect increases in salaries.

As well as an offshore allowance, surveyors may also receive a hardship allowance, depending on the living conditions and dangers involved in sleeping onshore in certain circumstances. Allowances can boost annual salaries significantly.

Most companies pay all travel costs to and from project areas.

Income data from The Hydrographic Society UK (THS UK). Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours typically include regular unsocial hours and may be determined by weather, tides and daylight. Work includes shifts. Offshore work tends to be continuous from April to October, with only slight slackening in the winter months due to the weather conditions.

Onshore work is generally 9am to 5pm, though hours may be longer if particular problems arise. For senior staff, weekend duty, which involves being on-call to handle any offshore problems, usually falls one weekend in every five. For information on living conditions offshore, see myOilandGasCareer.com.

What to expect

  • Opportunities for self-employment and freelance work are good, but depend on levels of commercial activity and your personal contacts. Contract surveyors would normally be expected to have five years' experience or more.
  • Women are currently underrepresented in the profession.
  • When working offshore, the working and living environment may be in cramped and uncomfortable surroundings. Being away from home for extended periods can also be disruptive to your personal life.
  • Jobs are available worldwide at coastal and offshore sites. The work may involve international activity, onshore and port work. Staff are generally encouraged to live within commuting distance of the main office, although this is not essential as you will be flown to the port where you will join the ship.
  • Overseas work is common. Oil and gas exploration currently provides many opportunities in countries such as Norway, the Arabian Gulf, China, the Pacific Rim, Venezuela, Mexico, the United States, West Africa and Angola.

Qualifications

Entrants to the profession usually have a degree in a surveying science. The following subjects may be particularly useful:

  • computer science/software engineering
  • engineering/civil engineering
  • geography/cartography
  • geology
  • hydrographic surveying
  • land surveying
  • marine sciences and marine geography
  • ocean exploration
  • physical/mathematical/applied science.

Increasingly, entrants are studying for BSc and MSc degrees in hydrography, for example the BSc (Hons) Ocean Exploration and Surveying at Plymouth University.

Degrees in land surveying or marine sciences may have hydrography modules. Ability in mathematics and computing is essential.

A postgraduate qualification in hydrographic surveying, hydrography or geomatics is often required for graduates from non-relevant subjects. Masters courses in hydrography and hydrographic surveying are offered by:

For those already working at sea, accredited distance learning opportunities at undergraduate and postgraduate level are provided by the Hydrographic Academy.

You may be able to start your hydrographic career by joining the Royal Navy as a hydrographic, meteorological and oceanographic specialist. Hydrographic training is provided by the Flag Officer Sea Training Hydrography and Meteorology (FOST HM) school. For further details, see Royal Navy Careers.

It's possible to qualify as a land surveyor and then acquire the skills you need to move into hydrographic surveying by taking a postgraduate diploma or Masters degree in hydrography. Search for postgraduate courses in hydrography.

Skills

You need to have:

  • the ability to learn quickly - you will need a good knowledge of global positioning systems and navigation, geographic information systems, nautical studies and emergency procedures
  • good teamworking skills and the ability to work closely and get on with others in pressurised situations
  • a practical approach to problem solving
  • logical thinking
  • resourcefulness and resilience
  • the capacity to adapt sensibly to changing circumstances
  • patience and a sense of humour
  • communication skills, cultural awareness and foreign language skills
  • the ability to maintain concentration - carelessness or a lapse in concentration may have drastic consequences in terms of the overall quality or efficiency of a survey
  • a driving licence is usually a requirement.

Work experience

Try to gain relevant experience through a sandwich placement or vacation work. Nautical, surveying or computing experience is highly valued by employers.

Working over the summer or doing a placement will help you develop key skills and make contacts within the industry and may lead to full-time employment after graduation. Keep in touch with your academic department, as employers may approach your tutors directly. Attend employer presentations while at university and contact specialist recruitment consultancies about temporary and permanent vacancies.

Employers

Types of employers may be differentiated according to survey activity:

  • National charting agencies concerned with the production of nautical charts. They are usually part of the Royal Navy or civilian companies under contract to the navy.
  • Port and harbour authorities Most major ports and harbours have a self-contained survey department, (which may consist of only one person). Others may rely on bringing in expertise from a contracting company.
  • Contract survey companies who rely on winning contracts by competitive tendering to client companies. Some contract companies cover a range of expertise through their employees; others may limit themselves to a particular specialism, such as offshore geophysical work or onshore work associated with coastal engineering projects.
  • Client survey companies that require survey work to be carried out and contract it to a contract survey company. They range from small port authorities and local government authorities, to huge international oil companies and national government authorities.
  • Equipment and software companies. Numerous service companies, including equipment development companies and software houses, employ hydrographic surveyors. Usually a minimum of four to five years' experience is required. There is a particular demand for software developers.
  • Freelance surveyors and consultancies. Those with considerable experience and confidence in the field generally obtain work by networking or through specialised consultancies.

Opportunities also exist with companies involved in land reclamation, as well as dredging companies and those involved in laying cables on the sea bed.

Some hydrographic surveyors, mostly those who are self-employed, undertake contract work in England during the UK's summer months and then work in the southern hemisphere during the UK's winter months.

Look for job vacancies at:

Contract survey companies largely recruit via agencies. Specialist recruitment agencies such as Atlas Professionals rarely handle first vacancies but may prove useful once experience has been gained.

Speculative applications are worth considering. For contact details, see THS UK list of members. Use your personal network of previous employers or contacts made through work experience or project work.

Professional development

You will be given in-house and on-the-job training in areas such as seamanship and instrument handling.

If you're working onshore you may need to undergo a medical examination, although requirements vary depending on the country. Trainees working offshore must usually undertake this and also a basic offshore safety and emergency training course, including:

  • fire fighting
  • helicopter underwater escape training
  • first aid
  • safety at sea.

Depending on your area of expertise, most hydrographic surveyors seek chartered or professional membership of one of the following professional bodies:

Membership of professional bodies, such as THS UK, provides useful networking opportunities and vital continuing professional development (CPD) support through industry news and training courses and events.

For those who don't already have a Masters degree, further study at postgraduate level in hydrographic surveying, hydrography or geomatics is an option.

Career prospects

The usual career path is to start as a graduate entrant at the level of trainee surveyor, engineer or geophysicist (depending on your specialist area). After completing your training, you then become a surveyor (engineer or geophysicist).

The next step is senior surveyor and then principal surveyor. Principal surveyors may be assigned a management role as party chief or project manager. An alternative is to move into specialist technical support and development.

There are generally only a small number of management roles available and some hydrographic surveyors move into a related role focusing more on:

  • client liaison
  • health and safety
  • procedural matters
  • overseeing staff
  • time management
  • offshore management.

Having gained four or five years' experience working in a company, it is quite common for hydrographic surveyors to set up on their own as self-employed contract surveyors.