Hydrographic surveyors, also known as hydrographers, specialise in precise positioning, data acquisition and processing in marine environments.

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.

Hydrographic surveyors are expected to work in a range of different situations and applications, from inland waters and rivers, to ports and oceans.

The work may be onshore or offshore, depending on the specialist area, but usually involves time spent on board survey ships and drilling platforms.

The role demands an understanding of, and consideration for, environmental issues.

Responsibilities

Tasks carried out can vary depending on the specific area of work, but may include:

  • using 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;
  • using remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles to acquire data in deep oceans;
  • operating specialised technical software and geographical information systems (GIS) to manage the integration, processing and presentation of data to clients;
  • dealing with clients to provide tenders and results in appropriate formats;
  • managing projects, both onshore and offshore, as vessel-based managers;
  • producing reports;
  • providing 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;
  • working 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;
  • sourcing information on seabed type, water movements and waves;
  • provision of data for oceanographic studies;
  • for those working onshore, responding to technical queries from onshore engineering teams and problem-solving for colleagues working offshore;
  • reviewing company procedures and software projects, and providing feedback on courses and in-house training;
  • working as part of a team of technical specialists.

Salary

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.

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.

Typical starting salaries range from £14,000 to £25,000 plus an allowance of £70 to £110 per day for each day spent offshore. In a year you will typically spend between 130 and 180 days at sea, earning an additional £10,000 to £17,000.

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.
  • Work is largely offshore. For company personnel, 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 under-represented in the profession.
  • The working and living environment may be in cramped and uncomfortable surroundings.
  • 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.
  • The role involves living away from home for extended periods, sometimes at short notice, which can be disruptive to your personal life. Long periods away from home are interspersed with short breaks onshore, spent either at home or at shore locations for reporting, training and development.
  • 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.

Entry is also possible via the Royal Navy as a hydrographic, meteorological and oceanographic specialist, where hydrographic training is provided by the Flag Officer Sea Training Hydrography and Meteorology (FOST HM) school. For further details, see Royal Navy Careers.

It is possible to qualify as a land surveyor and then acquire the skills needed 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;
  • teamworking skills and the ability to work closely and get on with others in pressured 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.

Knowledge of global positioning systems and navigation, geographic information systems, nautical studies and emergency procedures is useful. A driving licence is usually required

Work experience

Relevant experience through a sandwich placement or vacation work is recommended. 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 wide 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 The Hydrographic Society UK (THS UK) list of members. Use your personal network of previous employers or contacts made through work experience or project work.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Training in areas such as seamanship and instrument handling is typically carried out in-house and on the job.

Trainees working offshore must usually undertake a basic offshore safety and emergency training course. This includes:

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

Those working offshore also need to undergo a medical examination, although requirements vary depending on the country.

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

Contact individual bodies for details of how to attain professional or chartered membership.

To keep up to date with industry news and developments and networking opportunities within the profession, membership of The Hydrographic Society UK (THS UK) can be useful.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is vital to career development and professional bodies provide advice on undertaking and recording CPD activities. They also offer a range of professional development 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.

There are some roles available as base and staff surveyors, providing onshore technical backup and training.

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.

As this is a relatively small and specialist area of work, most promotion in the industry takes place by moving from company to company. Prospects may depend on mobility and economic climate.

Opportunities may increase in the future as governments look to increase the amount of offshore energy produced.