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NOAA Ship Surveys Channel Islands to Gather Mapping Data, Support Safe Navigation

Updated mapping data will be used for navigational safety, habitat management and disaster response

The NOAA survey ship Rainier is mapping areas of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary this month.
The NOAA survey ship Rainier is mapping areas of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary this month.  (Contributed photo)

The near-shore areas of the Channel Islands' underwater topography were last surveyed about 90 years ago, but a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey ship is in the area to work on an update. 

The NOAA survey ship Rainier returns to the Santa Barbara and Ventura coast Monday to complete hydrographic surveys and a comprehensive mapping initiative to help mariners navigate safely, and update charts to make informed resource management decisions.

“With the new technology, we can develop a much higher resolution of what the seafloor looks like,” said Chris Caldow, the research coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a protected area of 1,470 square miles established in 1980.

“The information is utilized for everything from the depth and habitat to navigational safety and disaster response. It’s critical for conservation and species management.”

Researchers started work in the sanctuary around San Miguel Island, the westernmost island in the Channel Islands, on Oct. 4, and made a pit stop over the weekend in San Diego.

Up until 2014, more than half of the area was not charted in detail for making informed resource management decisions for protecting wildlife and marine habitat, according to NOAA.

That sparked the scientific agency's staff to launch the Southern California Seafloor Mapping Initiative to identify priority areas using locally-based NOAA vessels carrying sonar optimized for fisheries research, with the help from other state and federal agencies.

Researchers have spent nearly two weeks aboard the 231-foot vessel that sleeps 55 people — and eight scientists — to deploy its survey launches to collect data in the island shallows during the four-week phase.

Since crews began their work this fall, according to NOAA, they have completed the majority of mapping for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, with less than 25 percent of the sanctuary — primarily inshore and shallow areas — left to be mapped.

Researchers are using the NOAA Coast Survey's autonomous underwater vehicle to collect data in the sanctuary’s deep sea coral areas.

Caldow said the Rainier — a 49-year-old survey vessel — carries four survey launches designed to survey shallow water using modern technology.

“The smaller boats can get into the shallow waters where we’ve had difficulty mapping,” Caldow said.

“Those waters are the most important to survey because those are most likely to navigational hazards and be home to key habitat like our rich kelp forest ecosystem.”

Before the survey operations begun, preparations included testing the Rainier’s sonar backscatter collection capabilities and finding a safe anchorage for the ship.

A small boat crew of four also performed an inshore inspection to look for thick kelp beds or rocks that could pose dangers at low tide — which could have been missed by the 1930s lead lines technique surveys, according to NOAA’s online update posted last week.

“The technology we have today enables us to improve our nautical charts and navigation safety while at the same time providing the critical habitat data the sanctuary needs to manage its resources,” said Cmdr. Ben Evans, the Rainier’s commanding officer, in an online update.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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