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The History of the CHS Atlantic Region

The Canadian Hydrographic Service at BIO  

Gary Rockwell, Steve Grant, and Bob Burke


The Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) has been an integral part of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) since its opening in October 1962. The four ships at the wharf on opening day were all involved in hydrographic surveys during the 1962 season.

CHS staff, originally based in Ottawa, opened an office in the Ralston Building in Halifax in 1958. The CHS survey ships all berthed at Purdy’s Wharf on the Halifax waterfront except for the CSS Acadia, which returned to Pictou each fall. This all changed with the opening of BIO. Field hydrographers from CHS moved to BIO from their office in downtown Halifax, bringing their equipment and their archives of survey data.

BIO was well suited to CHS, the ships were tied up adjacent to the offices and the survey launches and equipment were maintained in the BIO shops. The ships left from Purdy’s Wharf in the spring of 1962 and returned to BIO in the autumn. The return of the CSS Maxwell was timed to coincide with the opening ceremonies on October 25th. The BIO location led to cooperation with other groups at the Institute and the CSS Baffin carried out multidisciplinary surveys during most seasons from 1964 until 1990. The CHS Navigation Group was set up in the early 1970s to address the navigation needs of all groups at BIO. Collaborative work has increased in recent years with the broad application of multibeam technology in science and resource management.

The sixties were in many ways the glory days of hydrography in Canada. The Baffin had joined the fleet in 1957, the Maxwell was added in 1961, and the Acadia was still active. CHS had the CNAV Kapuskasing on permanent loan from the navy and survey teams were also deployed on shore-based surveys, on various chartered ships, and on Coast Guard vessels working in the Arctic. Every year, at the beginning of May, survey teams spread out across the East Coast of Canada and the Arctic. Most did not return until the end of October, happy to be back home with family and friends and working in the comfort of BIO. The data collected were diligently processed and "Field Sheets" prepared for use in the making of hydrographic charts. As spring arrived, it was time to begin the cycle again. Preparations were made for new surveys, the ships were loaded, and a new survey season was underway.

The structure of CHS changed in 1977 with the arrival of the cartographic unit from Ottawa. The actual move took place over three years from 1977 to 1979. Twenty cartographers were transferred from Ottawa and three additional cartographers were hired locally. CHS Atlantic was no longer just a field survey group, it was now a full-fledged hydrographic office with the capability to collect data and create products for mariners. This was a national initiative with cartographic staff also moving to Sidney BC, Burlington ON, and Québec City, QC. The benefits of having hydrographers and cartographers working closely together, while not appreciated initially, have proven valuable. The work of the hydrographer and cartographer increasingly overlapped and by the mid-1990s, most staff were designated multidisciplinary hydrographers.

Hydrographic Technology

CHS has been a world leader in the advancement of hydrography and hydrographic technology. The latest developments in electronic positioning systems were tested and put to work on hydrographic surveys. A data plotter was tested on the Baffin in 1962 but did not meet expectations. The first general-purpose minicomputer, a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8 with 4K memory was installed on Baffin in 1967.

Navigation and positioning are fundamental requirements for sea-going research and were factors behind the creation of the Navigation Group in July 1970. Among its many contributions over the years was the introduction of Loran-C (and a special ranging version called rho-rho Loran-C that eventually replaced an earlier hydrographic positioning system called Decca Lambda). Other initiatives of the Navigation Group were: the development of an integrated navigation system called BIONAV, early research and evaluation of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, and extensive development and testing of early Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) that are now officially recognized by the International Maritime Organization as legal replacements for paper charts.

CHS experimented with multi-transducer sounding systems in the 1970s and installed early versions of digital data collection systems. The hard work eventually paid off, with fully operational multi-transducer systems and digital data-handling systems operational by the mid-1980s. The CSS Matthew was delivered with a multibeam acoustic system in 1991; considerable testing and research took place to develop software and procedures to properly use the massive amounts of data generated by the system. The work at BIO led to the development of a high precision motion sensor for multibeam systems. Commercial application led to an instrument that is now the world standard.

During the 1980s, CHS had two major initiatives utilizing robotic vehicles. The Autonomous Remote Controlled Submersible (ARCS) Program utilized a 'torpedo' like vehicle that contained an acoustic positioning system, echo sounder, data logging system, and acoustic telemetric control link. Conducting surveys in ice-covered areas presented a serious challenge for the CHS. ARCS was specifically designed to be deployed in the Arctic for under-ice surveys. A prototype unit was tested successfully in southern waters; however, funding cuts and changing survey priorities prevented its operational Arctic deployment.

The Deep Ocean Logging Platform with Hydrographic Instrumentation and Navigation (DOLPHIN) was an unmanned semi-submersible survey vehicle. It was designed to increase efficiencies on offshore surveys. A number of DOLPHINs could be deployed from a mother vessel and operated in parallel to gather bathymetic data. The design was such that the vehicles could operate in rough weather 24 hours a day. Three prototypes were built along with a specialized handling crane. The program was transferred to the private sector in 1992 and terminated in 1997, as offshore surveys were no longer a priority.

CHS began work on computer-assisted drafting in 1967 and BIO staff played a critical role in the development of a Geographic Information System (GIS) for use in marine cartography. The early systems were used to calculate and create chart borders and positioning lattices, but cartographers still needed their scribe tools and ink pens. The hard work eventually led to the development of fully automated systems. CHS worked closely with the University of New Brunswick and Universal Systems Limited in the development of the CARIS geographic information system. CARIS is now widely used by hydrographic offices around the world.

The implementation of GIS for cartography led to the concept and development of the electronic chart, and CHS at BIO was again in the forefront. Once the charts were in a digital format, the next step was to put them on a screen for the mariner. CHS Navigation Group at BIO pioneered and promoted the electronic chart idea. Electronic charts are now standard equipment on most commercial vessels.

Hydrographic Survey Vessels

A number of survey ships have been used by CHS over the past 40 years. The CSS Acadia, launched in 1913, was active until 1969. It was designated a national historic site in 1976 and was moved to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in 1981 where it is their premiere display. Acadia remains a classic example of the best that British builders had to offer. Built during the Edwardian era, the splendid lines of the vessel run uninterrupted from the straight bow to a graceful counter stern. With two masts and single funnel, the ship resembled a small steam yacht more than the hard working survey vessel. Unconfirmed stories indicate that Acadia was refused wharf space at BIO following the opening in 1962. The ship was notorious for the trail of black smoke billowing from coal-fired boilers and rumours suggest that the new occupants of BIO did not want their fine view of Bedford Basin obscured by soot on their windows. Fact or fiction?

The CNAV Kapuskasing, a converted World War II minesweeper, served CHS until 1972 when the vessel was returned to the navy for disposal. The CSS Maxwell joined the fleet in 1962 and did yeoman service on the East Coast until 1990. This was a highly mobile vessel, small enough to work in the many small ports and harbours in Eastern Canada. Maxwell was transferred to the Newfoundland office in 1987 and continued to serve CHS. The CSS Matthew replaced the Maxwell in 1991 and has carried on the tradition of the hard working coastal survey ship. CHS took possession of the FCG Smith in 1986, a unique catamaran style ship built to operate a multi-transducer acoustic sweep system. This pioneering vessel gave CHS the capability to obtain 100% bottom coverage in critical navigation channels and harbours. The Smith was deployed to Transport Canada in 1994 for use on the St. Lawrence River. CHS also made use of Coast Guard ships for work in the Arctic. Such vessels as the CCGS Labrador, CCGS Sir John A. MacDonald, and CCGS d’Iberville were the summer homes to survey teams from BIO.

CSS Baffin joined the CHS fleet in 1956. This was the most modern survey vessel in the world at that time and was a major component of CHS until retirement in 1991. The Baffin was the flagship of the Canadian Hydrographic Service and supported the expansion of Canada’s hydrographic and scientific knowledge for 34 years. The vessel was eminently suited to the task of collecting data in all areas of Canada from the high Arctic to the offshore. Hydrographers and scientists on the Baffin were leaders in the use of the latest technology with such innovations as radio positioning systems, computer-based data acquisition and processing systems, satellite positioning, and integrated navigation systems. The volume of information collected by the Baffin was indeed remarkable and included surveys of Lancaster and Jones Sounds, the Labrador Coast, Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy, the Grand Banks, and the Scotian Shelf. An important database of gravity and magnetic records was collected during 21 multidisciplinary cruises.

In addition to this extraordinary body of work, other notable events of the Baffin included: the circumnavigation of Baffin Island in 1960, representing Canada at the Ninth International Hydrographic Conference in Monaco in 1967, and circumnavigation of North America in 1970 during which the "Pingo Area" in the Beaufort Sea was surveyed. This major achievement was overshadowed by the Hudson ‘70 voyage. Baffin also took part in Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) sponsored surveys in Guyana in 1974 and Senegal in 1976. Baffin again demonstrated its broad capability in 1989 while taking part in a major oceanographic program in Denmark Strait and enduring the worst conditions the North Atlantic could impose. Although the vessel survived this, unfortunately her capabilities and accomplishments could not save her. In the early hours of the 5th of December 1990, in a severe storm, Baffin bumped against the BIO jetty, breaching the hull near the portside fueling door. After this, the Baffin berthed for the last time and was never again to sail under her own power. The number of hydrographic surveys on the East Coast of Canada was declining. After 34 years of service for Canada, the Baffin was quietly retired in April 1991, without a sail past or a decommissioning, a victim of age and shrinking budgets. This loss left a void that has not been filled.


CHS has maintained its offices in the south wing of BIO, now the Polaris Building, since its arrival. Despite the decline in ships and survey capability, the CHS unit at BIO continues to play an important role in the economic viability of the East Coast by providing the charts and navigation information necessary for safe and efficient navigation, marine commerce, fishing, sovereignty, naval activities, and recreational boating. A new role has also emerged in support of the integrated management of our ocean spaces. CHS has been a leader in the implementation of multibeam acoustic systems and the data collected by CHS has opened a new era in the understanding of seafloor processes. These systems allow us to view the sea floor with a detail not possible only a few years ago. Modern seafloor mapping provides the base upon which all marine activities can build.

The theodolites, drafting tools, and manual records of the hydrographer and cartographer have given way to GPS and GIS systems, massive databases, and high-speed plotters. In 2001, CHS successfully implemented a Quality Management System and was registered as compliant with the International Organization for Standardization (IOS) ISO 9001:2000 standard.

Throughout the changes, CHS maintains a tradition of pride, hard work, and quality. Our clients depend on us to guide them safely on their way. The CHS motto says it all: Nautical Charts Protect Lives, Property and the Marine Environment.