Graphic depicting NOAA hydrographic survey ship conducting multibeam and side scan sonar operations

An underwater survey is a survey performed in an underwater environment or conducted remotely on an underwater object or region. Survey can have several meanings. The word originates in Medieval Latin with meanings of looking over and detailed study of a subject.[1] One meaning is the accurate measurement of a geographical region, usually with the intention of plotting the positions of features as a scale map of the region. This meaning is often used in scientific contexts, and also in civil engineering and mineral extraction. Another meaning, often used in a civil, structural, or marine engineering context, is the inspection of a structure or vessel to compare actual condition with the specified nominal condition, usually with the purpose of reporting on the actual condition and compliance with, or deviations from, the nominal condition, for quality control, damage assessment, valuation, insurance, maintenance, and similar purposes. In other contexts it can mean inspection of a region to establish presence and distribution of specified content, such as living organisms, either to establish a baseline, or to compare with a baseline.

These types of survey may be done in or of the underwater environment, in which case they may be referred to as underwater surveys, which may include bathymetric, hydrographic, and geological surveys, archaeological surveys, ecological surveys, and structural or vessel safety surveys. In some cases they can be done by remote sensing, using a variety of tools, and sometimes by direct human intervention, usually by a professional diver. Underwater surveys are an essential part of the planning, and often of quality control and monitoring, of underwater construction, dredging, mineral extraction, ecological monitoring, and archaeological investigations. They are often required as part of an ecological impact study.[2]


The types of underwater survey include, but are not necessarily restricted to, archeological, bathymetric and hydrographic, ecological, geological, and construction site surveys, and inspection surveys of marine and coastal structures and vessels afloat. A survey of the vessel structural condition and the adjacent site and hydrographic conditions would also be done when assessing proposed marine salvage operations.

Archaeological surveys

Further information: Survey (archaeology)

Archaeological surveys of underwater sites have traditionally been done by divers, but at sites where the depth is too great, sonar surveys have been done from surface and submersible vehicles, and photomosaic techniques have been done using ROUVs. Traditional methods include direct measurement from a baseline or grid set up at the site, and triangulation by direct measurement from marks of known position installed at the site, in the same way these would be used at a terrestrial site. Accuracy may be compromised by water conditions.

This work is usually done by archaeologists who are qualified scientific divers.

Bathymetric and hydrographic surveys

Further information: Bathymetry and Hydrographic survey

Bathymetric surveys are traditionally done from the surface, by measuring depth (soundings) at measured positions along transect lines and later plotting the data onto a bathymetric chart, on which lines of constant depth (isobaths) may be drawn by interpolation of soundings. It is also conventional to provide a representative set of spot depths on the chart. Originally, soundings were made manually by measuring the length of a weighted line lowered to the bottom, bur after the development of accurate and reliable echo-sounding equipment it became the standard method. Data recording was automated when the equipment became available, and later precise position data was integrated into the data sets. Multibeam sonar with GPS position data corrected for vessel motion and combined in real time is the state of the art in the early 21st century.

Bathymetric surveys of some bodies of water have required different procedures, particularly for sinkholes, caverns and caves where a significant portion of the bottom walls, and in some cases ceilings, are not visible to the sounding equipment from the surface, and it has been necessary to use remotely operated underwater vehicles or divers to gather the data. One of the complications of this class of underwater survey is the relative difficulty of establishing a baseline, or an accurate position for the ROUV, as GPS signals do not propagate through water. In some cases a physical line has been used, but sometimes a baseline can be established using sonar transducers set up at accurately surveyed positions, and relative offsets measured.

Ecological surveys

Various techniques have been used for underwater ecological surveys. Divers are frequently used to collect data, either by direct observation and recording, or by photographic recording at recorded locations, which may be specified to a given precision depending on the requirements of the project and available location technology.

One method is for divers to use geolocated photographs taken by divers following a route recorded by a towed surface GPS receiver on a float kept above the camera by line tension. Date and time data are recorded concurrently by the camera and GPS unit, allowing position data for each photo to be extracted by post-processing or inspection. GPS precision may be augmented by Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). Depth data may be captured on camera from dive computers or depth gauges carried by the divers or mounted in view of the camera. The photos may be viewed on a map or via a geographic information system (GIS) for analysis.[3] This method can also be used for spatial surveys of small areas, particularly in places where a survey vessel cannot go. To map an area the diver tows the float along bottom contours and the GPS track is used to create a map using drafting or GIS software. Spot depths may also be taken, using a digital camera to record time and depth from a depth gauge or dive computer to synchronize with the track data. This procedure can be combined with photographic recording of the benthic communities at intervals along the contour or perimeter.

Surveys by professional divers tend to be relatively expensive, and some ecological monitoring programs and data gathering programs have enlisted the aid of volunteer recreational divers to conduct data collection appropriate to their certification and in some cases, further training, such as the Australian-based Reef Life Survey.[4] Others, such as iNaturalist, have used the crowdsourcing system of uploaded digital photographic records of observations, with location data to whatever standard is available, which can vary considerably, thereby taking advantage of the thousands of amateur photographers who record their underwater surroundings anyway. In this way millions of observations from dive sites all over the world have been accumulated.[5]

Types of ecological survey:

Sometimes more than one type of observations are combined in a survey. For example, the Reef Life Survey procedure includes three components along the same transect: Visual count of fish, visual count of benthic fauna, and photographs of the bottom at regular intervals.[4]

Geological surveys

Main article: Geological survey

A geological survey is the systematic investigation of the geology beneath a given piece of ground for the purpose of creating a geological map or model. Underwater geological surveying employs techniques from the underwater equivalent of a traditional walk-over survey, studying outcrops and landforms, to intrusive methods, such as boreholes, to the use of geophysical techniques and remote sensing methods. An underwater geological survey map typically superimposes the surveyed extent and boundaries of geological units on a bathymetric map, together with information at points (such as measurements of orientation of bedding planes) and lines (such as the intersection of faults with the seabed surface). The map may include cross sections to illustrate the three-dimensional interpretation. Much of this work is done from surface vessels by remote sensing, bur in some cases such as in flooded caves, measurement and sampling requires remotely operated underwater vehicles or direct intervention by divers.

Reflection seismology techniques are used for shipborne subsurface remote sensing. Seismic sources include air guns, sparkers and boomers.

Airborne geophysical methods include magnetic, electromagnetic, and gravity measurement.

Site surveys

Further information: Site survey

Site surveys are inspections of an area where work is proposed, to gather information for a design. It can determine a precise location, access, best orientation for the site and the location of obstacles. The type of site survey and the best practices required depend on the nature of the project.[6] In hydrocarbon exploration, for example, site surveys are run over the proposed locations of offshore exploration or appraisal wells.[7] They consist typically of a tight grid of high resolution (high frequency) reflection seismology profiles to look for possible gas hazards in the shallow section beneath the seabed and detailed bathymetric data to look for possible obstacles on the seafloor (e.g. shipwrecks, existing pipelines) using multibeam echosounders.

A type of site survey is performed during marine salvage operations, to assess the structural condition of a stranded vessel and to identify aspects of the vessel, site and environment that may affect the operation. Such a survey may include investigation of hull structural and watertight integrity, extent of flooding, bathymetry and geology of the immediate vicinity, currents and tidal effects, hazards, and possible environmental impact of the salvage work.[8]

Structural surveys

Structural integrity inspections of inland, coastal and offshore underwater structures, including bridges, dams, causeways, harbours, breakwaters, jetties, embankments, levees, petroleum and gas production platforms and infrastructure, pipelines, wellheads and moorings.

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Vessel safety surveys

Main article: Vessel safety survey

Vessel safety surveys are inspections of the structure and equipment of a vessel to assess the condition of the surveyed items and check that they comply with legal or classification society requirements for insurance and registration. They may occur at any time when there is reason to suspect that the condition has changed significantly since the previous survey, or as a condition of purchase, and the first survey is generally during construction (built under survey) or before first registration. The criteria for acceptance are defined by the licensing or registration authority for a variety of equipment vital to the safe operation of the vessel, such as hull structure, static stability, propulsion machinery, auxiliary machinery, safety equipment, lifting equipment, rigging, ground tackle, etc.

Some surveys must be done in dry dock, but this is expensive, and in some cases for intermediate surveys the underwater part of the external survey may be done afloat using divers or ROUVs to do the inspection, usually providing live video to the surveyor, or possibly video recording for later analysis. Live video has the advantage that the surveyor can instruct the diver to investigate further or provide views from other angles. Live video would normally also be recorded for the records.[9]


Remote measurement through water


Underwater position measurement systems

Method of operation of a long baseline acoustic positioning system
Method of operation of a short baseline acoustic positioning system

Underwater acoustic positioning systems[14][15] are systems for the tracking, navigation and location of underwater vehicles or divers by means of acoustic distance and/or direction measurements, and subsequent position triangulation. They are commonly used in a wide variety of underwater work, including oil and gas exploration, ocean sciences, salvage operations, marine archaeology, law enforcement and military activities.

Long baseline acoustic positioning systems[16] (LBL systems) use networks of sea-floor mounted baseline transponders as reference points for navigation. These are generally deployed around the perimeter of a work site. The LBL technique results in very high positioning accuracy and position stability that is independent of water depth. It is generally better than 1-meter and can reach a few centimeters accuracy.[17] LBL systems are generally used for precision underwater survey work where the accuracy or position stability of ship-based short or ultra-short baseline positioning systems does not suffice.

Short baseline acoustic positioning system (SBL acoustic positioning systems)[18] SBL systems do not require any seafloor mounted transponders or equipment and are thus suitable for tracking underwater targets from boats or ships that are either anchored or under way. However, unlike USBL systems, which offer a fixed accuracy, SBL positioning accuracy improves with transducer spacing.[19] Thus, where space permits, such as when operating from larger vessels or a dock, the SBL system can achieve a precision and position robustness that is similar to that of sea floor mounted LBL systems, making the system suitable for high-accuracy survey work. When operating from a smaller vessel where transducer spacing is limited (i.e. when the baseline is short), the SBL system will exhibit reduced precision.

Ultra-short baseline acoustic positioning system (USBL), also known as super short base line (SSBL), consists of a transceiver, which is mounted under a ship, and a transponder or responder on the seafloor, on a towfish, or on an ROV. A computer, is used to calculate a position from the ranges and bearings measured by the transceiver. USBLs are also used in "inverted" (iUSBL) configurations, with the transceiver mounted on an autonomous underwater vehicle, and the transponder on the installation that launches it. In this case, the signal processing happens inside the vehicle to allow it to locate the transponder for applications such as automatic docking and target tracking.

Manual measurement underwater

Depth measurement:

Length measurement in other directions:

Angular measurement:

Non-destructive testing:

Sampling and specimen collection

Samples of seafloor sediments and rock can be collected using grabs, coring devices, ROUVs and divers. Coring devices include core drills and impact penetrators.[20] Divers and ROUV operators are more discriminating in their selection of samples than grabs and remotely operated coring devices. Biological samples can be collected by dredges, grabs, traps, or nets, but more directed sampling generally requires visual input and human intervention, and is commonly done by divers, ROUVs and manned submersibles equipped for collection.

Recording and counting

Stereo BRUV prototype deployed at the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area
Diver swimming a transect for Reef Life Survey, recording observations on a checlist on a clipboard.

Presentation of results

Results of underwater surveys can be presented in several ways, depending on the target demographic and intended use of the data. A common presentation format is a map indicating spatial distribution or general topography, often involving a depth dimension. Drawings, photographic images, graphs, tables, and text descriptions may also be used, often in conjunction with one or more maps. Maps may also be used to indicate variations over time in comparison with a baseline.

See also


  1. ^ "survey". Retrieved 9 June 2022.
  2. ^ "Facts about underwater surveys" (PDF). Retrieved 26 May 2022.
  3. ^ Siwiec, Tim; Sheldrake, Sean; Hess, Andy; Thompson, Doc; Macchio, Lisa; Duncan, P. Bruce. "Survey Technique for Underwater Digital Photography with Integrated GPS Location Data" (PDF). Seattle, WA, USA: United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  4. ^ a b RLS Staff (2013-04-15). "Standardised survey procedures for monitoring rocky & coral reef ecological communities" (PDF). Reef Life Survey. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 July 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  5. ^ " Stats". 3 June 2022. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  6. ^ Ramirez, Ricardo R.; et al. (2004). "Benchmarking System for Evaluating Management Practices in the Construction Industry". Journal of Management in Engineering. 20 (3): 110–117. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)0742-597X(2004)20:3(110).
  7. ^ Abrams, M.A.; Segall, M.P.; Burtell, S.G. (2001). "Best Practices for Detecting, Identifying and Characterizing Near-Surface Migration of Hydrocarbons within Marine Sediments". Offshore Technology Conference. doi:10.4043/13039-MS. ISBN 978-1-55563-248-9.
  8. ^ U.S. Navy Salvage Manual (PDF). Vol. 1 Strandings, Harbor Clearance and Afloat Salvage (Revision 2 ed.). Naval Sea Systems Command. 31 May 2013. ((cite book)): |work= ignored (help)
  9. ^ "Transfer of Class". Lloyds Register of Shipping. Retrieved 15 June 2022.
  10. ^ "Boomers". Retrieved 12 June 2022.
  11. ^ "Autonomous Survey Vessels". Retrieved 15 June 2022.
  12. ^ Saghafi, Mohammad; Lavimi, Roham (2020-02-01). "Optimal design of nose and tail of an autonomous underwater vehicle hull to reduce drag force using numerical simulation". Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part M: Journal of Engineering for the Maritime Environment. 234 (1): 76–88. doi:10.1177/1475090219863191. ISSN 1475-0902. S2CID 199578272.
  13. ^ "World-Wide ROV Stats for 2014". IMCA. 7 August 2015. Retrieved 18 August 2016.
  14. ^ Milne, P.H. (1983). Underwater Acoustic Positioning Systems. ISBN 0-87201-012-0.
  15. ^ "University of Rhode Island: Discovery of Sound in the Sea".
  16. ^ Milne, P.H. (1983). "4". Underwater Acoustic Positioning Systems. ISBN 0-87201-012-0.
  17. ^ "Underwater Navigation, Section 10.2.". NOAA Diving Manual (4th ed.). ISBN 978-0-941332-70-5.
  18. ^ Milne, P.H. (1983). "3". Underwater Acoustic Positioning Systems. ISBN 0-87201-012-0.
  19. ^ Christ, Robert D.; Wernli, Robert L Sr. (2007). "Section 4.2.7 Advantages and Disadvantages of Positioning Systems". The ROV Manual. ISBN 978-0-7506-8148-3.
  20. ^ "Marine Survey". Society for Underwater Technology. Retrieved 12 June 2022.
  21. ^ Wilson, R.R. Jr; Smith, K.L. Jr (1984). "Effect of near-bottom currents on detection of bait by the abyssal grenadier fishes Coryphaenoides spp., recorded in situ with a video camera on a free vehicle". Mar Biol. 84: 83–91. doi:10.1007/BF00394530. S2CID 92376313.
  22. ^ Henriques, C; Priede, I.G.; Bagley, P.M. (2002). "Baited camera observations of deep-sea demersal fishes of the northeast Atlantic Ocean at 15–28° N off West Africa". Mar Biol. 141 (2): 307–314. doi:10.1007/s00227-002-0833-6. S2CID 84517727.
  23. ^ Raymond, Erika H.; Widder, Edith A. (2007). "Behavioral responses of two deep-sea fish species to red, far-red, and white light". Marine Ecology Progress Series. 350: 291–298. Bibcode:2007MEPS..350..291R. doi:10.3354/meps07196.
  24. ^ Brooks, Edward J.; Sloman, Katherine A.; Sims, David W.; Danylchuk, Andy J. (2011). "Validating the use of baited remote underwater video surveys for assessing the diversity, distribution and abundance of sharks in the Bahamas". Endangered Species Research. 13 (3): 231–243. doi:10.3354/esr00331.