From shells to shipwrecks, the undulating floor of the ocean holds many secrets of the nautical world. For one alumna, her point of sail began with rocks, shells and a critter or two plucked from the marshes and beaches of the Lowcountry.

By Allison Stone ’11

My father often recounts stories of how weighted down my backpack was in the earliest days of my education. Not from books, but from rocks I picked up on the playground. I was also constantly collecting shells from our many excursions to Sullivan’s Island, a barrier island off the coast of Charleston. And – much to my parents’ dismay – from time to time, I pocketed a critter or two from the sticky pluff mud and marsh around our house on Shem Creek. I have always felt happiest near, in, on or under the salty Atlantic waters that I grew up exploring.

In many ways, it isn’t surprising that I ended up studying the body of water I love so much. But if you had asked my younger self if I wanted to be a senior hydrographic survey technician on the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, I would have said, “Huh?”

But first things first. NOAA is not the Navy. NOAA is not the Coast Guard. NOAA is not in the business of building arks. NOAA stands for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The administration is home to six environmental offices with vastly diverse purposes, but all of which share the same mission: science, service and stewardship. I work for NOAA’s Office of Marine & Aviation Operations, serving on board one of the agency’s four hydrographic survey platforms. We primarily update nautical charts for the safety of all who sail the coastal Atlantic waters. It is an important job. But more importantly, it is a job I love.

If you experienced finding an uncharted shipwreck or saw the elegant pattern of sand waves appearing before you in real time … you would know that it was all worth it.

It was a fateful path that led me to where I am today. The first milestone of my journey began with parent career day in the sixth grade at Moultrie Middle School in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. There were doctors and lawyers and teachers – all noble professions, of course. My life changed, however, when the mother of a classmate (and neighbor) stood before the class to tell her tales of adventure studying on the high seas. She was passionate, and I found her stories of working on a scientific vessel and engaging in core sampling of the seafloor captivating. And although these were things I was just hearing about for the first time, I wanted to hear more. This woman was none other than geology professor Leslie “Doc” Sautter of the College of Charleston.

Fast forward to 2009: I am frantically trying to scribble down the last notes of the day in Marine Geology when Doc tells the class it is time to apply for either the Transects program, an oceanographic research program, or BEAMS, short for the Benthic Acoustic Mapping and Survey program. For me, it was a mental coin toss, and BEAMS won. Little did I know that I would be joining one of the most amazing programs for physical science majors at the College, and one that would place me directly in the path of NOAA.

In the spring of 2010, I officially became a BEAMS member, successfully completing the course in seafloor mapping and participating in a short cruise on the NOAA ship Nancy Foster (NF), homeported in Charleston. Stepping onto the NF’s gangway for the first time filled me with mixed feelings: trepidation, excitement, anxiety and wonderment. As the gangway was being pulled onto the ship and the vessel began maneuvering out of its North Charleston berth, the crew guided us through emergency procedures, directions to important areas throughout the ship and meal times (meal times are very important on a working vessel). Once the tour was complete, we all gathered on the bow to watch as we passed by the steeple-laden Charleston skyline to starboard, then sliding past the mighty USS Yorktown aircraft carrier to port.

Once the initial adrenaline wore off, we all settled into our staterooms. Shortly thereafter, dinner was served. The time for dinner was – and still is throughout the NOAA fleet – 16:30. Yup, that is 4:30 p.m. Once we were outside the jetties, and the lights of the coast grew dim on the horizon, we were assigned data acquisition shifts to keep the data coming in 24 hours a day. Hours later, we arrived at the working grounds, where I caught my first real-time glimpse of the unseen beauty of the seafloor captured through the ship’s high-resolution multibeam sonar. Multibeam sonars produce vivid sounding data that can be used to create both detailed habitat maps and nautical charts with amazing precision. After a few minutes of fiddling with settings, the senior survey technician watching over me was satisfied, and my first hands-on experience as a sonar technician began.

That first cruise on the NF was short, but it left me with a solid sense of direction for where I was heading – for where I could best put my education to work. Roughly one year later, Doc presented me with an opportunity to participate in a NOAA internship in Norfolk, Va. This time I was exposed to what happens with all of the data acquired by various vessels before it is printed or electronically charted. I was happy to be expanding my knowledge within the world of hydrography, but I was not ready for life in a cubicle, which this job required. I needed to be back on the water.

Working for NOAA has not only afforded me the opportunity to stay on the cutting edge of hydrographic technologies … but it has also taken me to places I would never have thought to travel to on my own.

Enter the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson (TJ). The TJ had just come off of several weeks of Deepwater Horizon response work in the Gulf of Mexico, and was returning to her mission of updating nautical charts. The ship was in need of someone who could help ease the backlog of data that had to be processed. Luckily for me, the BEAMS Program had prepared me well, and there was an open bunk. I was freed from the cubicle! Unlike the NF, the TJ maps the seafloor exclusively for nautical charting purposes. Under the tutelage of the survey technicians onboard, I grew accustomed to the standard operating procedures and data specifications for chart-worthy data. One year after graduating from the College, I accepted a job offer from NOAA to work permanently on the TJ.

More than the technical aspects of what I do on the ship, people always seem most interested in ship life. By modern maritime standards for a working ship, living conditions are not too bad. They aren’t bad if you don’t mind living in bunkbeds with one of your coworkers, sharing a head (nautical speak for bathroom) with two to four people, and showering in an area approximately the size of a phone booth. Not bad if you like consistently getting an average of five hours of sleep for nights – or days – on end. Not bad if you don’t mind being away from home and traveling with your office for months at a time. Not bad if you can handle walking down a passageway and possibly end up banging into a wall as the ship rolls in big seas. And, yes, the food varies wildly from day-to-day and ship-to-ship, but the salad bar and ice cream cooler can provide sustenance when tasty choices seem limited. This may all sound terrible to some, but I promise you, if you experienced finding an uncharted shipwreck or saw the elegant pattern of sand waves appearing before you in real time as the sonar traces the seafloor, you would know that it was all worth it.

Working for NOAA has not only afforded me the opportunity to stay on the cutting edge of hydrographic technologies and continue my oceanographic education, but it has also taken me to places I would never have thought to travel to on my own. After five years of adventures with NOAA onboard the TJ,
I still look forward to discovering the secrets of the seafloor.

– Allison Stone ’11 is the chief hydrographic survey technician for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. She is based in Norfolk, Va.

Illustration by Kouzou Sakai