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Hydrographers: Pathfinders of the Sea


By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

The great oceans of the earth separate the land masses on which we live, but they also bind them in trade and culture.

The British realised this when they invested heavily in their Navy and succeeded in making the Anglo-Saxon tongue the language of international finance, diplomacy, commerce, science and entertainment. Seafarers realised that they could not lay roads or erect signposts on the trackless oceans, so they had to devise other means to navigate from one continent to the other. The islanders of the South Seas relied on their acute sense in the variation of the colour of the ocean as it neared to landmasses. But that was of no use in deep, inter-continental waters. The Vikings, apparently, discovered a natural crystal that they called a Sun Stone. But that was of no use at night. Eventually, the sextant was invented which made use of any known stellar object to calculate the position of the observer. The navigational instrument gave birth to an increasing range of devices, and to specialists who could use them. Finally the highly specialised profession of Hydrography had been born.

Though Chart making might seem to be a pretty staid occupation, the field work that goes into it can be unusual like the experience of the officer in the Nicobars.

A Queen Swims Aboard

A Hydro ship had sent its boat to survey the waters off an island in the Nicobars. They were busy recording when they noticed some tribal people gathered on the shore. The Nicobarese are friendly unlike some of the Andamanese and certainly the Sentinelese who fire poisoned arrows at the first sight of strangers. As these seemed to be friendly islanders, the Hydros waved. To their surprise not only did the Nicobarese wave back but they jumped into the sea and began to swim towards the boat.

Alarmed, because ordinary folk are not supposed to make contact with isolated tribes for fear of infecting them, the head of the Hydro sent a distress “Mayday, Mayday” message to the mother ship.

But before the helicopter came to hover above, the islanders had scrambled aboard, grinning widely. Then they separated as a woman pulled herself out of the water. Quite apparently she was their Queen.

Halfway through the snack, her loyal subjects leapt into the sea and swam back in deference to some Nicobarese protocol. The Queen stayed till the biscuits were finished. Then she plunged back into the ocean and returned to her people.

The biscuit ordeal was over without hostilities.

The poor officer remained the butt of jokes as the Man Who May have Dated a Mermaid. But then, the Hydrographers do tend to have unique experiences and that is one of the many reasons why the Hydrographic Department is virtually a Navy within the Navy. It has a fleet of seven of its own specialised ships plus one unlike any other: twin hulled and with four propellers called MAKA and designed to handle the turbulent waters of the shoreline of the sea. The basic task of the Navy is to Float, Move and Fight. The Hydrographers mission is to Float, Move and Discover. In their own language they are involved in the collection of geo-reference data for navigational charting including coastal configuration, collating depth information of the sea, seabed composition, wreck investigation, tides, current and physical properties of water column, aids to navigation marine traffic etc. All information produced by the National Hydrographic Office is freely available for sale.

In spite of the specialised role they play while earning crores for the Navy, there is only one way one can recognise a Survey ship: they all carry helicopters. These are manned by the Naval Aviators and carry one of them trained as a Diver in the Navy’s rigorous Diving School. His job is to handle the winch which lowers and raises a hydrographer to and from otherwise inaccessible locations. That can be quite hazardous as Hydro Capt Ajay Chauhan told us.

A Venomous Welcome

A Naval Captain is the equivalent of an Army Colonel and an Air Force Group Captain. At the time of this close encounter of the slithery kind, Chauhan was a Sub-lieutenant. Subbies are, generally, full of josh and will volunteer for anything out of the ordinary and the large rock, thrusting out of the sea, was unusual and likely to be a hazard to navigators. The Hydrographers wanted to put it on their charts but, for some reason, there seemed to be something a little strange about it.

So Chauhan was harnessed to the winch and lowered from the hovering helicopter to the rock to see things for himself.

When you have been strapped onto a helicopter’s winch, and suspended over space, you don’t look down but up, to assure yourself that you are being lowered properly. Everything was going well when the Naval Diver handling the winch suddenly yelled out and stopped the lowering. Then Chauhan found himself being winched back to the chopper.

The diver yelled ,“Snakes, sir. The rock is covered with snakes”.

Sea snakes were slithering all over the strange rock, probably sunning themselves. All 64 varieties of sea snakes are poisonous, including their young.

Hydographers must expect such encounters because they have, over the years, diligently walked over 7,500 kms. of India’s sandy, rugged marshy, cliffy, forested mangroves, covered coastline and delineated these facing many hazards. All islands replete with rocks, corals, reefs and other inhospitable terrain across the main coast, Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep and have also been identified and depicted on their navigation charts. They have charted an exclusive economic zone which extends to about 370 kms from the west coast to the east coast and covers over two million square kilometres.

Numerous challenging tasks and surveys have been undertaken for Mauritius, Seychelles, Tanzania, Maldives, Myanmar, Si Lanka, Indonesia, Oman and Kenya. Our Hydros have also trained 806 personnel from 40 foreign countries ,and have also taken part in 23 camps in frigid Antarctica. All this has earned this unassuming little, green, establishment on Rajpur Road the proud title of The National Hydrographic Office.
But then our Hydrographers’ activities excite the curiosity of even deep see denizens.

The Great Whale Inspection

A Hydro ship was anchored off Tuticuran, minding its own business, as they normally do, when sailors saw an unusual sight.

Two huge whales appeared out of the sea and headed straight for the ship. Naturally, the entire ship’s company came on the upper deck to witness this unusual sight.

The great sea mammals came closer and closer and it was clear that they were almost as large as the ship. Together they swam slowly up the port side of the ship, turned slowly, swam down the starboard side. Paused as if they were discussing their observations of this curious creature with a tough skin.

Then, as mysteriously as they had appeared they sank slowly into the sea, and vanished.

Whales are intelligent, warm-blooded, animals who have adapted to a life in the sea but still have to come to the surface to breathe.

Whales are among the greatest pathfinders of the Sea. So, possibly, it is just their way of paying tribute to another oceanic colleague.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)