Charting New Courses

How Modernizing Canada’s Nautical Charts is Serving More than Just Ships


“Nautical charts protect lives, property and the marine environment.”

This is the motto of the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) which has been mapping the Canadian ocean for over 100 years, and charting Newfoundland and Labrador waters since the province joined Confederation in 1949.

Over the years how it does its work has evolved from cumbersome manual methods of measuring ocean depth to the emerging technologies it uses today.

The motto sums up the importance of the CHS work. These charts are vital to all Canadians, providing the roadmaps that guide mariners safely from port to port nationwide, supporting safe transportation of people and goods and safe operations for ocean industries, including fishing, oil and gas and more.

Gary Smith is a sailing directions officer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and came to the department as a ship’s officer from the marine shipping industry 28 years ago.

Smith is passionate about the work he does with CHS. His interest and drive come from “being able to be part of and give back to ensuring safe navigation, efficiency and economic value.”

He has seen a lot of changes in his three decades with CHS — changes that are keeping people safer on the water.

“Years ago, there were a lot of groundings. A lot of schooners were wrecked along the southern shore and other areas of our province,” Smith notes.

“Charts were scarce. Electronic equipment was scarce or non-existent. Dead reckoning was the positioning method used in many cases to fix a ship’s position when a visual or celestial fix could not be obtained. These days, ships are getting bigger and drafts (vertical distance between the waterline and boat bottom) are getting deeper. Large commercial vessels navigate our waters with drafts of 15–20 metres. That’s quite a depth underwater so it’s very important to know what’s under the vessel or near the vessel.”

The team at CHS is updating some of the older charts, most of which were done without the technology we have today. For hundreds of years, measurements were done by dropping a lead line down in one spot, then moving the boat to another spot, dropping the line again and so on. It was all done manually, and it was hard to know what was in between those spots.

Jason Bartlett is the acting division manager for CHS at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in N.L. Bartlett, who grew up next to the ocean and has always been curious about exploration and maps in the marine environment, is a surveyor by trade. He says the other big problem with older charts is their location.

“The position on some of those soundings may or may not be very good based on the technology of the day so it’s important to go back to some of these areas, especially if shipping is going to increase and update them with more modern information.”

Kent Malone is an advisor with CHS at DFO-NL. He’s been working on formatting and schemes for the new charts, in particular for the west coast of the island.

“After the lead line and around the time of the Second World War, sonar technology was used for underwater mapping. It was reasonably accurate, but it had its limitations. The sonar would shoot a single beam straight down through the water to measure depth. When that measurement was taken, surveyors would then move over perhaps 50, 100 or 200 metres to take the next measurement and so on. Again, we had no way of knowing what was in between those lines. At the time, they ran parallel lines and hoped they picked up everything.”

Bartlett and his team at CHS are working on updating the old charts with a combination of newer technology such as acoustics and airborne laser or LiDAR (light detection and ranging).

Considering Canada has the longest coastline of any country in the world, with more than a third of our territory under water, navigational charts play a very important role and updating those charts for busy shipping areas is essential to mariner safety.

In Newfoundland and Labrador alone, we have 29,000 km of rugged coastline. “Our challenge is that the waterways we have are huge,” says Malone. “How do you map, update and maintain charts for such a large area?” Slowly and methodically. Even though technology has improved, which brings with it more precision and more mapping of the ocean floor.

For the last 20 to 25 years, CHS has been using multibeam technology to update older charts. Using this technology gives them 100 per cent coverage, providing a 3D image of the bottom of the ocean. “Think of it as mowing your lawn when you go back and forth,” describes Bartlett.

He explains LiDAR as technology that uses two different coloured lasers to measure water depth. LiDAR can chart areas inaccessible by boat, including those areas close to shore; however, its use is limited by water conditions, such as clarity and debris.

Although LiDAR covers much greater distances than traditional methods, it’s not as precise, which is why the CHS uses both moderrn acoustic and laser technology.

“With a large area, we fly LiDAR first. Once we have the 3D LiDAR image we can select the areas we want to build on with more precise technology such as multibeam acoustics,” says Bartlett. “The LiDAR technology is very complimentary when mapping a whole area.”

The charts show a low tide scenario, indicating the least amount of water that you’ll ever encounter, or the worst-case scenario for the navigator. “The shallower the water, the longer it takes,” adds Malone “but any hazard that’s out there, we should be able to find it.”

The CHS team is currently working on updating the charts for the entire west coast and Northern Peninsula of the island of Newfoundland. Priority areas are chosen based on activity, the age of the existing data and seafloor and harbour complexity (or how many twists and turns you have to make to get into the harbour).

Priorities include areas like St. Barbe, which is important because of the ferry service. As Smith points out, on the west coast there are only a few larger commercial ports such as St. Barbe, Corner Brook, Stephenville, St. Georges and Lower Cove on the Port au Port Peninsula.

“The whole area has a lot of small craft harbours, but Port au Choix is the largest fishing harbour and is very active,” explains Smith. “Just below it, in Port Saunders, there’s a marine facility for repairing boats. So those two areas are quite important as well.”

In addition, the chart that covers the St. Anthony area will be renewed because of the increase in large vessels visiting the area, including cruise ships and larger vessels shipping fish products and general cargo. There’s a diverse amount of traffic going through and, with the size of the ferries increasing, the charts are becoming more and more important.

“Local mariners have local knowledge and they know the conditions but cruise ships and other vessels coming through don’t always have that knowledge, so they depend a lot on our charts and sometimes on our marine pilots,” Smith adds.



Periodically, when there is sufficient change or new information is obtained, new editions of charts are issued.

Between editions, charts are updated with small changes via notices to mariners (NtM). These are published monthly by the Canadian Coast Guard. All vessels in Canadian waters must carry and use nautical charts and related publications from the CHS, according to the Canadian Shipping Act.

The CHS produces both paper and electronic charts. Most mariners have now made the switch to electronic charts.

Paper still has its uses, particularly for route planning. Paper charts are no longer printed from a press where hundreds of copies of a chart would be printed at one time. Now they are plotted on demand, one at a time. Smith remembers when he started, there was a huge warehouse of charts and now they’re down to one room.

There are 947 paper charts covering Canada’s coasts and waterways. Only about half of these charts have been converted to electronic form. The remainder need additional field and cartographic work before they can be converted. So, there’s still a lot of charting work to do.

Charting Canadian waters is not the only task of the CHS. It also monitors tides and water levels to help detect and predict climate change, variability and natural hazards. It’s activities like this that help Canada’s emergency services organizations monitor storm surges and tsunami activity in real time.

CHS shares resources and knowledge and works with many partners around the world, including Parks Canada, other government agencies, private industry and international groups.

The team’s work is very important to Canada’s economy. For example, 10 years ago, it charted some areas in Northern Labrador, which helped the growing cruise ship industry and commercial operators.

“In Labrador, you could navigate 20 to 30 miles off the coast, but it wasn’t really safe to go inshore,” says Smith. “So, we did a 300-mile survey from Nain to Cape Chidley. We produced about 14 charts and established a corridor for cruise ships to follow inshore to get within a couple of miles of land. And they can now safely get into fjords in Torngat Mountain National Park. This helped increase the cruise ship traffic in the park area.”

CHS has also done work for the Trans-Labrador Highway to get construction supplies in as well as for Voisey’s Bay, finding a different route after ice set in to extend seasonal access to these areas.

CHS’s work on the west coast of Newfoundland has benefited tremendously from the Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) announced by the Government of Canada in 2016, a plan to improve marine safety and responsible shipping, protect Canada’s marine environment, and offer new possibilities for Indigenous and coastal communities.

“The OPP funding has helped accelerate our charting projects on the west coast. It’s a big investment in the CHS mandate to increase safety at sea and efficient navigation and build on the Canadian economy,” added Malone.

He speaks for the team saying “It’s a privilege to continue in the navigation mapping traditions and build on the work of those who came before us. We venture out and find those hidden dangers beneath the ocean, and provide accurate charts to mariners.”

With new and emerging technologies, CHS is updating the charts that cover the vast Canadian coastlines and identifying underwater depths and obstacles — ultimately in the interest of keeping those who work at sea safe.

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