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200 Years of Charting America’s Coasts

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Conservation | Education

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


At 19 years of age, having completed two years at Harvard College, Dana put aside his college education and signed on as a common seaman, hoping that the sea voyage would correct his failing vision. In 1840 his book, Two Years before the Mast, an account of his voyage, would be published. The ‘before the mast’ part of the book’s title refers to the quarters of the common sailors—in the front (bow) of the ship.

The navigation equipment aboard the Pilgrim consisted of the ship’s log, a marine chronometer, a sextant, compass, plus dead reckoning and the stars. And the depth sounder—lead lines. Dana wrote about the use of the dipsey, the deep-sea lead line, and other equipment with descriptions such as this one:

“…everything got ready for sounding. All ready there, forward?” “Aye, aye, sir!” “He-e-e-ave and the heavy lead drops into the water…Hand over hand, we hauled the lead in, and the captain, taking it to the light, found black mud on the bottom.”

He reported the failure of the ship’s chronometer in these words. “We immediately took in studding-sails and hauled our wind, running in for the land. This was done to determine our longitude; for by the captain’s chronometer we were in 25º W., but by his observations we were much farther, and he had been for some time in doubt whether it was his chronometer or his sextant which was out of order. This land-fall settled the matter, and the former instrument was condemned, and becoming still worse, was never afterwards used.” Describing the activities on October 4, Dana wrote: “As we ran in towards the coast, we found that we were directly off the port of Pernambuco, and could see with the telescope the roofs of the houses, and one large church, and the town of Olinda.”

Dana on a few ports of call: On January 14, 1835, after a voyage of 150 days from Boston, the Pilgrim anchored in Santa Barbara Bay. At the time California was still governed by Mexico. Dana was not very impressed with Californians. “The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. And also: “The men are thriftless, proud, and extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none of the best”.

And what was his opinion of our San Pedro Bay? He referred to it as “this hated, this thoroughly detested spot” and as a place he felt was primitive, desolate, and undesirable. He called it “the hell of California”.

And on navigating the California coast? “On the whole coast of California there was not a light-house, a beacon, or a buoy, and the charts were made up from old and disconnected surveys by British, Russian, and Mexican voyagers.”

But nautical charts for the coast would change. The US Survey of the Coast, was established by Executive Order of President Thomas Jefferson on February 10, 1807 to chart the nation’s ports and waterways and surveys of California’s coast began in 1850, the year California became a state.

Surveys escalated after 1850. The California Gold Rush was a major reason for the intense interest in charting the coast because of the increased transport of goods and passengers seeking their fortunes. Major headlands were charted, tides and currents observed, dangerous shoals uncovered, and sites for buoys and eight lighthouses were recommended. One of these, the Pt. Pinos lighthouse, has operated since 1855 without loss of a single day.

Monterey Canyon was discovered in 1857 by the coastal survey vessel Active. The surveyors called it a submarine gulch. In 1933 the Davidson Seamount off central California was discovered by the coast survey vessel Glide.

The exhibit From Sea to Shining Sea: 200 years of Charting America’s Coasts. How different today’s navigation equipment is from that of Dana’s day and how accurate today’s nautical charts are. A nautical chart, a tool to help mariners navigate at sea, is a graphic portrayal of the marine environment just as a topographic map shows land features. The Aquarium of the Pacific has partnered with NOAA and the Smithsonian Institution to bring this exhibit about our country’s Coast Survey to our guests. Among the stories the twenty posters in the exhibit tell are how the Coast Survey spread its wings; grew with the nation; how it works for us mapping the wild Pacific coast and the ocean seafloor; determining latitude and longitude; etc. Our guests can experience an audio tour of the posters by using their cell phones. The tour was developed by Gerrie Schipske, a member of the Long Beach City Council representing District 5 and her staff.

Two hundred years later, NOAA’s Coast and Geodetic Survey is still going strong. NOAA survey vessels today are equipped with an array of electronic gear. The 281 ft Fairweather featured in poster 20 of the From Sea to Shining Sea series was designed and outfitted for conducting coastal hydrographic support of NOAA’s nautical charting program. Click here to review the ship’s surveying equipment.

Perhaps you are wondering why I wrote this particular blog. One of my assignments is research and as I was looking for California connections with the From Sea to Shining Sea exhibit, I re-established my acquaintance with Two Years before the Mast. I hope by reading this and visiting the exhibit you too will be intrigued by California’s nautical past.

200 Years of Charting America’s Coasts
The clamping scoop, the modern equivalent of a lead line, is used in nautical chart surveying. The character of the retrieved sediment is combined with GPS to chart type of ocean bottom and depth.  | Courtesy of NOAA
200 Years of Charting America’s Coasts
One of eight lighthouses recommended by the 1850 coast survey, the Pt. Pinos lighthouse in Pacific Grove, California has operated continuously since 1855 without loss of a single day. While the lighthouse's length of service is remarkable, so is the fact that the building, third-order lens, and prisms of the light are all original.  | Courtesy of US Army
200 Years of Charting America’s Coasts
An 1888 chart of Sn Pedro Bay. A preliminary chart was published in 1859. Dana felt the bay was primitive, desolate, and undesirable. He called it “the hell of California”.  | Courtesy of NOAA
200 Years of Charting America’s Coasts
A 1983 chart of San Pedro Bay showing the coastal development in addition to the nautical changes. A 2007 chart of the bay would show many more changes. NOAA scientists and researchers believe that paper nautical charts will be replaced by electronic versions.  | Courtesy of NOAA

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Thursday, October 25, 2007 02:03 PM

Great blog, Corinne!

Thnaks for giving us such a great history lesson.  I am fascinated by how they navigated in the days before GPS made it so easy, and learning about the early days of our country along the coast is most interesting!

Tuesday I saw the exhibit you mention, and learned a little about the sextant and lead line and how these “tools” helped them conduct surveys of our coastal areas.

Keep up the great blogs!  me (smile)

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Monday, October 29, 2007 11:56 AM

As a former sailboat owner who has moored in the California places Dana mentioned, it was an experience comparing how we did it and how the sailors on the Pilgrim accomplished the task. Fortunately, we never had to anchor three and a half miles out from the San Pedro mainland as the Pilgrim had to because of the shallow water.

All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.

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