Inside the AHO
The Australian Hydrographic Office was established, and assumed responsibility for hydrographic surveys in Australia, in 1920. In 1946, Cabinet decided that the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) would maintain the national responsibility for hydrographic surveying, nautical charting and the provision of hydrographic services. RAN is responsible for meeting Australia’s obligations to provide hydrographic services as required by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Its traditions and methods take their origins from those of the Royal Navy and the pioneers of hydrography. These include names synonymous with Australian history such as; James Cook, Matthew Flinders, William Bligh, Phillip Parker King - all hydrographers; all dedicated to science, exploration and the safety of life at sea.
Prior to 1920 the task of surveying Australian waters fell to the Royal Navy (UK). By 1825 the Admiralty had published a series of charts of the coast. From 1860 through to 1880 the various colonies funded ongoing surveys. The Royal Navy presence continued on a cost sharing basis from 1880 through to 1926 with at least two ships engaged in surveying.
HMAS GERANIUM was commissioned in 1920 as the first RAN survey ship, remaining until 1927. In 1924 she was fitted with a Fairey 111D seaplane and so began a tradition of air support to survey operations which continues to this day.
The second RAN survey ship, HMAS MORESBY arrived in Australia in 1925 and joined GERANIUM in the task of surveying The Great Barrier Reef.
MORESBY was laid up from 1930 to 1933 and except for some minor harbour surveys, the Hydrographic Service was practically disbanded due to a lack of funds. On re-commissioning, urgent strategic surveys were undertaken prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Surveying Branch was again dispersed at the outbreak of war and was not recalled until 1941. Responsibility for the publication as well as the surveys for all Australian charts was taken on in 1942. Military operations had highlighted the lack of reliable charts of Australia's northern waters, New Guinea, The Solomons and the SW Pacific theatre in general. A topical press report at the time declared that "more ships have been lost to navigational accident than to enemy action".
The urgent need for reliable charts saw a host of vessels of all sizes pressed into service with surveys performed "under the noses of the enemy" in advance of operations. By war's end there were 16 survey ships in commission. The small cadre of survey personnel had distinguished themselves with 2 OBEs, 13 DSCs, 4 DSMs, 14 Mentions in Dispatches and 2 US Legion of Merit awards being made.
Despite the progress achieved during the war not all surveys were of enduring quality as many served specific wartime purposes or were carried out in great haste.
The Australian Federal Cabinet reaffirmed the Navy's responsibility for hydrography in 1946, endorsing a 25 year program of surveys, in an effort to provide modern chart coverage of Australian waters. At the same time an agreement with the British Admiralty was signed which effectively made the Hydrographic Office the charting authority for all Australian waters, PNG, Solomon Islands and the Coral Sea. Regrettably, this ambitious plan was abandoned within three years due to funding constraints. A programme of surveys was resumed in 1952 with HMA Ships BARCOO and WARREGO and has continued ever since.
Two wartime frigates, GASCOYNE and DIAMANTINA re-entered service in 1959 following conversion to an oceanographic survey role. Lasting until 1966 and 1980 respectively, their work supported that of the hydrographic survey ships.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s developments in mineral exploration and exports saw more deep draught ships using Australian ports. Because of their minimum under keel clearances these vessels required a renewed emphasis on the quality and accuracy of surveys.
The second MORESBY was commissioned in 1964 as a purpose built survey ship. Up until this time all survey ships had been warships converted to the survey role. In 1973 a second survey ship, HMAS FLINDERS, was commissioned.
The MORESBY was decommissioned in October of 1997 and the FLINDERS was decommissioned in October of 1998.
A specialist Oceanographic ship, HMAS COOK commissioned in 1980 as a replacement for the veteran DIAMANTINA. She remained in service until 1990.
Since 1990 these vessels have been progressivley replaced by a small fleet of modern and more capable survey ships and units.