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HMS Echo surveys deep waters in BGTW

The Royal Navy hydrographic survey vessel HMS Echo is currently conducting survey operations at depths of over 50m in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.

The ship has been mapping the seabed of Gibraltar’s inner harbour and BGTW for the past two weeks and will continue that work so until August 3.

HMS Echo is designed to carry out a wide range of survey work, providing vital oceanographic, hydrographic and bathymetric data in support of standard maritime movements, as well submarine and amphibious operations.

Its presence in Gibraltar coincides with recent visits from HMS Talent, a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine.

The survey ship’s Commanding Officer, Commander Matthew Warren, gave the Chronicle a synopsis of what exactly his crew and vessel will be doing.

Commander Warren

“We will be conducting survey work within the harbour area and also amongst some of the anchorages as well,” he said.

“This helps to ensure that our maritime charts remain accurate for all maritime users and it contributes to safety of navigation.”

“It clearly is an important activity within an area that has a higher traffic concentration as Gibraltar does,” he added.

It is not the first time the water around Gibraltar has been surveyed, but such work is carried out periodically as a matter of routine.

“There are a number of reasons why the nature of the sea bed can change in an area where you have high concentrations of traffic just the motion of shipping itself in areas where the water is relatively shallow can have an effect on the movement of sediments,” Commander Warren said.

“Occasionally items can be lost from ships and as a result can result in obstructions within the seabed,” he added.

In addition, as technology improves, the quality of the information gathered to create the charts will also improve. Smaller items on the sea bed can be detected, for example.

During the survey process the depth of the water is also measured.

This would determine which vessels can or cannot come alongside. Vessels like the Royal navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth require ample depth below keel in order to enter any harbour.

“The work we are completing at the moment benefits all of our maritime users,” Commander Warren said.

“Queen Elizabeth is no exception to that. I think it is a fair assumption that the Queen Elizabeth carriers will visit Gibraltar again at some stage and just like any maritime user, they would want to have the most recent data available to them to navigate from,” Commander Warren said.

HMS Echo has been on deployment for 18 months and at present, it is unknown when she will return to the UK. Deployments for this class of ship vary from a few months to up to three years.

Operating a ship like HMS Echo that is deployed for long periods requires a different style of staffing when compared to other naval vessels.

“While it is perfectly possible for us to sustain the ship away from our base port for a period of three years, some of the families and some of the sailors might not necessarily want to be separated from home for that period of time,” said Captain Warren.

“We operate a system called watch rotation. We split our ship’s company, which has a total number of 75, into essentially three watches and we will have two watches on board the ship at any one time.”

“Those people will be on board for typically a period of ten weeks. We will do four weeks at sea, have a handover period in which one watch will come back and one will come home. Each watch will do two periods on watch and then one at home,” he added.

This equates to roughly 10 weeks on the ship and then four weeks back in the UK.


This room is under the command of Lieutenant Ian Phillips.

“The easiest way to think about a survey ship is that we talk about data acquisition. That is collecting data which is effectively run from the bridge. The team up there make sure the survey lines are run and in the bridge survey ops room they will look at the data making sure it is collected correctly and is of good quality,” he said.

“Once that is done it is put on the servers and downloaded to here which is in effect the ops rooms,” he added.

There the data is processed and the team generate images from that.

“We use a system called multi beam echo sounding, which if you imagine a cone of coverage that comes down from the survey vessel and with the cone shape the deeper the water the larger the footprint along the sea bed,” said Commander Warren.

“As the water gets shallower the process becomes slower and as it gets deeper it gets faster.”

Lieutenant Ian Philips explains that this piece of equipment is just under the keel of the ship and it uses sound energy through the water column.
The equipment then goes up and down in a process they casually call “mowing the lawn”.

“With a box on we go up and down and collect all this data and the way that comes thought is a series of hundreds and thousands of points because technology has helped us so much and that produces what is effectively a 3D image of the surface of the sea bed,” he added.

Future operations
“Future operations are something we don’t talk about in any detail, what I can tell you is that Echo has been away from the UK now for 18 months operating predominantly in the Mediterranean region although we have been up into the Black Sea on a couple of occasions,” said Commander Warren.

“We are not quite ready to go home just yet so I think you can deduce that we will be around for a little while longer,” he added.

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