BELIZE CITY, Belize (NNS) -- For almost two months, since early February 2012, the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) has been using airborne laser and imagery systems to conduct cooperative hydrographic surveys in the coastal waters of Belize.
The survey work is part of an ongoing, long-term project to survey the western Caribbean Sea off the coasts of Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua, based on U.S. 4th Fleet oceanography, hydrography and bathymetry (OHB) survey requirements.
"This is just a piece of a much bigger program," said Bill Elenbaas, head of NAVOCEANO's Airborne Coastal Surveys branch. "There are a lot of miles to cover."
The surveys are designed to improve safety of navigation by mapping the seafloor and locating shallow reefs and other obstructions in the approaches to Belize's major ports, Belize City and Big Creek, and are being conducted in cooperation with the government of Belize. The airborne laser system, called Compact Hydrographic Airborne Rapid Total Survey (CHARTS) system, is particularly effective in the Caribbean Sea because of the water clarity. Laser systems are useful OHB survey tools in clear and/or shallow water because the system uses light to map the bottom. U.S. and Belize governments will use the data to make new charts.
"Comparison of the survey data with existing navigation products showed significant discrepancies in the locations of charted features," Elenbaas said. "In addition to improving the safety of navigation in coastal waters, these data can be used for maritime security, environmental management and to support Belize's important eco-tourism industry."
Big Creek is the country's major oil port as well as an important agriculture port. The nation also is building a new Coast Guard base at Big Creek. New charts will allow the port to increase its traffic and consequently its business because all of the obstructions and channels will be clearly and accurately mapped. The area is home to one of the world's largest coral reef systems, which makes it environmentally sensitive as well as difficult to navigate.
"This (project) will be important to their economy as well," said Eric L. Villalobos, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/C4F Representative for the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC), the parent command of NAVOCEANO.
He said the socio-economic development value of the work attracted the attention of the U.S. Ambassador to Belize, Vinai Thummalapally, and the Deputy Chief of Mission, Margaret Hawthorne, who made a 90-minute visit to the NAVOCEANO mission field office in Belize City.
Last week, the Commander of the Belize Coast Guard, Capt. Elton Bennet, and the Ports Commissioner/Harbor Master of the Belize Port Authority, Maj. (ret) John Flowers, visited the field office for an hour.
Last year, the operation was in Honduras. Villalobos said that crews worked two months in 2010 in Nicaragua and expect to work here again for about two months this year.
"We are chipping away at a large C4F requirement," he said.