Hydrographic surveys

the emblem of the BSH

Hydrographic surveys


Development of hydrographic surveying in Germany


Preussen's Sea-Atlas of 1841The origins of hydrographic surveying in the North Sea and Baltic Sea lie in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. Much later, in 1841, the first German navigational chartwork was published - „Preussen‘s See-Atlas“ - which was based on modern scientific hydrographic surveying methods. It covered Germany’s Baltic coast at the time, reaching from Wustrow to Memel, and was produced on the basis of hydrographic surveys made between 1833 and 1838 by navigation students and mariners supervised by the director of the Danzig navigation school, the Danish citizen von Bille, and the German master M. Albrecht, and also included Danish and Swedish soundings.
The „Chart der Elbmündungen“ published by E. Abendroth, Commander of Pilots at Cuxhaven, in 1846, was the first German chart of the North Sea that was based on trigonometry. Due to the steady increase in merchant shipping and the establishment of the Wilhelmshaven navy base in 1854, it was found necessary to develop precise navigational charts covering the entire German Bight. This led to additional, very precise hydrographic surveys of the coastal waters including all tidal flats and sands and, eventually, the publication of the „See-Atlas der Jade-, Weser- und Elbe-Mündungen“ (nautical atlas of the Jade, Weser, and Elbe estuaries) by the Prussian Admiralty.

In 1861, the „Königliches Marineministerium“ (royal naval ministry) established the „Hydrographisches Bureau“ (hydrographic agency) which was assigned the task of developing nautical charts of the German coastal waters and approaches to harbours. On the basis of existing new land surveys performed by „Königlich-Preußische Landaufnahme“, the North and Baltic Sea coastal waters were re-surveyed in the following years.

As the navy increasingly required high-precision charts and merchant shipping experienced a boost from about 1870, work on uniform methods for hydrographic surveys in domestic waters began in 1884. This led to the complete re-surveying of the eastern parts of the German Baltic and new surveys of the coastal fairways in the North Sea, with annual re-surveying thereafter.


SMS "Peilboot VII"Small survey boats with a crew of 13, built from 1888, were found to be particularly efficient in hydrographic surveying. By the beginning of World War I, which interrupted all surveying work, 58,927 km2 had been covered in the Baltic Sea, and 46,482 km2 in the North Sea.




Between World Wars I and II, an area of 112,700 km2  was re-surveyed in the Baltic Sea, and 100,700 km2  in the North Sea. Numerous surveys were also carried out outside German waters. A major achievement was the German Atlantic expedition on board METEOR, which lasted from 16 April 1925 to 2 June 1927. The vessel did pioneering work by surveying, for the first time, an entire ocean, covering sounding lines from 2° North to 63° South between South America and Africa.

The end of the second World War led to a breakdown of hydrographic services in Germany. However, the need to continue such services was realised very soon. British agencies had several sea areas re-surveyed and searched for wrecks. They also began to look for personnel, equipment and vessels for a „German Maritime Institute“ to be established in Hamburg. Then, on 12 December 1945, the non-military „Deutsches Hydrographisches Institut“ (DHI, German Hydrographic Institute) was finally established. Hydrographic services were resumed with the available personnel, vessels, and material.

Growing political tensions between the western powers and the Soviet Union hindered DHI’s work in the Baltic Sea considerably and eventually led to the discontinuation of surveying in the sea area of the Soviet occupied zone. In 1950, as the two German states developed separately, the „Seehydrographischer Dienst“ (SHD, Nautical Hydrographic Service) was established in the Democratic Republic of Germany. It was responsible for hydrographic surveys, chart production and aids to navigation in the territorial sea of the GDR.

All of DHI’s activities were based on instructions that had been issued by the Allied Control Council. It was not until the passing of the „Seeaufgabengesetz“ (Federal Maritime Responsibilities Act) on 24 May, 1965, that a legal basis for hydrographic surveying in the territorial waters of West Germany was created. In its amended version of 26 July 2002, the law is now applicable to the territorial waters of the unified Germany.

In 1990, two major changes occurred: the German Hydrographic Institute and Federal Board of Tonnage Measurement were merged and, in the process of German unification, the area of responsibility was expanded to include also the waters of the new Federal States. Most of the personnel, vessels and material of the former SHD were taken over. Some personnel also came from other maritime agencies, the meteorological service, and the GDR’s national dredging and salvage operations.


Back to hydrographic surveying

 © 2018 Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie Last Update: 02-Feb-2018 19:07:41  
 Print Version Home • Deutsche Version • Contact • Help • Federal Freedom of Information Act • Imprint