Dr. P.J. Capelotti, PACM, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (Ret.)
In 1969, the crowning glory of nearly a century of Coast Guard oceanographic research was to arrive when Congress authorized construction of the largest and most advanced oceanographic vessel in the world.
The 399-foot high-endurance oceanographic vessel WHEO-701 was to have set sail in 1972. It would have replaced the Coast Guard cutter Evergreen, a 180-foot buoy tender converted for oceanographic research. The new research cutter would have displaced 3,945 tons with a fully-automated propulsion system that could operate without an engineering crew. For the study of marine biology, geology, geophysics, chemistry, and meteorology, the design of WHEO-701 called for more science laboratories than any previous U.S. vessel. The research cutter was to be manned with a crew of 133 with up to 16 scientists.
It was not to be. Congress authorized the giant research cutter’s construction, but provided no funds to build it. But the cancellation of the oceanographic cutter came about for more than budgetary reasons. Coast Guard efforts in undersea research were curtailed when an expected boom in the use of ocean research submersibles never materialized. In 1970, the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) likewise placed the Coast Guard in a difficult position with regard to ocean research. For example, the National Data Buoy Center, once supported by the Coast Guard, became part of NOAA. NOAA also operated the National Weather Service among other weather and oceanographic offices.
Established in the early days of transoceanic flight, the Coast Guard’s Ocean Station program was becoming obsolete. The necessity of transmitting weather reports to transoceanic aircraft disappeared as those aircraft began to fly above the weather. Coastal communities grew reliant on satellites for winter weather warnings. The Coast Guard still manned arduous meteorological outposts like Ocean Station “Hotel” 200 miles east of Maryland’s Atlantic coast through hurricane season and the winter months. This mission, which cost the Coast Guard over $4.5 million a year, ended in the late 1970s with the last Ocean Station cutter, CGC Taney.
In addition, grant-funded university scientists on board Evergreen and Ocean Station cutters grumbled that Coast Guard crews became impatient while occupying data-collecting stations and, as a result, imaginary search and rescue cases would suddenly materialize. Moreover, the Service’s oceanography program failed to sell itself to Service leadership as one Coast Guard officer noted: The program did a good job servicing the cause of the larger scientific world, but not to sell oceanography to management. You can’t eat oceanography, and when another rainbow appeared, whether it was law enforcement or marine environmental protection or migrant interdiction, the Coast Guard always chased it.
Increasingly, satellites and data buoys replaced cutter-manned ocean stations for weather and sea state information. By the late 1970s, a new satellite station capable of receiving transmissions from the older Nimbus-6 and new Tiros-N satellites was installed at the oceanographic unit office at the Washington Navy Yard. In 1978, the United States launched its first ocean-monitoring satellite, SEASAT-A. This satellite carried five radar sensors along with visual and infrared radiometers to measure sea surface wind speed, temperature, sea state, and surface currents. And, for tracking icebergs and ships, the satellite could produce radar images of the sea surface with a resolution of 25 square meters.
In the late 1970s, civilian oceanographers who left the Coast Guard were not replaced, and the unit was officially disestablished in 1982. That same year, budget cuts and shifting priorities cancelled the oceanographic research conducted by Evergreen for the International Ice Patrol since 1948. That research had earned the cutter two Coast Guard Unit Commendations and four Meritorious Unit Commendations. For a time, Evergreen, the Coast Guard’s last oceanographic vessel, was itself threatened with retirement until it was re-designated a medium-endurance cutter and redirected to anti-drug patrols and fisheries regulations enforcement. Instead of performing oceanographic research, the Coast Guard increasingly found itself ferrying external scientists or their instrument packages.
The Coast Guard continues to transport scientists on board its icebreakers, a spectacular example coming in 1994, when Polar Sea journeyed from Antarctica in February to the Geographic North Pole on August 22, becoming the first U.S. surface ship to reach the North Pole and the only ship to reach from so far south to the Pole in one year. The Polar Sea carried scientists who conducted ground-breaking research on global environmental change, on board perhaps the only platform that could support such far-reaching research at the time. But even this program in ice operations and marine science was dwindling. By 1996, the program had shrunk to one officer and one civilian, its lowest personnel level since the Coast Guard’s Oceanographic Unit was established at Harvard University in the 1920s.
A rather poignant coda to the Coast Guard’s oceanographic program came in 1983, about a year after decommissioning the Coast Guard Oceanographic Office. While enforcing fisheries laws and regulations and searching for illegal drug shipments on the fishing grounds of Georges Bank, a crewmember from the Evergreen spotted a small balloon floating in the ocean. When the balloon was retrieved it contained a postcard written by a fourth grader from a Massachusetts elementary school 200 miles away. LCDR Laird Hail, commanding officer of the cutter, sent a patch and other souvenirs of the vessel, along with a letter which read in part:
As you can see, your balloon was carried aloft and travelled quite a distance to the east with the prevailing winds during its voyage. Upon the release of some of its helium it descended upon the ocean whereupon it was further acted upon by the unusual sea currents which are found on Georges Bank. In the Coast Guard, we perform similar experiments in the study of wind and sea currents to better enable us to locate missing or distressed persons, vessels, or aircraft at sea.
The successful conclusion of a ten-year-old’s science experiment was made possible by the last Coast Guard vessel dedicated to oceanographic research, two years after its scientific mission had ceased to exist.
Editor’s note: Today, Coast Guard cutters, such as icebreakers Polar Star and Healy, continue to support scientific research. However, the research and scientists performing it come from other public and private institutions.