All Aboard the HMS Magpie


Royal Navy crew, Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan – Commanding Officer and Leading Seaman(HM) Jenny Whalley – Chief Bosun’s Mate, welcome Newcastle University students onboard the HMS Magpie to see their surveying vessel in action and discuss life on deck.

The HMS Magpie, which is usually stationed at the Royal Navy base in Plymouth, HMNB Devonport, has docked at HMS Calliope, on the bank of the River Tyne in Newcastle.


Commissioned in June 2018 to replace veteran survey launch HMS Gleaner, the HMS Magpie’s core role is to conduct military data gathering in support of the Defence Hydrographic Programme but will also play a key role in development of future capability by testing a range of off-board, remote and autonomous systems.


Since 2022, the HMS Magpie has been on her most-extensive deployment yet, departing from Plymouth in early March, docking at Newcastle before sailing to both east and west coasts of Scotland, she is unlikely to return until completion of her deployment in October.



Geospatial Engineering students from Newcastle University were invited onboard to experience hydrographic surveying with a rare opportunity from the Royal Navy and gain a realistic view of life offshore.


As part of the Geospatial Surveying, Mapping & GIS degree programmes, students gain an in-depth understanding of how to measure, map and model the Earth – both on land and offshore!


Hydrographic surveying is the science of measuring and describing the physical features of an underwater area. It is an is an important civil engineering service which affects maritime navigation, marine construction such as bridges or wind turbines, dredging, and Search and Rescue operations.


But how can you measure something without being able to see it?

In 1906, scientists discovered that they could work out an object’s position by sending out sound waves and measuring the time taken for the sound wave to return. You might know this as SONAR, which stands for SOund, NAvigation and Ranging, and was developed by the USA during World War I when there was a need to be able to detect submarines.


Since then, technology has advanced, and modern surveying vessels send out hundreds of sound waves using a multi-beam echo, which allow us to reconstruct a 3D image of the seafloor.


The HMS Magpie has both a high-resolution multibeam echo sounder and side-scan sonar that can scan every inch of a working harbour to provide 3D imagery and an understanding of the seabed like never before.


Life Onboard the HMS Magpie

Intrigued by the possibility of a career in hydrographic surveying, Newcastle University students discovered what the life of a hydrographic surveyor in the Royal Navy could be like.


Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan and Leading Seaman(HM) Jenny Whalley – Chief Bosun’s Mate, shared their experiences of hydrographic surveying and how they came to be aboard the HMS Magpie.


Q: What is the most interesting part of your job?

“Data collection itself can be quite monotonous, however things never go smoothly and it’s interesting to try to figure out what has gone wrong, identify the sources of error, and then work out how to fix the problem.” Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan


Q: What issues can arise on a surveying job?

“The issue we have now is that the vessel is collecting large amounts of high-resolution data which means lots of processing afterwards. We spend more time processing the data than collecting it, standing in the ratio of four to one. Hopefully, industry-led advancements will reduce this ratio, probably in the area of AI or machine learning.” Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan


Q: Do you complete onshore surveys as well as offshore?

“Yes, we keep all of our onshore surveying equipment onboard in case we need to survey something close to the water. We might need to survey shallow water or coastline areas which have been affected by maritime processes.” Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan


Q: Do you see the future of hydrographic surveying being led by autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)?

“Autonomous vessels will certainly play a large part in the future of hydrographic survey and wider military data gathering. They offer enormous capability enhancements but in the medium term at least they will augment our ship-borne systems rather than replace them. This is especially the case in deep water where a large number of systems would be required to achieve the same data coverage as a hull-mounted multi-beam echo sounder. The use of autonomous vehicles in the military domain is an exciting area of development but comes with significant challenges, e.g. securing both the asset and its channels of communication.” Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan


“No. Downsizing surveying equipment for smaller vessels usually means that the capacity of the surveying equipment is also reduced. At the minute, the equipment onboard the HMS Magpie gathers more data at a higher resolution than the nearest AUV.” Leading Seaman(HM) Jenny Whalley – Chief Bosun’s Mate

Q: How did you decide to become a hydrographic surveyor?

“After completing a degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Wales, Swansea, I joined the Royal Navy. I have worked for the Royal Navy for 12 years, with many different ships. I generally change jobs and ships every 2 – 3 years.” Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan


“I joined the Royal Navy in a different way [than Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan]. I didn’t want to study at university at that time in my life, and instead I worked my way up from Able Seaman (HM) and completed a degree in Hydrography through the Royal Navy." Leading Seaman(HM) Jenny Whalley – Chief Bosun’s Mate


With thanks to Lieutenant Commander Hywel Morgan and Leading Seaman(HM) Jenny Whalley – Chief Bosun’s Mate for welcoming Newcastle University’s Geospatial Engineering students onboard.

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