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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
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Visit the NOAA Photo Library's Philippines Album for vintage photos of early surveying work.

Some of the experiences of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
in the First Charting of these Islands, Which is Now Nearing Completion

Lieutenant Commander Richard R. Lukens,
United States Coast and Geodetic Survey
In: Merchant Marine Bulletin, April 1931, pp. 10, 11, and 32.

One fine morning in May, 1898, the people of the United States woke up to learn richard lukensthat Admiral George Dewey had sunk the Spanish fleet at Manila and was in full control of Manila Bay. There was a great scurrying around for maps and atlases, for most people did not have even a vague idea as to the location, size, or character of the Philippine Islands. It is said that the departments at Washington were in almost the same predicament, for there was simply little or no information available concerning those islands.

A lot of transports were hastily acquired and an army was started for Manila, for although the Spanish fleet was defeated the city of Manila had not surrendered and troops were necessary to take and hold it. On August 13, 1898, a combined assault was made on Manila, and it was surrendered to the American forces after only a show of resistance.

Things dragged along for several months until February, when open warfare broke out between the Filipino forces under Aguinaldo and the American troops holding the city. This was the start of an insurrection which the United States was three years or more in quelling. Down in the Sulu Islands, the home of the Mohammedans, the fighting lasted several years longer. It became necessary to establish hundreds of Army posts throughout the islands and to operate naval vessels in cooperation with the military forces. It was found that, because of inaccurate charts, navigation could be carried on only with great hazard. The cruiser Charleston was lost by striking an uncharted rock on the north coast of Luzon, and gunboats and transports were often piling up.

This state of affairs was interfering so much with military operations that an urgent appeal was made to have the island surveyed and charted. After negotiations with the War Department and Philippine Commission, and obtaining the necessary legislation, the Coast and Geodetic Survey established an office in Manila in December of 1900. Actual field work was started the following month.


At this time constant fighting and guerilla warfare were going on, and surveys could, therefore, be made only in the vicinity of the garrisoned places. The work started in a quiet way, with shore parties using bull carts for transportation and hydrographic parties using native bancas or dugouts for sounding boats. At first a few steam launches were chartered, but as soon as could be arranged regularly equipped surveying vessels were placed in commission.

Advantage was taken of the system of military telegraph and cable lines to establish a large number of astronomical stations well scattered throughout the islands. The precise latitude and longitude of these stations were determined, and they were later used for starting surveys in the various localities. These stations were eventually connected by a triangulation net. The officers engaged on this astronomic work had to do their observing at night, and the lighted observing tents often drew the fire of the insurgents, making it necessary to douse the lights in a hurry. Fortunately, the insurgents were notoriously bad shots. Often the survey parties were accompanied by armed guards supplied by the local garrison.

As the islands gradually became pacified, more and more surveys were undertaken to meet the demands of the military and the local commerce, which was beginning to spring up with the return of peace and orderly government.

By 1907 there were five vessels in commission engaged in hydrographic and topographic surveys, and a large force of computers and draftsmen in the Manila office engaged in compiling charts from the new surveys. By this time some 90 charts had been published and at the present time this number has grown to 153. They are listed in catalogues, which may be obtained from the Coast and Geodetic Survey. In the beginning all charts were printed at the Washington office, but in 1920 a printing plant was installed at Manila, where all charts of those islands are now printed.

The Philippine Government has shared in the expense of the surveys from the very beginning, the proportion being roughly two-fifths of the entire cost. It has recognized the necessity of good charts, and has never faltered in the appropriation of its share of the expense.

The American shipmaster, who has to take his vessel to Iloilo or Cebu for a load of sugar, or to some Mindanao port to load lumber, will find modern charts available, and he need have no fear of the uncharted shoals and misplaced islands, which were the bugbear of the transports and gunboats of 1900.


As the archipelago lies in the track of the Far East cyclones, or “typhoons,” as they are called, the survey vessels have always had to be on the alert during the typhoon season, lasting from June to November of each year, with the greatest number occurring in September. Due to the good judgment of the commanding officers, the Survey has not lost a single vessel in its 30 years of work in the islands. A few vessels have sustained damage by being blown ashore in protected places.

In one of the most severe typhoons which ever visited the Islands, the “Cantabria Typhoon,” of September, 1905, the Survey ship, Pathfinder, was caught at anchor in a small, partially protected bay on the east coast of Samar. The center of the storm passed directly over the vessel, and the barometer registered 27.16, the lowest ever recorded in the Philippine Islands. During the first half of the storm the wind was offshore and the vessel managed to hang on by going full speed (equivalent to 11 knots) ahead to relieve the strain on the anchor chains. Just after the center passed, the wind whipped around from the opposite direction and, as the vessel swung to it, both anchor chains snapped and, in a few minutes, the Pathfinder was up high and dry amongst the cocoanut trees. She was afterwards floated by using bamboo rafts and taken to Manila with a jury rudder.

Since the introduction of radio, the problem of coping with the typhoon has been greatly simplified. The Manila Observatory has done wonderful work in studying these storms, and now the shipmaster is kept informed of the location and direction of the typhoon and can readily determine whether his vessel is in danger. During the hectic summer of 1898, Father Algue, the head of the observatory, jeopardized his Spanish citizenship by staying on the job despite the war then going on, and kept shipping warned of the approach of typhoons. After the war the observatory was made a bureau of the Philippine Government and Father Algue appointed its first director. The Jesuit fathers have remained in charge of the observatory to this day.


Many questions are received at the Coast and Geodetic Survey office regarding stories of reported changes in depths due to earthquakes, growth of coral, upheaval of the bottom, etc. As a matter of fact, the Coast and Geodetic Survey finds very few changes, except where large rivers discharge into the sea, or where currents cause the shifting of sand banks.

A notable exception, however, is found in the Sulu Sea, near the island of Cuyo. A coral reef here had been surveyed by modern methods and found to be about 2 miles long and about one-half mile wide, with depths of 8 to 10 fathoms along the ridge. Some two years later, while working in the vicinity, another survey ship ran a line of soundings over the reef and was amazed to find a depth of 30 fathoms over the middle of it. A careful resurvey developed that while both ends of the reef were unchanged in position and depth, the central portion had “caved in” and left a 30-fathom channel across the reef. Both these surveys were by standard methods, using the same control, so there can be no doubt but that there was an actual subsidence of the bottom. As this reef is near the epicenter of a violent earthquake which occurred in the interim between the two surveys, it is possible that the change was due to it.


This great inland sea in the Philippine Archipelago was much dreaded by mariners, for the old Spanish charts showed it to be blocked with many reefs and sand inlets. Several ships had been wrecked when running at night and navigation was only attempted during the day, when the reefs could usually be seen.

As the survey of the Sulu Sea progressed, reef after reef was found to be non-existent, and much of the area that had been looked upon with suspicion proved to be clear water with depths of 1,000 to 2,000 fathoms. The deepest place found in this island sea was 3,049 fathoms, near the island of Mindanao. Due to the fact that all the inlets to this sea are comparatively shoal, the cold water of the ocean bottom has no circulation in it, and the bottom temperatures of the Sulu Sea run around 55o F., whereas at an equal depth in the ocean the bottom temperature would be 37° to 39° F.

It seems apparent that in some cases the same reef had been reported several times but in different positions. Jesse Beasly Reef, for instance, was found in about the place assigned to it by the master of the ship of the same name who reported it. The old charts showed a reef 10 miles to the northeast and another one 10 miles to the southwest. Neither of the latter two reefs were found and they were expunged from the chart.

One of the large well known reefs was North Tubbathaha, shown as a long, narrow ridge exposed in a few places. When the survey reached this point, the officers were surprised to find this reef to be of the atoll type, with an inclosed lagoon 5 1/2 miles long and 2 miles wide. The encircling reefs rose abruptly from depths of 600 fathoms. There was no opening into the lagoon which ranged from 7 to 18 fathoms in depth. A launch from the survey ship crossed the reef at high water and sounded it out, but with the coming of evening there was not enough water for them to get out, and they spent the night in the lagoon, subsisting on a fish caught by trolling. The bank here is so steep that the survey ship could not anchor and was compelled to run offshore and drift at night. When the survey of Sulu Sea was finished and new charts issued, it was not found at all dangerous looking. Big passenger and freight vessels now navigate it night and day without danger.


When the survey of the south end of Palawan Island was started, considerable trouble was experienced with the Samales, a tribe of wild people inhabiting the islands north of Borneo. These people are, no doubt, descendants of the old Dyad pirates who used to prey on sailing ships before the day of the steam gunboats. The Samales travel three men to a vinta and parties of 3 to 15 boats would often make a raiding trip along the Palawan coast. On the appearance of these fleets, the Palawan natives would take to the hills and the Samales would take their time in looting the little barrios. If they saw a steamer that looked like a Government vessel, they would head for the reefs and shoal water, where the vessel could not follow.

The Samales found that the triangulation signals (some of them 100 feet high) contained nails and were guyed with wire, and, as they prized such material, they began to wreck the signals to get the wire and nails. This continued until the survey ship Romblon came upon a group of five boats becalmed off an island and unable to escape. Rifles were brought up and fire opened at long range. The Samales were not in much danger, for the ammunition was old and defective and only an occasional cartridge would explode. It had the desired effect of frightening them, however, and they paddled to a near-by island and waded ashore, leaving their vintas on the reef. In this case the area had just been surveyed and, to the evident surprise of the Samales, the ship threaded its way among the coral reefs and anchored off the island. A launch and whaleboat were lowered and an armed party went in towards the beach. The leader of the Samales was forced to come out to the boat (alone and unarmed), where he was given unmistakable signs as to what would happen if they continued their depredations. After he was turned loose the vintas were examined and a number of shots put through them to make the warning more effective. The Samales plugged the holes in their vintas and proceeded down the coast, apparently thinking they had narrowly escaped death. The survey party was never again troubled.

As a rule, the natives, even the so-called wild men of the non-Christian tribes, were friendly. As soon as they learned that the ship was not there to collect taxes or take away their land, they had no fear, and often served at cargadories or packers on mountain triangulation.


The basis of all Philippine surveys is the network of triangulation spread over the islands. Many of these stations are necessarily located on the peaks of high mountains and some of them miles back from the beach in a country without roads or transportation.

An expedition made up to climb a high mountain, observe angles, mark the stations, and erect the signal consists of one survey officer and 15 to 20 native cargadories, and often has to be equipped with provisions for two or three weeks. In one case a party was nine days in reaching the summit of Mount Mantalingajan on the island of Palawan. The peak is about 6,500 feet high and, as no running water was found above the 3,000-foot level, the men depended on water found in the pitcher plants, a remarkable plant which grows up in the Tropics. It carries a small reservoir in which water is trapped from rain and dew.

After reaching the top, the party had to wait four days for the weather to clear before observations could be made. Although in the Tropics, the party suffered constantly from the cold. While making the observations, the officer’s fingers became so numb he could hardly record the figures in his book.


Much of the shore line of the Philippines consists of the mangrove swamp and the topographers are often required to work day after day in water hip deep. Sometimes an alligator or a crocodile is seen and the topographer simply hopes that he is not of the man-eating variety. The Survey did suffer one casualty from crocodiles in a way that was least expected. Lieut. J. A. Bond was standing on the after deck of a small ship’s launch as it was entering a small bay in the Sulu Islands. He was leaning on the canopy, scrutinizing the shore, when suddenly a huge crocodile hurled itself out of the water and grabbed his leg. All that saved Bond was the fact that the crocodile had grabbed the awning stanchion along with Bond’s leg. The weight of the beast began to capsize the launch, when one of the constabulary guards accompanying the party stuck his rifle in the crocodile’s mouth and fired. With this the crocodile relaxed his grip and slid into the water. While Lieutenant Bond’s leg was badly fractured and lacerated, modern surgery saved it.

The survey ships are manned entirely by Filipino crews, the only white men aboard being the Survey officers, who are sent out from the United States on two-year tours of duty. Experience has shown that the Filipinos make good sailors and become excellent recorders and draftsmen. They have keen eyesight and often become very expert in the use of the sextant in taking horizontal angles in a sounding boat. Filipino draftsmen have been employed in the Manila office since its inception and have proven very satisfactory.


The Philippine Archipelago covers an area 1,020 nautical miles in length and 660 miles in width near the southern islands. There are 7,083 islands. The first survey of this vast territory is now nearing completion, with all the trade routes accurately and completely charted. New charts and new editions of old ones issued are announced in the Merchant Marine Bulletin. Shipping passes at will throughout the islands and trans-Pacific freighters can now go to out-of-the-way ports to load lumber and other products, thus saving the cost of the inter-island transportation and transshipping at Manila.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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