Coast Survey improves access to data on thousands of wrecks and obstructions

Knowing the locations of shipwrecks and other obstructions has always been important for safe navigation ‒ but mariners are not the only people who want to know about wrecks. They are also important for marine archeology, recreational diving, salvage operations, and fishing, among other interests. Now, Coast Survey has improved our Wrecks and Obstructions Database, giving everyone easy access to new records to explore.

Web-based map of wrecks
Coast Survey’s wrecks and obstructions database provides info on thousands of wrecks.

Historically, Coast Survey has maintained two separate sources of information on wrecks. We recently combined the sources, bringing together information on nearly 20,000 wrecks and obstructions.


Coast Survey established the Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System (AWOIS) database in 1981 to help estimate the level of effort required to investigate items during a planned hydrographic survey, but maritime users were also interested in AWOIS’ historical records. However, because the emphasis is on features that are most likely to pose a hazard to navigation, AWOIS has always had limitations. Most notably, AWOIS is not a comprehensive record and does not completely address every known or reported wreck. Additionally, for a number of reasons, AWOIS positions do not always agree with a charted position for a similar feature.


Coast Survey compiles NOAA’s electronic navigational charts (NOAA ENC®) from sources on features that are navigationally significant. As the official chart data used in electronic chart and display information systems (ECDIS), ENCs are the authoritative source of information about known or reported wrecks and are much more comprehensive than AWOIS. However, the features in an ENC typically lack the historic information and context provided by AWOIS.


Correcting for some overlap between the two source databases, Coast Survey’s new wrecks and obstructions database now contains information on about 13,000 wreck features and 6,000 obstructions. Wreck features from each original database are stored in separate layers but can be displayed together. Users may also choose a background map from several options.
The new database also offers users additional data formats from which to choose. Historically, shipwreck data in AWOIS was available in Adobe PDF and as Microsoft Access Database (MDB) format. More recently, KML/KMZ files replaced PDF and MDB formats, making it easier for public users to view AWOIS data, by using freely available software such as Google Maps or Google Earth. Now, in addition to KML/KMZ and Microsoft Excel formats for general users, Coast Survey provides the data in ArcGIS REST services and OGC WMS services, for use in GIS software programs or web-based map mashup sites.

6 Replies to “Coast Survey improves access to data on thousands of wrecks and obstructions”

  1. From old records of mine I pulled a 1983 report on the system as it was at that time. As the original developer of the system I had made the somewhat optimistic statement that the system would not be fully developed until the year 2000. Clearly it is still undergoing development which continues to bring it closer to the original design goal of linking the nautical charting system with the AWOIS database. The intent was to provide hydrographers with near real-time access to vital information on wrecks and obstructions. With this information good operational decisions could be made in the field to most effectively deploy limited resources. This linkage was seen as vital since the task of independently researching and cataloging all critical obstructions prior to a survey was not feasible due to time and labor limitations. Properly working linkage would systematically populate the database with position and source information from which additional data related to investigation criteria could be extracted. Of course several necessary components of this grand design were not attainable until many years later and only then after technology had evolved.
    Providing invaluable assistance was Lt. Leeane Roberts, NOAA, who wrote most of the original code which at that time was done in Fortran and executed on a borrowed Univac 1100 mainframe. Data entry was limited by the IBM punch card with 80 characters across and ten lines. Primitive by today’s standards it nonetheless enforced a certain discipline in the data structure which lives on today.
    It is exciting to see that the system continues to mature and to move closer to the original design goal. In providing value to not only the NOAA hydrographer but to the public it will likely be around for many more years. I am proud to have been a part of it and am pleased to see that its management is clearly in good hands.

  2. Thanks for making this wreck amd obstruction data available via a REST service. The following link starts Gmap4 (enhanced Google map viewer I developed) and displays both sets of wreck data. To change the basemap to NOAA’s nautical charts, click the button in the upper right corner and look toward the bottom of the basemap list.,-76.102670&z=10&t=m,AWOIS_wrecks,ENC_wrecks&q=
    Joseph Elfelt, the Gmap4 guy
    Redmond, WA

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