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The United States Navy Names New Ship for Long-time WHOI Scientist

November 12, 1999

The U.S. Navy’s newest oceanographic survey vessel has been named the USNS MARY SEARS in honor of the long-time Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist and pioneer in oceanography. Mary Sears (1905-1997) was a guiding force in the development of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and a major force in uniting the world oceanographic community while serving both her community and her country.

“Commander Mary Sears, USNR (W), established a small oceanographic unit in the Hydrographic Office during World War II and helped expand the role of applied oceanography within the Navy,” said Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig in announcing the honor. “During the war, she studied and reported oceanographic conditions affecting naval operations. Her most important reports, ‘Submarine Supplements to the Sailing Directions,’ predicted the presence of thermoclines under which submarines could escape enemy detection.”  According to the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, this is the first Navy oceanographic ship named for a woman.

“This is a wonderful tribute to Mary Sears, someone who so quietly contributed to oceanography over so many years,” said WHOI Director Robert B. Gagosian. “Her many contributions were not just to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she was a guiding force from our founding in 1930, but for the entire oceanographic community and for the U.S. Navy.”

Her contributions to the U.S. Navy and to the research community are legendary. In a paper presented at the Third International Congress on the History of Oceanography in Woods Hole in 1980, Roger Revelle, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1951 to 1964, wrote: “… it is generally forgotten that the first Oceanographer of the Navy in modern times was a short, rather shy and prim WAVE lieutenant (jg.), who organized and led a new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office during World War II. At that time, the Hydrographic Office was a macho organization mainly engaged in making and printing navigation charts. They were not quite sure what they were doing with a small group of mostly biological oceanographers led by a woman. But they underestimated the powerful natural force that is Mary Sears. That tiny Oceanographic Unit soon became a Division, and finally the entire Hydrographic Office evolved into the Naval Oceanographic Office, headed by an admiral with the proud title of Oceanographer of the Navy.”

In 1985, the journal Deep Sea Research said: “She has probably played a greater role in the advancement of oceanographic studies than any other woman.” Former Oceanographer of the Navy, Richard F. Pittenger, now Associate Director for Marine Operations at WHOI, is among many at WHOI thrilled with the honor. “Mary Sears lived an exemplary life both in science and in the community. She was a scholar, a leader, and a mentor. This is a very appropriate way to honor her contributions.” Columbus O.D. Iselin, second director of WHOI and himself a major force in oceanography, said Mary Sears “has done as much for the advancement of Oceanography as anyone I know.” Mary Sears died in 1997 at age 92.

The USNS MARY SEARS (T-AGS 65) will be the sixth ship in the Pathfinder T-AGS 60 class. Crewed by civilian mariners, the ship will be operated for the Oceanographer of the Navy by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) based in Washington, DC. The T in T-AGS indicates operation by MSC and AGS stands for Auxiliary General Survey.

Like all of the Pathfinder class ships, USNS MARY SEARS will be multi-mission, capable of surveying in either coastal or deep ocean waters. This capability provides both economy and flexibility in an era of military downsizing. According to the Navy, no longer will several single-purpose ships have to visit a single area to acquire the variety of data needed to fill the Navy’s needs. The dual capability is also indicative of the U.S. Navy’s increased emphasis on shallow water or littoral warfare. The littoral refers to the shallow-water area along the coastline extending inland to where naval influences can still be exerted.

The Pathfinder class ships, each 329 feet long and displacing 4,700 tons, are equipped with the latest survey technology. Similar to the AGOR-23 class, like WHOI’s Research Vessel ATLANTIS, they are designed and constructed to provide multiple capabilities, including physical, chemical and biological oceanography; multi-discipline environmental investigations; ocean engineering and marine acoustics; marine geology and geophysics; and bathymetric, gravimetric and magnetometric surveying.

The keel for the USNS MARY SEARS was laid July 28, 1999 at Halter Marine Shipyard in Moss Point, Mississippi. Three women, officially called authenticators, signed the keel: Mrs. Linda Gaffney, wife of RADM Paul Gaffney, Chief of Naval Research; Mrs. Rosemary Ellis, wife of RADM Winford G. “Jerry” Ellis, at the time Oceanographer of the Navy and now Director of Special Programs and Director of Deep Submergence; and Mrs. Janet Sargent, wife of RADM David Sargent, at the time Program Executive Officer, Expeditionary Warfare and now-retired.

The T-AGS 60 class is designed and constructed to commercial standards and complies with American Bureau of Shipping, U.S. Coast Guard and other regulatory body requirements for unrestricted ocean service. The resource sponsor for the ships is the Oceanographer of the Navy on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. The surveys are conducted for the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi by personnel of the Naval Oceanographic Office.

Ship Characteristics:

Class: T-AGS 60M
Hull Number: T-AGS-65
Delivered: Expected late 2001
Length (feet): 329
Beam (feet): 58
Draft (feet): 18
Displacement (long tons): 4,722
Propulsion: Diesel Electric, Twin Props and retractable bow thruster, Z-Drive
Cruising Speed (Knots): 16
Endurance (Nautical Miles): 12,000
Crew: 25
Scientific Party: 30
Lab Space (square feet): 4,000
Deck Space (square feet): 3,500
Vans: 4
Hydrosurvey Launches: Capable (2)

Other ships in the T-AGS 60 Class of multi-purpose military survey ships, are USNS PATHFINDER, USNS SUMNER, USNS BOWDITCH, USNS HENSON, and USNS BRUCE HEEZEN. The newest to join the fleet, the USNS BRUCE HEEZEN (T-AGS 64), christened in March 1999, is named for oceanographer Bruce Heezen (pronounced HAY-zin), a marine geologist. Heezen did pioneering work in plate tectonics and produced the famous Heezen-Tharp physiographic maps of all the major oceans of the world with colleague Marie Tharp.



Further information is available on the following web sites:

For background information on Mary Sears and her career go to:

Additional Contact: Gail Cleere, Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, (telephone) 202-762-1045 (fax) 202-762-1025 (email)