History of Marine Operations and Engineering

5 meter Rockdrill in white


Midi drill

Water gun on Gorsethorn

In the mid-1960s, the British Geological Survey began a programme to map the geology of the United Kingdom Continental Shelf (UKCS) , starting with the inshore areas and moving progressively into deeper and more exposed waters. The offshore programme represented a commitment by the UK Government to investigate national offshore resources on a scale not yet attempted by any other country.

The earliest offshore work was a study of aeromagnetic anomalies in Scotland (Loch Ewe and the Moray Firth) using a towed magnetometer and shallow seismic profiling system. About the same time, scuba-diving geologists from the Land Survey mapped small areas of Carboniferous outcrop off eastern Scotland. A year later reconnaissance surveys began in the Irish Sea that continued in 1968, together with work in the Sea of the Hebrides and a detailed study of the Humber Estuary. The first BGS Continental Shelf Unit was formally established in 1967, followed by the Marine Geophysics Unit in 1968. The first dedicated sampling ship the MV Whitethorn was chartered for five years in 1970, and was operated by the BGS for eleven months of the year. As part of its coring facility, BGS also developed a series of remotely operated seabed rockdrills and vibrocorers that were designed to retrieve rocks and sediments up to 6 metres beneath the sea floor.

The offshore surveys of the regional mapping programme took over twenty years to complete, ending in 1986 when the United Kingdom became the first country to completely map its continental shelf. Throughout this period BGS geologists produced a series of reports, scientific papers and 1:250,000 scale maps showing the distribution of sediments on the seabed, the Quaternary geology (sediments deposited during the last 2 million years) and the underlying bedrock or ‘solid’ geology.

However, this was not the end of BGS marine survey. The regional mapping of the UKCS led to interest in the deep-water areas to the west of the United Kingdom, where further BGS surveys were backed by industry funding. To meet these demands, it was necessary to develop new offshore survey equipment, including a one-metre oriented drill specifically designed to recover samples for use in palaeomagnetic studies, autonomous battery operated vibrocoring systems, and a rockdrill (RD2) capable of coring up to 55m below sea floor in water depths up to 4000m.


The engineers of the BGS Marine Geology and Operations team are based near Edinburgh at The Lyell Centre 2. Contact enquiries for more information.