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Malta Hydrographic Office

A Brief History

The Republic of Malta is an Archipelago, which for centuries has served as crossroads between Europe and North Africa and between the Middle East and the Atlantic Sea. Located at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, the Island has had more than its fair share of maritime history.

Hydrography in Malta is mentioned in the Bible as early as the year 60 AD. In the Apostle’s Act 27:28-44, St. Luke gives account of when the vessel he and St. Paul were travelling on encountered a severe storm and was shipwrecked on our island. Part of the passage reads: “And they took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little farther, they took soundings again and found it to be fifteen fathoms.”

Whilst a large amount of historical land mapping has been discovered, recorded and archived, the same cannot be said about charts and sailing directions. It is also quite amazing how such a small number of publications related to historical hydrography have been printed. Two Maltese authors (W. Soler and A. Ganado) have successfully compiled a historical account regarding ‘The Charting of Maltese Waters’.

One can only imagine the difficulty ship masters and pilots had to face when navigating in close proximity to the Maltese shores and within the ports, with the additional hazards brought on by weather, restricted visibility and worst of all and daily ‘nighttime’. So, if not for lack of courage, how did those mariners succeed in executing voyages without running aground and wrecking their vessels?

It appears from history books that Sailing Directions known as Portolani (from it. Ports), were manuscripts packed with information relating to depths or soundings, bearings and any other relevant information and advice related to making a landfall and eventually entering ports. The books eventually became charts, and the information was drawn onto parchment, vellum, or other animal skins.


The making of charts evolved through the years with the Knights of Malta obtaining information mainly from other Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish cartographers and also from works of their own financing. The French and eventually the British Admiralty brought along huge developments in the making of safe, reliable, and affordable navigational charts.

The Malta Hydrographic Office

Since the 19th century, Malta had to rely upon the British Admiralty for charting the Maltese waters. It was in 1976 that the Maltese Hydrographic unit was first established, equipped only with a distance line and lead-line. Its main role was to survey potential areas for development and dredging.

A maritime state requires a balanced national maritime policy designed to obtain the national economic benefits that can be derived from its sea area. One of the fundamental supports to the maritime policy is modern, highly developed hydrographic services. The co-ordination of a nation’s hydrographic services, of the highest level, requires a carefully considered and properly established National Hydrographic Structure. It is through such a structure that the systematic data collection carried out on the coast and at sea produces, disseminates, and promulgates information in support of maritime navigation safety and marine environment preservation, defence, and exploitation. As an indication of what might be gained, several studies by the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO) Member States have suggested that there is a cost to benefit ratio of about 1:10 for major maritime nations.

There are clear benefits to a maritime state in having an effective national hydrographic structure; there are also clear international obligations that make such a structure a vital pillar of the government of a state. Maritime states have obligations and responsibilities under international agreements to provide adequate hydrographic data of their national waters. The following list, which is not exhaustive, serves to illustrate the breadth of these responsibilities and obligations:

IMO Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS)

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

European Union Directives and Initiatives
Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP)
Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)
Water Framework Directive (WFD)
Species and Habitats Directive (SHD)
Strategic Environment Assessment Directive (SEA)
Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the EU (INSPIRE)

Until comparatively recent times, hydrographic data was used almost exclusively to produce navigational charts and associated publications. Data is expensive to collect and until the introduction of modern digital visualisation and manipulation tools, it was limited in its use. Today, national governments look to the sea for many reasons, some of which were not required a few decades ago - sea level rise, tourism, fishing, pollution control, sustainable energy, tsunami warnings, integrated spatial planning as well as many others - the list grows each year. The development of highly sophisticated computer technology and software now makes possible the use of data gathered for one purpose to be used for many others. The cost of data gathering remains high but if national requirements are co-ordinated and carefully managed through an effective national hydrographic structure, the overall cost to the government can be minimized and duplication of effort negated.

As a maritime state on a major shipping route, maritime affairs form a key element of Malta’s national structure. Malta relies on shipping to import the great majority of its needs; export of goods is at a relatively low level although transhipment is a key element of maritime trade in Malta. The container port at Marsaxlokk is a transhipment hub for a large number of feeder services to other Mediterranean ports. One of Malta’s main sources of income is the Tourism industry, which has activities closely related to the sea. Besides that, another activity directly related to Malta is the considerable amount of international shipping of all types transiting through Maltese waters. The major areas of maritime interest are summarized below:

International activity:
Container vessels
Bulk carriers including oil and gas.
Feeder services to Mediterranean ports
Ferries both inter-island and on international routes
Ship repair
Conveyance to vessels at anchor offshore (awaiting instructions)
International shipping transiting Maltese waters

Local activity:
Defence, Customs, and Immigration
Bunkering operations
Coastal Zone Development
Fishing and fish farming
Power generation and Reverse Osmosis plants
Archaeology and wreck research and mapping
Marine Spatial Planning

Tourism and Leisure activity:
Recreational swimming
Miscellaneous tourism related activity

The list above demonstrates the clear need for modern and effective hydrographic data to support the safe and efficient operation of Malta’s maritime interests.

Role of the Hydrographic Office Today

Malta has made great progress in the maritime sector and is one of the few countries in the Mediterranean region that can boast a complete maritime infrastructure. It has one of the largest ship repair yards in the Mediterranean, offshore bunkering facilities, a Maritime Institute and training centres, an International Freeport, a transhipment centre and grain and oil storage centres. Malta has also the largest ship registry in Europe and fifth largest in world, meaning that the MHO has a ‘hydrographic Interest’ and must make representation for a considerable number of ships on the registry. This has, since 2019, earned Malta a Council seat at the IHO.

Today, the Hydrographic Office forms part of Transport Malta (previously the Malta Maritime Authority) and now falls under the Ports and Yachting Directorate (PYD) which is led by the Chief Officer and Harbour Master. The PYD holds the responsibility of all ports, harbours and territorial waters as required by the First Schedule (para.2) of the Authority for Transport in Malta Act CAP.499. The MHO assists the Harbour Master with decision-making regarding safe berthing and safety of Navigation into and out of ports and harbours. The Office also works closely with the ‘Port Operations’ Officers and the ‘Vessel Traffic Services’ (VTS).

Nautical Charts - The Maltese territorial waters are covered by 6 paper charts, which are published by the British Admiralty (UKHO). The MHO has now produced a total of 6 Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC) which are sold to Value Added Resellers (VARs) through the International Centre for Electronic Navigational Charts (IC-ENC). The Maltese Hydrographic Office has the responsibility to keep both paper and electronic charts up to date ensuring that mariners can correct their charts in the shortest time possible after the corrections have been promulgated. The corrections relate to information regarding developments, dredged areas, Notices to Mariners, tidal changes and Navigational Aids.

Tidal measurement - The MHO now has two fully functioning tidal gauges, information from which can be received remotely at the Hydrographic Office. The information from the gauges is in ‘real time’ and tide values are also recorded. Tidal information is essential when large and deep drafted vessels need to dock in areas with little under keel clearance (UKC). Another important use of the tidal gauges is for precision calibration and measurement when carrying out hydrographic surveys. With the envisaged projects at Valletta GH and at the port of Mgarr, Gozo, the MHO will be requesting the installation of two more remote gauges.
In order to satisfy the industries requirements, the MHO is endeavouring to make available more online tidal information in ‘real time’ and possibly the availability of forecasting (predicted) tidal information for the Maltese islands.

Dredging operations - The involvement of the MHO in every dredging project, within territorial waters, is invariable and always requires engagement from the beginning ‘in-surveys’ to the end ‘out surveys’. Projects are usually generated and developed by Infrastructure Malta and the Planning Authority, meaning that the MHO has to maintain good lines of communication and good working relations with both entities. The principal task of the MHO is verification of hydrographic surveys. All dredging projects need to be approved on completion and as a representative of the Administration, the MHO is the body that can authorise the completeness of the works carried out. The ‘In-survey’ serves as a starting point and the ‘out-survey’ confirms that the volume of mud, sand, rock and any other debris, has effectively been removed from the seabed. The volumetric calculations are also worked out by the MHO and if this work is done by third parties, it is then verified. All financial aspects of dredging projects revolve around the volume that is to be removed, as a charge per cubic metre is the usual way of calculating the total expenditure or the tendering price for a project. Two types of dredging exist, capital dredging is carried out when a deeper than the existing depth is required, whilst maintenance dredging is the removal of sand and mud to return to depths previously dredged.

The MHO is at present engaged in two major operations at the following locations:

Malta Freeport Marsxlokk - (berthing areas)
Mgarr Gozo – Inner harbour.

Envisaged dredging projects are:

Inner Grand Harbour
Freeport Marsaxlokk – approaches from Breakwaters to berthing areas.

MHO and the promulgation of Marine Safety Information (MSI)

The coastlines of both Malta and Gozo are well indented, thus providing numerous harbours, bays, creeks, sandy beaches, and rocky groves, all of which are extensively used by boaters all the year round, and by swimmers and sport divers in summer. The coastline of Malta is 136kms (85miles) long and that of Gozo is 45 km (29miles) long. Continuously monitoring the coast and its connected waters is, on its own, a very time consuming task requiring expert knowledge.

The Maltese Hydrographic Office issues and promulgates notices to Mariners via radio. It now also makes them readily available and easily accessible online on the Transport Malta website. All water activities taking place inshore and offshore that may pose a threat to the safety of mariners are made public through the MHO. Navigational warnings for shipping in the area are also promulgated through Malta Radio. the island’s Coastal Radio Station. The Radio Station promulgates these warnings by VHF (voice), NAVTEX (NBDP) and through Navarea broadcasts as required by the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service (WWNWS). In this way, any hazard to navigation that has been reported will be immediately promulgated to navigating vessels, ensuring them a safe passage through the central Mediterranean region.

Maritime Notices - Notice to Mariners

MHO in International Fora

Through TM’s Hydrographic Office, the Government of Malta maintains active links with the international hydrographic community through the International Hydrographic Organization and its regional commission. In addition, it maintains strong links with UKHO to maintain good chart coverage of the Maltese Islands through regularly reviewed bi-lateral agreements. Despite the COVID-19 Pandemic, the MHO has ‘virtually’ attended all meetings organised by the IHO, IC-ENC, IALA WWNWS and the other hydrography related meetings and webinars to which the MHO has been invited. The MHO participates actively in all spheres, both in policy matters as well as in the highly technical sessions.

EU - INSPIRE the sharing of Hydrographic Data and Datasets

The challenges regarding the lack of availability, quality, organisation, accessibility, and sharing of spatial information are common to many policies and activities and are experienced across the various levels of public authority in Europe. In order to solve these problems, it is necessary to take measures of coordination between the users and providers of spatial information. The Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council adopted on 14 March 2007 aims at establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE) for environmental policies, or policies and activities that have an impact on the environment. In line with the requirements of the Directive, Malta will be participating in the sharing of the relevant data in line with the Directive Requirements on data governance. The MHO, through European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) and the IHO EU Network Working Group (IENWG), is actively participating in discussions, the results of which will be the establishment of the hydrographic data that will be shared and in the standardisation of dataset metafiles.

What lies in the future?

It would be easy to believe that the future of the MHO will be nothing more than a reflection of its past. That does not seem to the be the case, as accelerated developments in computer aided techniques are being made available at a very fast rate. Hydrographic survey data is gathered to satisfy a wide variety of requirements and thus to an equally wide variety of standards for different applications – e.g., safety of navigation or habitat mapping. In most cases the highest standard will be that for the safety of navigation. The International Hydrographic Office has, over the years, established standards and the one in use at present is the S-57 Standard. However, much work has already been done on the development of a new standard which is far more advanced than the S-57: this is the S-100 Universal Hydrographic Data Model (UHDM) Standard which means that there will be different standards for different information made available to the Mariner’s electronic equipment. The new standard has also taken into consideration the development of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and the integration of derived information and data for their safe navigation.

The MHO Staff
The unit is made up of a small number of professional experts, surveyors and cartographers who are supported by an administrative section. For many years now the MHO team works harmoniously and tackles workloads with diligence and always on time. The MHO has personnel who can carry out a variety of tasks and who handle tasks with unlimited flexibility and endurance. The MHO is an extremely important branch of Transport Malta as it is responsible for several of the maritime safety obligations of Malta.