NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Science at Sea and on Land: My Adventures with NOAA Corps


This is a post by NOAA Corps member ENS Alice Drury.

At a college job fair a few years ago, I initially breezed by an officer standing in uniform next to a NOAA Corps booth. I was close to graduating from the University of Washington, and as I walked around the campus job fair, I was looking for any position in the environmental field. However, I had not considered a uniformed service in any way.

Once I reached the other side of the room, I noticed that the officer in uniform was with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which both surprised me and sparked my interest—I didn’t realize NOAA had a uniformed service. I went back and chatted with the officer, beginning my journey with the NOAA Corps.

ENS Alice Drury.

ENS Alice Drury.

The more I found out about the NOAA Corps, the more excited I became about the organization. The NOAA Corps has an interesting history [leaves this blog]: It starts with Thomas Jefferson, who in 1807 signed a bill for the “Survey of the Coast,” spurring the creation of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.  Civilians, Coast and Geodetic Survey–commissioned officers, and military–commissioned officers worked together surveying and charting the nation’s waterways and shorelines. They also served the United States in several wars, both nationally and internationally, in a variety of positions that put to use their unique surveying skills.

NOAA Corps as it is today was established in 1970, when NOAA was formed. While many NOAA Corps officers serve with what is now the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, officers also operate the agency’s research and survey ships, pilot specialized aircraft, coordinate research projects, carry out diving operations, and serve in a number of other roles within NOAA. Officers start training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York before being assigned to a NOAA research vessel for two to three years.

These days not all NOAA ships are hydrographic ships; the missions can range from oceanographic and marine mammal to fisheries and work on buoys or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). After an officer completes a sea assignment, officers rotate into land assignments, which are staff positions located within NOAA offices, such as the Office of Response and Restoration. After that, an officer is again assigned to a ship, rotating between sea and land assignments and assuming more responsibility with each assignment.

NOAA Ship McArthur II.

NOAA Ship McArthur II, where ENS Drury spent her first NOAA Corps assignment at sea. Credit: NOAA Marine Operations Center - Pacific.

After months of the NOAA Corps application process, I was thrilled to find out I had been accepted. When I explained why I was going to training, a lot of people I know asked me why I would ever want to go out to sea. Considering my background, that wasn’t such an unexpected question. Prior to the NOAA Corps, I had very little experience in the mariner’s world, but the prospect sounded exciting and rewarding: to drive a research vessel out to sea. What a wonderful combination of science, adventure, and hands-on operations!

I spent two years aboard NOAA Ship McArthur II and sailed to the tip of Baja Mexico, up to the Bering Sea, out to Hawaii, and through the Panama Canal to the Gulf of Mexico. I saw a lot during those two years that many people never get the chance to see, I met amazing people, and, perhaps most importantly, I learned how to operate a scientific ship.

Starting my first land assignment, I am now with the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) under the Emergency Response Division as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators. I sought out this assignment because I like the idea of assisting in emergency spill response and helping to mitigate damage in such situations. The results of decisions made during emergency response have great impact, and making sure the right scientific information gets to the people making these decisions seems like an interesting and important job.

I am still learning exactly what my new job entails and how OR&R is run. I will help the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (SSC) provide scientific and technical expertise on scene during spill response while also assisting with other emergency response projects here in Seattle.  I have already had the opportunity to attend a week-long National Preparedness Response Exercise Program in Ventura, Calif., with SSC Jordan Stout. That week helped me understand how everything fits together when dealing with an oil spill and what sort of information really becomes important during spill response. While it’s a big change from my time at sea, I am looking forward to my three years with OR&R and everything I will learn here.

ENS Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., ENS Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. ENS Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

10 thoughts on “Science at Sea and on Land: My Adventures with NOAA Corps

  1. Ms. Drury:

    I am a high school science teacher and have been working on a project to promote nonfiction reading and ocean literacy through Google Earth tours and activities. One book I have used is John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez. Recently I adapted a New York Times article about the fate of the Western Flyer into a Google Earth tour. I read about your involment with this vessel and thought you might enjoy the material at:


    Ira Bickoff

  2. Thanks Alice. Have a wonderful summer.


  3. Hello Ms. Drury,

    Congratulations on your accomplishment! I’ve heard that the NOAA Corps is a very competitive, and not many get in on their first try. What do you believe made you stand out among all of the other applicants? What kind of jobs/interning or volunteering did you have to present to NOAA? I’m majoring in biological sciences (marine biology is my passion) and will get my associates in May. After that I will be transferring to Hawaii to get my Bachelors. I just want to know what I need to do so that when I apply, I will be as blessed as you and be accepted the first time. Being a part of the NOAA Corps would truly be a dream come true for me! I look forward to chatting with you.

    Cassaundra Drake

    • Hi Cassaundra,

      Here are some recommendations from Alice for those thinking of applying for NOAA Corps:

      You should check with the NOAA Corps recruiter to see what type of education they are looking for right now to make sure you direct your education correctly if your goal is to join the Corps. This means finding out which degrees NOAA Corps prefers candidates come in with, and what types of classes are necessary. If you’re going to go to school in Hawaii, you could take the opportunity to tour one of the NOAA ships out of Honolulu sometime when they are in port. The recruiter can help connect you with the ships. Other than that, talk to your department heads, professors, and school counselors and find opportunities to gain field work experience, internships, or other related jobs to build up your resume as you go through school or have time during the summers.

      NOAA Corps recruiting:

  4. It was great reading your story. I am in the process of applying for NOAA Corps. I am really hoping I get in . I will graduate in May with my Bachelor’s Degree in Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquacultural Science. I have done some internships within my field to get more experience. Can you please give me some advice and briefly explain what was life like aboard the ship?

  5. Were you actually at seas the entirety of those first 2 years??
    OR would you the ship be deployed for a few months at a time and then return to port, typical of the Navy for instance.

    Sounds interesting, but maybe not for someone who has a family if you are physically gone for 2 yrs straight.


    • Hi Patrick,

      NOAA Corps Officers are assigned to ships for two (and sometimes up to three) years at a time. In between shipboard assignments they may spend three to four years ashore in assignments such as Alice Drury’s position with us at the Office of Response and Restoration. How much of the time the ship is away from homeport depends on the ship’s missions. A fisheries research vessel for example may spend 210–260 days at sea over the course of a year, several weeks at a time.

      Customarily when a ship is not at sea, it will be back in its homeport. There are some major caveats to this, however. Sometimes the ship will need to go to a drydock facility that is not at the ship’s homeport for several weeks of maintenance, and occasionally a ship will not come back to its homeport because of subsequent missions far from its homeport. For example, a survey vessel may spend an entire summer in a region such as Alaska without returning to its homeport.

      An extreme example of this is the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown. The research vessel departed its homeport, Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2013 and has been travelling throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans and still has not yet returned to Charleston. For many crew, the very unique opportunity to visit a huge variety of ports makes up for this challenge. This type of operational schedule requires that officers and crew take leave to go to the ship’s homeport if that is where their home is. It can be difficult to arrange for leave as a junior officer during your first year, as you are still in training, but leave within an officer’s first two year assignment is not unheard of.

      The life of a mariner within NOAA can be very challenging, but many find it very rewarding and choose to make a career of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s