A principal aim of the IHO is to ensure that the world’s seas, oceans and navigable waters are properly surveyed and charted. It does this through the setting of international standards, the co-ordination of the endeavours of the world's national hydrographic offices, and through its capacity building programme.
The IHO enjoys observer status at the United Nations where it is the recognised competent authority on hydrographic surveying and nautical charting. When referring to hydrography and nautical charting in Conventions and similar Instruments, it is the IHO standards and specifications that are normally used.
The IHO was established in 1921 as the International Hydrographic Bureau (IHB). The present name was adopted in 1970 as part of a new international Convention on the IHO adopted by the then member nations. The former name International Hydrographic Bureau was retained to describe the IHO secretariat until 8 November 2016, when a revision to the Convention on the IHO entered into force. Thereafter the IHB became known as the "IHO Secretariat", comprising an elected Secretary-General and two supporting Directors, together with a small staff of 17, at the Organization's headquarters in Monaco.
During the 19th century, many maritime nations established hydrographic offices to provide means for improving the navigation of naval and merchant vessels by providing nautical publications, nautical charts, and other navigational services. There were substantial differences in hydrographic procedures charts, and publications. In 1889, an International Maritime Conference was held at Washington, D.C., and it was proposed to establish a "permanent international commission." Similar proposals were made at the sessions of the International Congress of Navigation held at Saint Petersburg in 1908 and the International Maritime Conference held at Saint Petersburg in 1912.
In 1919 the hydrographers of Great Britain and France cooperated in taking the necessary steps to convene an international conference of hydrographers. London was selected as the most suitable place for this conference, and on 24 July 1919, the First International Conference opened, attended by the hydrographers of 24 nations. The object of the conference was "To consider the advisability of all maritime nations adopting similar methods in preparation, construction, and production of their charts and all hydrographic publications; of rendering the results in the most convenient form to enable them to be readily used; of instituting a prompt system of mutual exchange of hydrographic information between all countries; and of providing an opportunity to consultations and discussions to be carried out on hydrographic subjects generally by the hydrographic experts of the world." This is still the major purpose of the IHO.
As a result of the Conference, a permanent organization was formed and statutes for its operations were prepared. The IHB, now the IHO, began its activities in 1921 with 18 nations as members. The Principality of Monaco was selected as the seat of the organization as a result of the offer of Albert I, Prince of Monaco to provide suitable accommodation for the Bureau in the principality.
The IHO develops hydrographic and nautical charting standards. These standards are subsequently adopted and used by its 87 member countries and others in their surveys, nautical charts, and publications. The almost universal use of the IHO standards means that the products and services provided by the world's national hydrographic and oceanographic offices are consistent and recognisable by all seafarers and for other users. Much has been done in the field of standardisation since the Bureau (now the IHO) was founded.
The IHO has encouraged the formation of Regional Hydrographic Commissions (RHCs). Each RHC coordinates the national surveying and charting activities of countries within each region and acts as a forum to address other matters of common hydrographic interest. The 15 RHCs plus the IHO Hydrographic Commission on Antarctica (HCA) effectively cover the world.
The IHO, in partnership with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), directs the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans programme.
Most IHO publications, including the standards, guidelines and associated documents such as the International Hydrographic Review, International Hydrographic Bulletin, the Hydrographic Dictionary and the Year Book are available to the general public free of charge from the IHO website.
The IHO publishes the international standards related to charting and hydrography, including S-57, IHO Transfer Standard for Digital Hydrographic Data, the encoding standard that is used primarily for electronic navigational charts. In 2010 the IHO introduced a new, contemporary hydrographic geospatial standard for modelling marine data and information, known as S-100. S-100 and any dependent product specifications are underpinned by an on-line registry accessible via the IHO website. S-100 is aligned with the ISO 19100 series of geographic standards, thereby making it fully compatible with contemporary geospatial data standards. Because S-100 is based on ISO 19100, it can be used by other data providers for their maritime-related (non-hydrographic) data and information. Various data and information providers from both the government and private sector are now using S-100 as part of the implementation of the e-Navigation concept that has been endorsed by the UN International Maritime Organisation.
The IHO maintains a programme of the meetings of its Council, committees and working groups around the world. The meetings and the meetings of other related International Organisations are promulgated in the calendar on the IHO website.
The following countries are members of the IHO: