Bay Journal

Bay’s new smart buoys: You are here and so was Smith

  • By Karl Blankenship on June 01, 2007
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The buoy, deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office on May 12, is the first of several “smart buoys” that will mark the route of Smith’s Bay explorations.  (NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office)

When kayakers or other boaters come upon the new buoy off Jamestown, they don’t have to check their location on the map. They can just pull out their cell phone and let the buoy tell them.

With a quick call, today’s high-tech adventurers can get their exact longitude and latitude, learn they are in 43 feet of water—and that a statue of Capt. John Smith is staring straight at them a quarter mile away on the shoreline of the Jamestown National Historic Site.

The buoy, a font of geographical, natural and historical information, also provides data about wind, waves and weather.

Boaters and the general public can dial the buoy and hear Chesapeake Bay Foundation naturalist John Page Williams provide a natural and historical context for the site, noting for instance that the Native Americans called the James the Powhatan River after their supreme leader, and that it carried huge springtime spawning runs of fish, including “amazingly large” Atlantic sturgeon that measured 12–14 feet in length.

The buoy, deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office on May 12, is the first of several “smart buoys” that will mark the route of Smith’s Bay explorations.

“We like to call them ‘smart buoys’ because they not only gather weather and water information and mark certain historic locations, but they are fully interactive with users—whether in a boat on the Bay or in a classroom,” said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, the head of NOAA, during a buoy dedication ceremony.

During the summer, two more buoys will be deployed, one off the mouth of the Potomac River and one off the Patapsco River, creating what NOAA calls the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System. Additional buoys may be placed in the future if additional funding is available from NOAA or other sources.

The buoys cost about $120,000 each, and transmit information to shore over the Verizon Wireless Broadband data network, allowing it to be accessed by anyone using a telephone or the Internet. The buoys are expected to be in the water all the time unless threatened by ice or other damaging conditions.

Monitoring devices on the buoys provide callers—and Internet users—with wave, current, temperature and water quality information, such as chlorophyll a and dissolved oxygen concentrations.

Other high-tech buoys also offer information about local conditions and water quality over the Internet, but the new system goes further by adding historic and geographical information—and making it available via cell phone, which increases its accessibility for paddlers and boaters.

The notion of launching a new generation of buoys in the Bay was promoted by organizations promoting the new Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, who envisioned a new state-of-the-art system marking the route of Smith’s explorations and to serve as an educational tool.

Teachers can use information from the buoys in their classrooms to talk about water conditions and how they change from day to day—as well as since Smith explored the area—and how this affects plants and animals living in the Chesapeake. NOAA’s Bay Office is developing an “Estuaries 101” curriculum that helps teachers use the buoys to teach about marine science.

“We hope that by providing the historical context, people can compare the then and now, and that it engages their interest,” said Peyton Robertson, acting director of NOAA’s Bay Office. “That makes them want to engage in stewardship behaviors.”

The buoys were developed after meetings with stakeholder groups, including boaters, educators, buoy manufacturers and technology companies, to see what types of information people would like that could be provided by the smart buoys.

It’s a prototype for how other buoys may be used in the future, said Doug Wilson, a research oceanographer with NOAA’s Bay Office. For example, many people go online each day to check out the wind conditions being reported at the Thomas Point buoy. That could be changed someday to also provide information about the adjacent Thomas Point Lighthouse, which is the target of a restoration effort.

“It is almost a waste that people go into that site just to look at the wind because you could get so much more information,” Wilson said.

Eventually, NOAA envisions a coastwide system of smart buoys that not only provide information to boaters, but also engage the public in coastal and ocean protection.

To access information from the buoys call 1-877-BUOY-BAY (286-9229) or visit www.buoybay.org.

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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