Of all the things that Captain John Smith may have been thinking when he explored the Bay in a cumbersome wooden barge, one thing can be fairly certain.

The 17th century explorer never envisioned a day when someone in a Kevlar kayak would paddle up to an solar-powered buoy (bearing the explorer’s name, no less), tap into a WiFi network linked to distant computers via satellite and download a host of information about where they were, and what the water quality conditions were like.

But that may soon happen.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is drawing up plans for a system of high-tech buoys that would mark the route of the proposed Capt.John Smith Chesapeake Bay National Historic Water Trail.

The buoys would collect real-time data about local wind, waves and water quality, and pass it—as well as historical and other information—on to local boaters as well as distant Internet users.

“We envision some kind of interactive buoy so that as you went on your kayaking or boating trip, you could come up and get information about the local environment, how it supports the ecosystem, and what you can do to help,” said NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher at a recent Chesapeake Bay Education Summit sponsored by National Geographic Society and the Bay Program. “You would be able to interrogate the buoy.”

The John Smith buoys would be part of a larger, Baywide monitoring system which, in turn, is part of a Mid-Atlantic system. That would be part of a national Integrated Ocean Observing System. And that, eventually, would be a component of a Global Ocean Observing System. Such a network could have a host of benefits, such as improving weather and natural disaster predictions, better understanding the impact of global climate change on coastal communities, reducing public health risks from pollution and harmful algae blooms, and gathering information that would help protect marine ecosystems and resources.

“We are engaged now in building a global Earth observing system of systems,” Lautenbacher said, noting that 58 countries have signed onto the concept. “We are on our way to building something that I think can spread what we want to do here in the Chesapeake around the world.”

Such a system could be hugely expensive. Despite the lofty goals—and obvious benefits—funding such a system in tight budget times could prove difficult. And many advocates acknowledge that will be a key hurdle.

“Everyone can see the vision of the system, but the next step is ‘Where is my product?’” said Bill Boicourt, an oceanographer with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The general reaction of funding agencies, he said, is “if it’s not needs-driven—and research doesn’t count—then why do it?”

Boicourt oversaw the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Observing System 15 years ago—a system of buoys with real-time monitoring devices that gathered information about wind and waves to help better understand the Bay’s circulation. At one point, the system had as many as seven buoys operating in the Chesapeake. Its data has been used in numerous scientific papers on subjects ranging from fisheries to Bay circulation. It has been used to help develop highly sophisticated models of the Bay which, among other things, help predict how the estuary would respond to cleanup actions. The National Weather Service has used the data to better understand how the Bay influences local weather.

Yet funding has been sporadic; only two buoys are operating now. The key to developing and maintaining the Bay, national and international systems envisioned, Boicourt and others say, is assembling a system that doesn’t just collect information—but packages information into products that people care about.

There is a growing demand for this information. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources launched a shallow water monitoring system several years ago to document water quality in areas that had gone largely unmonitored, using sophisticated equipment that checked conditions round-the-clock.

Because the department does not have the resources to monitor all shallow water areas, the plan called for setting up the system in a river for three years, then moving it elsewhere.

But the department has found some local sponsors, including local governments, who are willing to help maintain monitoring devices on a more permanent basis.

Anne Arundel County supports two monitoring sites at Sandy Point State Park to keep tabs on water quality at the beach. Harford County funds a device in the Bush River, which drains much of the county, so they can determine the impacts to the river from increased development and whether their programs are protecting the river.

“If we can develop these partnerships, we can actually maintain more long-term sites,” said Bruce Michael, who heads the program. The data all goes into the DNR’s Eyes on the Bay website, which he said has proven popular with the public.

“Fishermen hit it all the time because certain species are tied to certain temperatures. They want to see where the optimal areas are,” Michael said. “Our tributary team members are interested in finding out water quality conditions in their particular tributary. So it has been extremely beneficial for a public awareness issue of what is going on out there.”

Doug Wilson, of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, is leading an effort with Boicourt to create an expansive system that incorporates a host of data from buoys, Maryland’s shallow water monitoring system, and a host of other sources, and puts it in a central location where the data can be tapped into via the Internet. The system would adopt the name of Boicourt’s buoy network—the Chesapeake Bay Observing System—but apply it to a broader system with more users—and more supporters. They are also working to fulluy coordinate the emerging Bay system with the national ocean observing system.

An expanded Baywide network would allow for better predictions of waves—possibly the product most in-demand from the public—and storm surges from hurricanes. Riverkeepers and watershed groups could tap into it for information about water quality—and possibly sponsor monitoring sites of their own. “Everybody is part of the big picture,” Wilson said.

The John Smith buoys also fit into that bigger picture. But users wouldn’t be limited to boaters. The water quality information would be used by scientists and government agencies—Michael said the DNR is anxious for more data from the Potomac, for instance. And it could be tapped into by students and others far away who want information about the Bay in John Smith’s time—and today.

“We are going to develop a historical and environmental and geographic education module around the information that comes back from [the buoys],” Wilson said. “Obviously we need to incorporate some water quality parameters because that is an important aspect of education. But we also plan to be able to do live camera feeds, so you can see conditions out on the water.”

For example, a buoy might be placed at Stingray Point on the Piankatank River, where Smith and his crew hunted fish in the shallow water with their swords. Smith was stung by a stingray and nearly died—then recovered and ate the stingray for dinner. Environmental monitors might let people in distant locations see real-time images to determine whether the water is clear enough to hunt fish with swords—or covered with an algae bloom.

“There are some good stories you could put together tying that sort of historical information to what is happening now,” Wilson said. “It can link people a little more closely to what is happening on the Bay.”

Certainly, it’s a link John Smith could not have imagined on his explorations. “He didn’t even know what was up the trail,” Wilson noted. “He was making the map as he went.”

To see CBOS data, visit www.cbos.org

To see Eyes on the Bay data, visit www.eyesonthebay.net