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Wave Watch buoys aim to improve safety for boaters in the Apostle Islands

Buoys will be installed at 5 sites within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Waves crashing against sandstone cliffs in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Photo by Jeff Rennicke

Kayakers and boaters heading out to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior will soon be able to check on real-time wave and temperature conditions on the water with the help of solar-powered smart buoys.

A handful of the solar-powered buoys will soon be installed around the islands in the hope of improving safety in areas where changing conditions can quickly turn dangerous for boaters and paddlers.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are partnering with the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the National Park Service to launch the buoys. It’s a relaunch of a program that was discontinued last year because of a lack of funding.

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The devices were first installed in 2021 as part of the Water Information for a Safe Coast Watch, or WISC-Watch, program. The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, Wisconsin Sea Grant and UW-Madison provided initial funding for the project.

Partners placed the buoys around the islands in 2021 and 2022, but the program discontinued last year when funding dried up. Jeff Rennicke, executive director of the Friends group, said they have now made a two-year commitment to fund the university’s work for $25,000 each year under a new campaign called Wave Watch.

“Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area and has a mind of its own when it comes to weather,” Rennicke said. “When you throw into that mix the islands and the effects of wind and current on waves for boaters in the islands, the need is pretty clear.”

Kayaker explores the Apostle Islands sea caves
A kayaker exploring the Apostle Island sea caves. The nonprofit group Friends of the Apostle Islands is raising money to install a ramp that would enhance accessibility at Meyers Beach for visitors who live with mobility issues. Photo courtesy of Jeff Rennicke

Buoys launched after tragic accidents within the Apostle Islands

Around 247,000 people visited the Apostle Islands last year, two-thirds visiting during the summer months.

The smart buoy program was developed after boating accidents in the area in recent years. In one incident in 2018, a father and three children died, while the mother survived, during a kayaking accident on a family trip to Michigan Island from Madeline Island.

Last year, data from the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Bayfield shows search and rescue crews responded to 25 incidents, at least half of which occurred in the islands. In 2022, crews responded to 16 cases overall.

Chin Wu, a civil and environmental engineering professor at UW-Madison, said conditions on Lake Superior can change very quickly due to the sheltering effects of the islands. As boaters and kayakers head into open waters, they can be caught off-guard by higher waves. Once the buoys are installed, they will measure water temperatures along with the height, direction and period of waves or how far apart they occur.

“The data will provide guidance for people. Particularly when they go out kayaking or on a fishing boat, they will know this wave information,” Wu said. “Then, they will know how to judge whether they should go out or if they should avoid it.”

Wu said he was approached by officials with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore about the lack of information for kayakers and boaters about wave conditions in the area.

As a result, Wu and other researchers sought to fill that gap. The buoys will collect real-time data every half hour that’s transmitted via satellite rather than relying on cell towers, which may be too far from remote areas of the islands to transmit data.

Rennicke said the buoys will be placed along the mainland sea caves in Mawikwe Bay, Sand Island, Devils Island, Stockton Island and Long Island. The National Park Service is providing in-kind support through staff and resources to launch the buoys.

Waves On Stockton Island
Waves crash against the shore of Stockton Island. Photo courtesy of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

“Boating conditions are so unpredictable and water is so cold on Lake Superior that we are partnering with Friends of the Apostle Islands to try to share the most accurate, current information about weather conditions around the islands as possible,” Lucas Westcott said, spokesperson for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Each buoy will be equipped with a light and a flag that will be visible amid the waves. Data collected from the buoys will be available on the Friends website. The group is also offering free stickers or clings for boats with a QR code that people can scan to obtain the data online. Rennicke said they’re planning to launch them in the islands late this month or early June, weather permitting.

“We will never take the danger out of Lake Superior,” Rennicke said. “But we just want to make sure that boaters have the right information right when they need it for where they’re going.”

Once launched, the buoys will remain out in the islands until September.

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