Navigating the Florida KeysThe keys to safe boating!
Using a GPS
A Global Positioning System (GPS) is a wonderful tool for finding that fishing hole or special location but if you don’t read your water first and understand what you are seeing then the GPS will get you in trouble. Remember a single waypoint is merely a location and not a safe PATH to your destination.
If You Run Aground!
IMMEDIATELY SHUT DOWN THE ENGINE TO IDLE SPEED AND TURN IT OFF. TILT THE ENGINE SO THAT IT IS OUT OF THE WATER OR AS FAR AS POSSIBLE. CALL XXX-XXX-XXXXBY CELL PHONE AND EXPLAIN THE SITUATION. DESCRIBE YOUR WHEREABOUTS BY THE GPS SETTINGS OR MAJOR LANDMARKS. IF YOU ARE FLOATING OFF OF THE BOTTOM OR OBSTRUCTION, MAKE SURE WE KNOW IT. THE BOAT MAY BE TOO DAMAGED TO PROCEED. IF YOUR CELL PHONE CAN NOT MAKE THE CONNECTION, USE THE VHF RADIO…CHANNEL 11.
Mooring Buoys for Diving
Many divers use the state of the art mooring buoy system in the Florida Keys National marine Sanctuary. It is available to anyone that wants to use it. In the Marathon area, you will find these at Coffins Patch and Sombero Light.
General etiquette applies to these buoys. The buoys are on a “first-come first-served” basis, but it is important that you use the buoy, do your diving, and vacate so someone else can enjoy a dive. Remember this buoy system is set up for diving and not fishing. It can be illegal to fishing in these areas.
What to Look For When Operating a Boat in the Keys
Navigating the shallow waters throughout the Florida Keys requires special attention if you are unfamiliar with the waters. Here is an easy way to remember some of the situations you will come across when traveling the Keys by boat.
If you look closely at the picture on the left, you can see the difference between the water colors. The shallow seagrass area appears brown and shows a distinct shallowing of the waters.
BROWN, BROWN...RUN AGROUND
Reef formations that grow close to the surface and shallow sea grass beds will make the water appear BROWN. These areas should be avoided to keep from damaging the boat and sensitive habitats by running aground. Please remember: Anytime you run aground and cause damage to the reef or shallow habitat you may be accessed a fine for that damage. See Code of Federal Regulations: 15 CFR 922 Subpart P.
USE EXTRA CAUTION when there is extensive cloud cover, a glassy calm sea state, extreme sun glare and with murky waters. These are conditions where colors may be be apparent. Polarized sunglasses are always very helpful in these situation and can help detect shallow waters.
WHITE, WHITE...YOU MIGHT
Sand bars and shallow rubble areas appear white. These areas can be deceptively shallow. Navigate with caution around these areas.
As you can see from the picture above, sandbars that show up white can also be quite shallow. The sandbar only shows white because of its composition consists of sand silica and ground coral. Here you can also see brown water at the edge of the sandbar and probably too dangerous to travel over by boat without damaging the the boat or the environment.
GREEN, GREEN...NICE AND CLEAN
Green water usually means areas of shallow reefs or seagrass beds. Navigation of rental boats with shallow drafts in these areas are generally safe. However, larger deeper draft boats still should exercise caution. All boaters should carry and consult the appropriate NOAA chart.
In this picture, you can see the transition between white water (very shallow) to green water and then to blue water. The green water is generally deep enough to travel but still requires some caution because of how rapidly the sandbar can rise from the water.
BLUE, BLUE...CRUISE ON THROUGH
Deep water areas, like the ocean side of a barrier reef will start to show blue waters. Navigation in these areas a usually free from hazardous contact unless there is some floating. Remember however, that coral reefs can rise abruptly from deep water so give yourself plenty of room to maneuver.
Here you are seeing all types of water and all types of depths. The blue water is deep enough to support large sailboat travel with deep keels. You can see the transition areas to the shallower green water and brown waters. White water in this case is the sand that has piled up on the coral base of the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson…too shallow for rental boats.