Buoying the Health of the Bay

A flotilla of big, yellow buoys bobs in Chesapeake Bay. The smart buoys of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System do more than help boaters steer a safe passage — though they do that, too.

With their monitoring equipment and advanced satellite technology, these smart buoys give scientists, boaters, educators — anyone interested in the Bay — daily real-time data about the estuary.

The first buoys went to work near Jamestown, Virginia, in May, 2007, during the 400th anniversary celebration of the colony’s founding. Eight other buoys have since joined the Chesapeake flotilla at the mouths of the Patapsco, Potomac, Rappahannock, Severn, and Susquehanna rivers; in the Elizabeth River off Norfolk; and in the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. The most recent was dropped on July 27 near Gooses Reef, just west of the Little Choptank River.

Sensors on the buoys collect real-time readings on weather, plus oceanographic and water-quality observations. With satellite and Internet technology, the data is transmitted wirelessly to computers in laboratories, classrooms, boat decks and living rooms. Scientists and environmentalists now monitor exactly what’s happening in the Bay — and Bay restoration. The same buoys keep commercial and recreational boaters up to the minute on water conditions, including water and air temperatures and wave height.

Smart enough?

These smart buoys are smarter still. They also teach history.

Follow the Yellow Buoy Trail

The first European to explore the Chesapeake was English explorer John Smith. He sailed the whole Bay and its big rivers in 1607-’08, mapping and recording his observations.

Four hundred years later, the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Water Trail follows in his wake.

Traditional trail markers — painted blazes or cairns — couldn’t keep up on the 3,000-plus miles Smith and his men covered in a little open boat. This trail needed its own special marking system. Four years ago, trail-founder and conservationist Patrick F. Noonan sat down with thinkers from the National Geographic Society and NOAA to imagine a buoy system providing multiple benefits — to science, mariners and anglers. And, of course, marking the historic water trail.

Thus began the smart buoy system.

“The buoys embody what the trail is all about,” said Chesapeake Conservancy president David O’Neill. “To get people to learn about Capt. Smith’s voyage and to understand the conditions of the Bay then and now, and to experience landscapes evocative of what Capt. Smith experienced will encourage the restoration of the Bay.”

The buoys mark the trail from its southernmost point at the Elizabeth River off Norfolk to the northern terminus at the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

The buoys have a lot to say, but they don’t actually talk. There is no button to push or speaker on board.

Instead, the buoys talk to your cell phone, transmitting narratives on natural and cultural history. Like podcasts, these vignettes describe the waterway’s history to trail-goers and shore-bound virtual travelers.

You don’t need a boat, just Internet access, to follow the trail. It’s all there at www.buoybay.org. Use the map to plan a trip on the trail. When on the water, cruise or paddle to a buoy, call it using your cell phone (877-BUOY-BAY) or dial up the website on an Internet-accessible device and learn about that very place on the Chesapeake in 1608.

Curious what the water quality conditions in the Bay were like in 1607? Click on any buoy to pull up a comparison between current water quality conditions and those Smith would likely have encountered.

One of the buoys sits off Stingray Point in Virginia. The point was named for Smith’s painful encounter with a ray. The Stingray Point smart buoy will tell you the story.

These are darn smart buoys.

Big Yellow Labs

The smart buoys tell a vivid story of the Chesapeake environment Smith encountered.

But they have more to offer than a trip through history. Much of their value lies in their ability to record current environmental conditions and deliver the data in near real time. If you’ve got Internet access and a Bay question, a smart buoy likely has your answer.

“Many different agencies are utilizing this data for their own research,” said oceanographer Doug Wilson, NOAA’s Maryland Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy Systems project manager. “The Coast Guard and Maryland Department of Natural Resources are using it, the National Weather Service is using it to augment their forecasts, and the EPA is using it.”

Teachers are using it too, introducing smart buoys to their classes as teachers of the environment, science and math.

“It’s the power of real-time data, not just numbers,” Wilson explains of the buoys’ instructional value. “It is something you can relate to because it is actually happening. Look out the window as the trees are blowing and compare that to what’s happening that same moment at one of the buoys. Then look again, 10 minutes later, and the data changes.”

Mariners also benefit from the information beamed from the buoys.

“We can call up all the buoys on our computer and learn about the conditions we’re heading into,” said Sonney Forrest, captain of Reel Relief Charters and president of the Solomons Charter Captains Association. “How are the winds? What about the tidal conditions? Do I need to speed up or slow down?”

Forrest foresees even more benefits.

“Anglers can call up the buoy in the morning before heading out and check weather conditions. Are they favorable for the size of watercraft? Are they favorable for the fish?

“This buoy is going to help us find the fish,” the charter captain said. “High salinity brings in pelagic species, like Spanish mackerel. And spade fish and sea bass normally in the lower part of the Bay. When salinity rises, they will move up north.”

These very smart buoys serve an all-you-can-eat buffet of information to all sorts of people on and off of the water.

The Ninth — and Smartest — Buoy

The newest of the buoys is also the smartest of the class.

Paid for with a $200,000 grant from the Dominion Foundation, the buoy bears the name of the Dominion energy conglomerate, whose holdings include Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal in Calvert County.

“This buoy is the first of its kind,” smart buoy project manager Wilson said.

Like the other eight buoys, it monitors conditions at the surface. But it’s the only one that also monitors water quality at the bottom, the bottom being Dominion Reef at the Gooses, an 80-acre artificial reef constructed with pieces from the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Dominion Foundation supported the $250,000 reef as well, from concrete to seeding.

A separate sensor, housed in a cage, sits on the bottom, about 35 feet down. Information gathered by a dissolved-oxygen sensor is transmitted by radio to the buoy above. For the first time, water conditions on the bottom can be studied in real-time, not just when researchers arrive on-site to grab a sample.

When dead zones are forecast, “we don’t really know the extent, how long they last, exactly where they are and how bad they are,” Wilson explains. “Now we have something down there reporting the dissolved oxygen levels every 10 minutes.”

Within 30 minutes of hitting the bottom, the sensor was sending up data. The news was not good, especially for a fishing reef.

“That first reading was basically zero,” Wilson said. “It was a dead zone. No fish spending time there.”

Data a week later offered some relief.

“We saw the levels moving up,” Wilson said. “And now these last few days it’s almost reached saturation. The bad water has moved away and is being replaced by healthy, oxygenated water. This week’s levels almost reached 80 percent oxygen saturation.”

Good thing for the fish, the fishermen and the oysters on the reef.

Before this buoy was set July 27, these changes in water quality might have been missed. Now scientists have data to help them figure out what’s going on down there.

“We’re trying to understand the events that cause oxygen saturation,” Wilson said. “Is it wind? Tides? Now with the wind and tidal information at that buoy, we can put it all together. Not just knowing it happens, but why it happens, how long it lasts and being able to watch it is as it happens. Is this a long-term or transient event? There’s so much we can learn by applying these new technologies.”

Hope Rides on Yellow Shoulders

A flotilla of boats circled buoy tender M/V J.C. Widener as it dropped the smart buoy and its bottom sensor onto the Gooses. Applause erupted as the yellow buoy was lifted overboard. Its anchor, made of three old train wheels each weighing 500 pounds, splashed into the Bay.

Charter captain Forrest had reason to clap.

Oxygen levels and water temperature — reported in real-time by the buoy and sensor — affect the fishing.

“When the water gets 85, 86 degrees, we watch for it to cool off,” Forrest explained. “Hot water loses oxygen quicker than cold water. When there are low oxygen levels we know there are no fish down deep. When the oxygen gets to be less than two percent, the fish leave. Now we can learn where the fish go, thanks to this buoy.”

As we cruised back toward land, the Bay looked perfect. Pleasure boats shared the water with commercial fishermen and giant ocean-going cargo ships. A graceful skipjack sailed out of time across the southern horizon.

The view is deceptive.

“On the surface, the Bay certainly looks healthy,” said NOAA spokeswoman Kim Couranz, our hostess for the trip. “But it’s not.”

As if on cue, in came the first reading from the newly deployed Goose Reef buoy bottom sensor. The news was bad. The reef was surrounded by a dead zone.

There is still much work needed to return the Bay to the healthy estuarine environment Capt. John Smith admired.

The smart buoys, all nine of them, have a lot riding on their big yellow shoulders.

Learn more

Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System: www.buoybay.org

NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office: www.chesapeakebay.noaa.gov

Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail: www.smithtrail.net

Maryland Department of Natural Resources: www.eyesonthebay.net