Coral reefs and seagrass beds in the Florida Keys grow within inches of the water’s surface and can be found close to shore or several miles from shore. Learning to read water color in the Keys is important. It will help ensure a safe boating experience and it will help preserve our irreplaceable marine communities.
Reef formations that grow close to the water’s surface and shallow seagrass beds will make the water appear brown. Such areas should be avoided to keep from running aground and damaging both your boat and sensitive marine habitats.
White, White you’ll be there all night
Sand bars and shallow rubble areas appear white. These areas can be deceiving and may be much shallower than they appear. Navigate with caution around these areas.
Green, green nice and clean
Green water usually indicates an area free of shallow reefs or seagrass beds. Navigation of small, shallow draft boats in these areas is generally safe. However, larger, deeper draft boats should exercise caution. All boaters should carry and consult the appropriate NOAA marine chart.
Blue, blue cruise on through
Deep water areas, such as the ocean side of a reef may appear blue. Navigation in these areas is free from hazardous contact with reefs or seagrass beds. Remember, however, that coral reefs rise abruptly from deep water so give yourself plenty of room to maneuver.
If you run aground
Turn off your engine immediately. Do not attempt to use your engine to power off the reef or grass flat, which could damage your boat as well as these important habitats. If possible, raise your lower unit or outdrive and allow your vessel to drift free from the shallow areas. If you cannot drift free, radio for assistance on VHF channel 16. Boat groundings can instantly pulverize coral, leaving areas open to infection by disease and devastate a thriving coral reel community that may take hundreds of years to rebuild. Damage to seagrass beds can be equally devastating. Seagrass beds act as a nursery and feeding ground for numerous organisms. They also filter excess nutrients and trap sediments, thereby providing the clean, clear water essential for coral reefs. By running aground or even motoring in very shallow water, boats can scar seagrass beds. These narrow sand channels can grow wider and wider, decreasing the seagrass bed’s ability to protect the reef and provide a healthy community for marine creatures.
Helpful navigation tips
- Use extra caution when there is extensive cloud cover, a glassy calm sea state, extreme sun glare or murky water. These are condition when colors may not be apparent.
- Mooring buoys are located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to keep boaters from damaging coral with their anchors. Some mooring buoys are located near extremely shallow reefs. Do not attempt to motor across a reef to reach a mooring buoy.
- Polarized sunglasses are very helpful in distinguishing water colors.
Do not approach these markers
- Reef light towers are prominent metal A-frame structures with a number posted on them.
- Shoal markers are solitary steel I-beams, standing approximately 10 feet, usually with a diamond-shaped DANGER sign attached.
- Many shallow reef areas are marked by reef light towers or shoal markers. If you look closely, you can determine where the shallow edge of these areas are located.
- Along the reef, there will often be a series of breaking waves.
- Along the edge of seagrass flats, you will frequently see a ripple effect or surface water texture change.
- Shallow sandbars will appear glassy.
Are you a safe boater?
Test your boating knowledge with this simple score sheet.
Select the correct answer(s) – watch out – each question may have more than one correct answer.
- To safely anchor your boat, you should:
- Let out at least three times as much line as it takes to have the anchor reach the bottom.
- Make sure the anchor line points straight down into the water.
- Throw the anchor out as far as you can.
- Stand on the “bitter end” of the rope.
- Always anchor from the bow of the boat.
- The best way to keep from running aground is to:
- Wear polarized sunglasses
- Always know your location relative to your navigational chart
- Know your water colors
- Watch your depth finder
- Keep the VHF radio on channel 16
- When loading a small open boat it is important to:
- Carry as much in your arms as you can to save time when loading the boat
- Distribute the weight so that most of it is in the bow of the boat
- Make sure you do not exceed any of the recommended limits as found on the capacity plate
- Stand up as straight as possible so you can keep your balance
- Leave the mooring lines loose so that the boat doesn’t bank into the dock
- Because a boat does not have brakes, stopping your craft while under the forward motion of the motor involves:
- Throwing out your anchor as quickly as possible
- Using paddles to paddle backwards while turning off the motor
- Putting the throttle or gearshift in reverse thrust
- Turn around as quickly as possible
- Shutting off the engine and allowing your boat to glide to a stop
- Which statements are true about docking your boat:
- Whenever possible, approach the dock into the wind or current, whichever is stronger
- Have your fenders and mooring lines ready before you approach the dock
- Never use your hands or feet to fend the boat off the dock
- Secure the boat at both the bow and the stern
- Shut the engine off before you reach the dock to avoid collision
- Which of the following flag(s) indicate diving activity?
- A red flag with a white diagonal stripe
- A rigid replicate of an “alpha” flag (blue and white swallowtail shape)
- A white flag with an orange diamond on it
- An orange flag with a black square and black ball on it
- A red flag with the silhouette of a diver on it.
- Water that appears either white or brown indicate:
- Polluted water that is unsafe for swimming
- Good areas for anchoring
- Shallow areas beware of running aground
- Channels that lead to deep water
- Optical illusions created by sun and clouds that frequently confuse boaters
- Sitting on the bow of the boat while it is underway is:
- A good way to avoid running aground, since shallow areas are easier to spot
- One method for spotting large schools of fish
- Extremely dangerous and should never be allowed
- Illegal and the boat operator can be stopped and fined by the Florida Marine Patrol
- A good way to keep the bow down in rough water
- If you run aground or find yourself in shallow water you should:
- Stop, turn your motor off, trim it up and wait for high tide to drift free
- Put on your life jackets and leave the boat in a safe and orderly manner
- Get the boat up on plane to minimize the boat’s draft
- Give the boat full throttle to prevent further damage
- Call Captain Pip’s for assistance
- If you encounter a large wake from another boat, you should:
- Slow down
- Point the nose of your boat into the wake
- Tell everyone to hold on
- Run parallel to the wake
- Turn in the opposite direction the wake is traveling
(Answers: 1a,e; 2a,b,c,d; 3c; 4c; 5a,b,c,d; 6a,b; 7c; 8c,d; 9a,e; 10a,b,c)