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Another Safety Measure in Place for Apostle Island Sea Cave Kayakers

The SeaCavesWatch.org real-time wave observation system for the mainland sea caves at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior just got even more useful. The system, installed two years ago, provides photos and data about conditions at the sea caves that kayakers can access on the Web before venturing out.

This week, project organizers installed a real-time wave kiosk system (RTWKS) at Meyers Beach, the launch site for the sea caves. With the kiosk, recreationalists can check Sea CavesWatch.org while they are on-site and receive the latest and future information about wave height, water temperature and wind speed.

“Often, it can take several hours for people to get to the launch site,” said Chin Wu, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-developer of the project. “With the RTWKS, they can check conditions right before they go on the water to ensure that they are still safe.”

“Cell phone signals are weak at the launch site, and visitors don’t always have smartphones to check conditions,” said Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. “So we wanted to provide the kiosk where they can access the website reliably. It can save lives and it’s also useful for park rangers dealing with sea cave emergencies. We can get up-to-the minute information that makes it much safer for us.”

Waves at the mainland sea caves can be particularly dangerous because of the bowl-like rock cliffs that reflect and amplify waves. Another complicating factor is that wave conditions can’t be seen from the sea cave launch site at Meyers Beach, which is a mile and a half away from the caves.

“Once at the caves, there’s no place to get out,” said Gene Clark, coastal engineering specialist with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and the other co-developer of the project. “So if a kayaker gets into trouble, there’s no place to go other than into the water.”

This can quickly lead to hypothermia and even death. Over the years, several kayakers were rescued at the sea caves and two have died. Wave conditions and cold water were a factor in these tragedies.

With the push of a large red button, the RTWKS displays real-time wave climate on a 22-inch monitor. The system, developed by Josh Anderson, Wu’s PhD student, is self-sustained through the use of solar power. The RTWKS is designed to be energy efficient by entering sleep mode after a certain amount of time.

The SeaCavesWatch.org project was funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and Friends of the Apostle Islands. Other project partners include the National Park Service, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and the city of Bayfield.