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Successful Sea Caves Watch Project Saves Lives, Changes Hands

A public safety project designed to prevent kayaking tragedies at the popular mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has been turned over by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to the National Park Service and several partners.

SeaCavesWatch.org is a real-time wave observation system that provides webcam photos and wave height, water temperature and wind speed data to kayakers, who can access the website before venturing out on Lake Superior to the sea caves. The website is also available via a special kiosk at the boat launch site at Meyers Beach in the national lakeshore.

The original project was co-led by Chin Wu, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Gene Clark, a coastal engineer with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. Josh Anderson was lead student researcher on the project. It was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and the Friends of the Apostle Islands, with support by the City of Bayfield. The National Park Service was involved in the project from the onset and provided significant in-kind support.

“The original focus was summer wave conditions but with the addition of the webcam, the system emerged as a vitally important year-round tool,” said Bob Krumenaker, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore superintendent, “especially in winter 2014, when record visitation to the ice-covered caves made international news.”

In recognition that SeaCavesWatch.org was crucial to operations at the caves in both summer and winter, the National Park Service sought to move it from status as a “project” to a regular part of its work plan. The park will be aided by the original partners, who finalized a Memorandum of Understanding outlining their roles recently in Bayfield at the lakeshore headquarters.

“It’s changed our park protocols,” said Krumenaker. “We’ve made a commitment to the system and plan to continue it in the long-term. Before our staff go out the caves or before we open the caves to the public in the winter, our motto is, ‘check the camera first!’ ”

“Since SeaCavesWatch.org went online, it’s contributed to a reduction in mishaps in the park,” said Dick Carver with the Friends of the Apostle Islands. “We went from four kayaker deaths in a five-year-period to none in the past five years.”

The mainland sea caves can be dangerous because of the possibility for high waves, and the sheer cliffs, which make it impossible for kayakers to get out of the water if they get into trouble.

“There’s a misconception that because the caves are close to shore, they’re safe,” said Tam Hofman, ranger at Meyers Beach. “But conditions can change quickly out on the lake, especially near the rock cliffs and caves, and you can’t always see that from the launch site.”

The website is accessed about 96,000 times per year. According to Clark, with Wisconsin Sea Grant, the webcam was originally meant as an experimental way to monitor wave conditions at the caves. “But now it’s invaluable,” he said. “We didn’t have that vision at first.”

Under the new agreement, Wisconsin Sea Grant will provide coastal engineering expertise as needed and public outreach and communications for the project. The University of Wisconsin-Madison will provide technical assistance for equipment operation and website maintenance. The National Park Service will deploy and retrieve the underwater wave pressure gage and cable seasonally, provide basic equipment maintenance, and provide wireless service funding. The Friends of the Apostle Islands will provide funding for project activities and travel, and the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and the City of Bayfield will provide advice and public awareness support. The agreement is effective for five years.

“The goal was to make people using the caves feel safe,” said Wu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s been gratifying to be part of a project that’s had an impact and has made a difference.”

Wu is using what he’s learned for webcam and wave sensor installations in three other locations to help detect and forecast rip currents. The locations are Milwaukee; Port Washington, Wis.; and Park Point in Duluth, Minn. The images and data will soon be available on http://infosportwashington.cee.wisc.edu/index.html.