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Coastal Tourism: Sea Caves Watch Project Saves Lives, Changes Hands

Coastal Tourism: Sea Caves Watch Project Saves Lives, Changes Hands

No deaths have occurred near the Apostle Islands sea caves since the website went online in 2011

By Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

The beautiful and popular sea caves along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin have been made less deadly for the foreseeable future thanks to Wisconsin Sea Grant and other partners. SeaCavesWatch.org is a real-time wave observation system designed to prevent kayaking tragedies from occurring. The website provides webcam photos and wave height, water temperature and wind speed data to kayakers, who can access it 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 sheer cliffs that make up the mainland Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin can make kayaking hazardous. Image: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

“Since SeaCavesWatch 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 since the site went online in 2011.”

An economic report showed that in 2015, over 230,000 people visited the lakeshore and spent $36 million in communities near it. That spending supported 570 jobs and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $44 million -- and the mainland sea caves are one of the major draws. However, the 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. If conditions are right during winter, the ice-covered caves are a popular destination for visitors to walk to across the lake ice. But ice conditions can deteriorate quickly on Lake Superior due to wind and air temperature changes.

“There’s a misconception that because the cave 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 Meyers Beach.”

Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Image: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

The original project was co-led by Chin Wu, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Gene Clark, a coastal engineer with Wisconsin Sea Grant. Josh Anderson was the lead student researcher. Funding was provided 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. However, in recognition that SeaCavesWatch.org was crucial to operations at the caves in both summer and winter, the park service changed its status in 2015 from a “project” to a regular part of its work plan. The original partners will work with the park under the new five-year agreement.

“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. “It’s changed our park protocols. Before our staff go out to the caves or before we open the caves to the public in winter, our motto is, ‘check the camera first!’ “

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

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