“Dude, you should write a story about mooring balls,” an agitated dive boat captain rants at me during a cell phone call. “Mooring balls are missing on the Spiegel Grove, Crocker reef, Snapper reef, Rocky Top and the mooring lines on the Eagle are worn out. What’s going on?”
I call Mary Tagliareni, deputy superintendent for operations and education at the Florida National Marine Sanctuary’s Key Largo office, and she says: “You know, we were just thinking about asking you to do a story on mooring buoys. Folks need to know how to properly use them and what the different ones represent.” I tend to be a bit slow at times but then it hits me, “I think I should write a story about mooring buoys.” They are very important for our reef system and are great aids for divers and boaters.
Mooring buoys have been used in the Keys since 1981. They provide a great alternative to traditional anchoring, which can break or damage coral. Buoys also assist with navigation, and identify Sanctuary Preservation and Special-use Research Areas, and Ecological Reserves. Mooring buoys come in two different sizes — 18 inches with blue stripes for mooring on reefs and 24-inch white buoys for mooring larger boats at intentionally sunk ships that serve as artificial reefs. Mooring buoys benefit boaters and divers, especially in stronger currents, by providing secure tie-off locations that keep dive boats from drifting away from wrecks and provide “down” lines that help divers safely descend, ascend and perform safety stops.
Some wrecks have several buoys, and it is a good idea to use the same one going down and coming back up to avoid surface swims in a strong current or the embarrassment of coming up to the wrong dive boat. Turns out both Mary and the dive boat captain have the same concern. They want to make sure the mooring buoys and the lines that secure them are well maintained and kept in place.
This is a tough job with over 490 buoys, a maintenance schedule that varies from 36 to 50 months depending on use and location, a buoy maintenance staff of only 6 (there used to be 9), and a reduced budget. It is made harder because boaters either intentionally or unintentionally damage the buoys and lines and in some cases actually steal buoys as souvenirs. Repairing the buoys and lines is a difficult and sometimes risky job requiring replacing and securing lines on sunken ships at depths of 100 feet, drilling cores and cementing anchoring attachments in coral reefs, and using jack hammers to pound Manta Ray poles into sandy sea bottoms. (The Manta-Ray pole is an anchoring system adapted for underwater use.)
Located about 10 feet below many mooring balls is another smaller buoy, facilitating replacing the top worn portion of mooring line instead of having to replace the entire line. O.K., what can you do to help maintain the buoy system that is so important in preserving our coral reefs and the divers that rely on the buoys for safe, enjoyable dives? Here are some impotent rules. Watch for the bubble of swimmers, snorkelers and divers in areas where mooring buoys are present.
The sanctuary says buoy use is on a first-come, first-served basis. If a buoy in not available, anchor in sand (not coral), and make sure that your chain and anchor are not contacting or dragging over coral. Never attach a buoy’s yellow pick-up line directly to your boat because that puts stress on the buoy and its lines. Retrieve the yellow pickup line with a boat hook; run your boat’s bow line through the loop of the line, and cleat both ends of your bow line to the bow of your boat.
Don’t tie off to a big, yellow ball that doesn’t have a pickup line. It is a SPA or Ecological Reserve marker, and you will have a very bad day if caught by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). I recall one day seeing a fisherman happily fishing while tied up to a SPA marking buoy. We politely told him what he was doing, and he quickly exited the area.
Approach buoys from down wind or down current so the floating yellow pickup line is closest to you. Keep the buoy on the same side of the boat that you are steering, and when picking up the line put your engine in neutral to avoid entanglement. Keep the mooring buoy in sight during the entire hook up and maintain an idle or no-wake speed when approaching a buoy. Always make sure the buoy is securely holding your boat. A loose boat is your responsibility. Let out enough line so the line stays horizontal and the buoy is not pulled underwater. You need to let out more line while moored on rough days or if you are a larger boat to reduce wear on the buoy. Your passengers will appreciate the less bumpy experience.
Tie smaller boats to one another, giving larger boats access to buoys. Lower the large sails on your sailboat when tied to a buoy to reduce strain on the buoy. Buoys are spaced to provide clearance for most boats in normal conditions. Larger-than-average vessels should be careful to check depths when approaching or tying off to a buoy to avoid grounding.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Buoy Program asks boaters, in waters from Key Largo to Marathon who find a lost buoy or see a damaged or missing buoy or buoy line to call 305-852-7717. For Marathon through Key West and the Tortugas, the number to call is 305-809-4700.
For more information on the buoy system see:
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.