Marine Night Vision for Boats and Boaters
Navigating a tricky harbor or one you don’t know well can be a challenge even in daylight hours, but at night the task is multiplied many times. Ditto for crossing a broad shoal in low light, where the markers are more likely to be pieces of PVC pipe stuck in the sand rather than 20-foot-tall lighted channel markers. And of course night operation always presents possible unmarked hazards that can pop up out of nowhere, like an angler drowsing in his unlighted boat, on the exact path you choose to travel across an open bay or a palm log floating just awash, smack in the middle of the channel. That’s why it makes sense for anglers who frequently leave before dawn or return after sundown to invest in a high-quality night-vision device, a device that in effect turns night into day. Considering that some multi-engine open fishermen cost upwards of a million dollars and the sky is the limit for big sportfishers, top-end marine night vision for boats can be seen as an added form of insurance for those who operate in low-light conditions.
Those who leave the docks in the dark might be big-money billfish or king mackerel tournament anglers, swordfish anglers looking for a night-bite, tarpon anglers fishing famed Boca Grande Pass in Florida, and charter boat operators headed for the oil rigs of the Gulf Coast who want to be there for the dawn bite.
While the best night-vision systems are pricey, their ability to see in the most minimal light conditions—on starlight alone in clear air—makes them worth the spend. They virtually turn night into day and you become sort of like the Navy SEALS, known to boast that they “own the night” due to their night vision equipment.
There are two routes to allowing our eyes to see after dark with current technology. Conventional night vision gear intensifies reflected star, moon or manmade light electronically, while less common infrared thermal imaging equipment reads residual heat radiated from an object. Night vision systems for recreational use are most commonly the type that intensifies reflected light.
Systems are classified by “generations”, based on when they were originated and on their capabilities.
Least expensive Generation I equipment increases light about 500 fold and range is 75 to 100 yards in good conditions, which might be adequate night vision for boats that are smaller and operate in lakes, rivers and nearshore coastal areas. More expensive Gen II products amplify light about 10,000 times but at lower resolution and have ranges to around 200 yards, depending on conditions.
The newer—and most expensive—Gen III units amplify light 30,000 to 40,000 times and provide sharp images at longer ranges, up to 300 yards in favorable conditions. (Rain, fog, smoke and mist can cut down visibility dramatically, however.)
Among the best are the new PD systems from Photonis Defense, a company that for over 40 years has supplied night-vision equipment to military operators around the world. Built to survive battlefield conditions, including some models that function as weapons sights, Photonis gear is more than capable of surviving conditions on a sportfishing boat.
According to company VP Sean Kirk, in clear air the Photonis PD systems, available in both monocular or binocular models, allow excellent viewing with only starlight to aid the equipment, making them perfect night vision for boats.
“Our systems are ideal for use around the water,” Kirk said. “All of them are rated to survive immersion up to 33 feet deep, and the submersible models are rated to survive immersion to 66 feet, so the spray and salt encountered in rough seas are just not going to be a problem.”
Kirk says the PD systems are also engineered to handle the bumps and bruises of offshore life with ease and make great night vision for boaters.
“Our equipment is built to survive battlefield conditions, and a lot of it has for years,” he said. “Use in marine recreational situations, including rough seas at speed, is not likely to be an issue.”
Photonis offers two models particularly suited to be used as marine night vision goggles. The PD Pro M 16mm Monocular is a single-eye system that can be used like a telescope, or mounted on a helmet for hands-free operation. It’s 58% smaller and 38% lighter than competing premium night vision monoculars, making it easier to carry, handle and stow than others, according to the company.
An aerospace aluminum alloy housing makes the system environmentally resistant to extreme heat, cold and salt. German proprietary optical coatings on the lenses add to the clarity and color of images. Battery life with a lithium battery is about 25 hours of steady use at 72 degrees F, according to the company. The weight is just 9 ounces, and it’s small enough to fit in a jacket pocket.
Another important feature is that the 4G image intensifier tubes are equipped with the fastest “auto-gating” in the industry. This is a system that reacts over 3 times faster than the blink of an eye to sudden lighting transitions, such as a lightning flash or someone turning on a spotlight, conditions that can temporarily blind a viewer with less effective night vision systems.
Photonis Defense also makes a binocular system, the PD Pro B 16mm Binocular, function like standard binoculars with two tube viewing and are perfect for use as marine night vision binoculars. It’s 32%lighter and 25% smaller than any competing night-vision binocular, according to Photonis—light enough to be worn on a lanyard around the neck, at hand anytime you need a quick look ahead while underway. The device allows users to see 30% more of the visible light spectrum in low light conditions, and also has the coated, precision-ground German lenses like the monocular model. It functions for up to 20 hours with a lithium battery.
Both models are available in exterior housing colors including standard black, desert tan and olive green. These are premium systems with premium pricing that are designed for those who want, and can afford, the very best on the market when purchasing a boat night vision system. Price for the monocular is about $5000, and for the binocular about $10,000. Visit www.photonisdefense.com for details.