Magnifying Glasses

Marine binoculars bring you closer to the action.

August 10, 2013

Of all our senses, vision surely ranks as our most important for fishing, and over the years, many products have been developed to help stack the odds in our eyes’ favor. Polarized sunglasses allow us to better see fish beneath the water’s surface — but what about when we’re far offshore, scanning above the horizon for, say, diving birds?



Mike Mazur

While nothing will ever replace a great set of peepers, a quality pair of marine-grade binoculars can be worth its weight in gold. The technology available in today’s products has made this equipment truly indispensable for blue‑water anglers.

Magnifications and Objectives

Now, wait — before you go digging through the closet looking for that old set of bird-watchers you had as a kid, understand that the requirements for boating binoculars are very different from those of land-based products.


To start with — and this might sound strange at first — it’s not always a good thing to be able to see too far on the water.

“A marine environment is constantly in motion, and many regular binoculars simply have too much magnification,” explains Chuck Hawley, vice president of product information at West Marine. “The general rule of thumb is that you can use binoculars on boats up to about a 7x magnification. Go higher, and the view usually gets too bouncy.”

That’s because magnifying a small object in the distance means shrinking the field of vision around it — often causing the object to bounce in and out of view with the waves.


| |Whether using a standard pair of 7×50 marine binoculars (top) or a highly specialized product like FLIR’s BHM-XR+ (above), enhancing vision on the water assists with navigation and fishing.|

Another important characteristic of marine binoculars is the size of the objective, or the larger, front lens. In general, the wider the objective, the more light enters, enhancing vision. Objectives on most marine products are either 50mm or 30mm in diameter, and while it makes sense to go with a larger objective, this usually adds significant weight to the product, making it “a personal choice as to what feels most comfortable in your hands,” Hawley says.

Of course, as with all marine‑grade products, binoculars designed for the sea must be built tough. No exceptions here.


“All our marine binoculars are constructed with Makrolon, a reinforced plastic,” says Dennis Phillips, marketing manager at Steiner. “This is wrapped in a rubber coating, which is impervious to oil, suntan lotions, solvents, diesel and such. It gives you a good grip, especially in a wet environment, and protects the body from bumps and bruises.”

Should the coating ever fade or wear, it is easily replaced at the Steiner factory. “We can put a new one on in a matter of minutes and have it back to a customer within three days,” Phillips says.

All Steiner’s high-end Commander XP products are built to mil spec; they can withstand a drop from six feet and be submerged in water up to 30 feet deep. They also have a 30-year warranty.


“People tell me they bought a pair of Commander XPs 25 years ago and have gone around the world four times, and they’re still good as new,” Phillips says. “But you pay for that — Commander XPs start at $550 and go to more than $1,000.”

Get Your Bearings

For the price, premium ­binoculars incorporate loads of other features. Most Commander XPs, for example, come with a built-in stabilized compass.

Positioned atop the binocular itself, the compass on Steiner models — and most other brands, as well — displays bearings within the eyepieces, superimposed at the bottom right of the barrels.

“We put a dampening material, a viscous fluid, in the compass,” says Phillips, “so if you’re bouncing around on a boat, your reading is not going to fluctuate dramatically.”

This compass setup can assist in navigation, especially in hard-to-see conditions, allowing a mate to look for distant channel markers (or other boats) while simultaneously calling out coordinates to the captain. It can also be used effectively for fishing under similar circumstances. A mate or angler can scan the horizon for flocks of birds or feeding fish and quickly report coordinates.

“Being able to take a bearing with a compass that’s built into a pair of binoculars is a really useful thing,” says Hawley. “The combination of magnification of sight and collections of bearings can actually be a lifesaver.”

Stabilize That View

But what if you’re faced with large seas that make using even ­standard 7x binoculars difficult? It’s time to consider a pair of image-stabilizing binoculars.

These products allow comfortable viewing with much greater magnification (up to 18x power, in some cases) because they compensate for movement, such as a pitching boat. Consequently, the image you see in the eyepieces is, well, stabilized.

“These stabilized products are more expensive (generally in the $2,000 to $6,000 range),” says Hawley, “but really helpful if you want maximum ­magnification on a moving platform.”

Bipin Patel, sales associate for the optical division of Fujifilm North America, says his company offers two types of stabilized binoculars. The Stabiscope is an old-fashioned gyro model, and the Techno-Stabi is electronically stabilized. “On the Stabiscope, a prism is mounted on top of a gyro,” he says. “When you turn it on, the gyro spins up to speed, and it stabilizes your view. The Techno-Stabi has a floating prism, sensors and a central processing unit. The CPU recognizes any movement and sends a signal to the sensors, which then erect two pins that hold the prism in place.”

Electronic units offer many ­conveniences, Patel says, including quicker power-up time, longer battery life (these units typically run on AA batteries), lighter weight and a significantly lower price than gyros. And while both Fuji products are completely waterproof, the one drawback with many image-stabilizing binoculars is that they’re more susceptible to ­physical damage.

“You probably don’t want to drop them on the deck on purpose,” Patel jokes, “but we’re working on a mil-spec product that will withstand hits and drops. Hard to say when that will be released, but probably within a year or so.”

When it comes to marine binoculars, it’s good to be swimming in a sea of choices.

Manufacturer Contacts

Bushnell Outdoor Products
Overland Park, Kansas

Canon U.S.A. Inc.
Melville, New York

FLIR Systems Inc.
Wilsonville, Oregon

Wayne, New Jersey

Nikon Inc.
Melville, New York

Greeley, Colorado

West Marine
Watsonville, California

Add a Shot of Nitrogen


Sealed with O-rings and gaskets, marine ­binoculars are built to keep out water. They can also be purged and maintained with dry nitrogen, which helps eliminate moisture and fogging.

Steiner binoculars, for example, feature a two-way valve that “lets us draw a vacuum ­simultaneously on each barrel [in the factory],” says Dennis Phillips, the company’s marketing manager. “This removes any oxygen and moisture from inside the barrel. The factory instrument then uses the vacuum to suck in dry nitrogen to pressurize and seal the barrels.

“If oxygen is left in the barrels, temperature and pressure changes can create ­condensation. When the condensation dries, it leaves a film that can cause internal fogging, but this won’t happen with nitrogen.”


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