The Latest and Greatest in Night Vision Gear for Boats

Not too terribly long ago it was very difficult to practice good boat safety and also be out on the water after sunset on a dark night. Radar helped quite a bit but nothing can substitute for good old-fashioned visibility. Then that eerie green night vision gear made seeing things in the dark a possibility. Sort of. It was thermal vision that broke the dam, bringing views that almost rivaled daylight to the helm even on pitch-black nights.

When it comes to boating in the dark, night vision gear changes the game. Photo via United States Coast Guard.

Of course, that stuff was expensive. Really expensive.

Over time cost came down and your options expanded. Then along came ultra-low-light digital cameras, which got rid of the eerie green while producing night vision images more akin to thermal. And in the past few years we’ve seen a mix of all of the above hitting the market with lower prices than ever and more utility to boot. What’s the latest and greatest? Here are our top picks.

Night Vision with AI

A newcomer to the night vision realm, SEA.AI introduced its first marine product just two years ago. Upon its introduction it won an IBEX Innovation award, and the company has been rapidly expanding since then. SEA.AI systems integrate thermal and low-light cameras with artificial intelligence to not only detect objects in the water but also classify them. It can “recognize” diverse items ranging from people in the water (to over 2,000 feet) to flotsam, as it “learns” water surface patterns in real time. It feeds its data to your chartplotter, computer, tablet, or phone, and can sound an alarm or monitor an item’s position. As new tech that’s quite advanced, naturally, it’s also quite expensive (pricing begins at around $11,000, ranges up to about $40,000 for cameras, and a full 360-degree monitoring system can cost substantially more).

Portable Night Vision

The big plus of having a hard-mounted camera is being able to display the image on your MFD, but the big minus is that you can’t move the camera from boat to boat. And while handhelds offer the ultimate in portability, squinting through a viewfinder while running your boat through the darkness is no panacea. That’s why Sionyx developed the Nightwave, which was announced late last year and hit the market early this year.

sionyx nightwave night vision
The Sionyx Nightwave makes portable yet mounted cameras a possibility. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

This ultra-low-light camera can be fixed-mounted or can be affixed via a RAM-style mount and moved from boat to boat. In a permanent mount situation it can be cabled to the MFD, but the unit can also WiFi it’s views to displays — including iPads or even cell phones. The camera has 1280 x 1024 resolution, is IP67-rated for water and dust, and can detect human-sized objects to 150 meters in approximate quarter-moon light conditions. It’s also surprisingly affordable with a $1,995 MSRP.

Onboard Night Vision

While it isn’t really “night vision,” we’d be remiss not to include the Raymarine CAM210 Bullet camera, which has changed the in-the-dark visibility game aboard larger boats and yachts. This is a network video camera marinized for rugged and wet conditions in IPX6 and IPX7 enclosures, which can be powered either by cable or ethernet connection and has a 2.0-megapixel CMOS image sensor. It’s special power comes via high-intensity infra-red LEDs, which provide illumination for clear views in total darkness to about 60 feet. So while you wouldn’t want to try spotting a swimmer with this camera, it’s ideal for monitoring above-deck areas of a large boat or yacht at night. Pricing is in the neighborhood of $900.

Setting the Night Vision Bar

Despite the many new developments in night vision for boats, the FLIR M-series cameras remain the gold standard to most mariners. This latest generation was rolled out in late 2019 and includes five models of hard-mounted cameras with features ranging from pan and tilt to gyroscopic stabilization. All in the lineup are IPX6 rated for waterproofing and are also rated to withstand winds of 100 knots. Depending on the model they can detect a human-sized target at one third of a nautical mile to 0.6 nautical miles. These cameras pipe their views directly to your chartplotter, and range in price from $6,995 to $32,995. The most advanced, the M364C LR, uses multispectral imaging to blend visible and thermal views and is the first night vision camera to deliver both color and thermal imaging to recreational boaters.

riviers yacht with night vision
Having a FLIR M-series night vision camera aboard remains the choice of many mariners who plan to be out on the water after the sun goes down. Photo via Riviera Yachts.

Budget Night Vision

The Sionyx Aurora gets high marks with a low price, listing at under $400. This is a color digital low-light night vision scope which can deliver images with digital magnification to 3X. It’s PI67-rated for water and dust resistance (which means it can be immersed in water up to a meter deep for up to 30 minutes without damage), so it can be used at open helms that may take spray. It’s also WiFi enabled and can communicate with your phone to capture still images or video. We tested the Aurora and found the images surprisingly good for an inexpensive unit. The manufacturer says the resolution is good enough to pick out a human-sized object at 150 meters at quarter moonlight, which sounds about right to us. With no moon and only starlight to work with, we’d say it’s maybe half that distance. The biggest downside we identified is battery life, which is limited to about two hours of constant use before you need to plug it in and allow the integrated battery to recharge.

There’s still an added element of danger to boating at night as opposed to in broad daylight, but with one of these night vision cameras aboard, there’s no doubt that boating in the darkness will be safer than ever before. Added bonus: having night vision aboard your boat is just plain cool!