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Binoculars are a must have if you are spending time on a boat or close to water. They are a safety measure used for navigation, great for watching scenery and marine life and can be very beneficial when light conditions are low, like at night.
You may think that binoculars are binoculars and any model would do well for marine usage as well. It is not quite the reality. Being on or close to water brings a lot of challenges and your binoculars need to withstand those challenges. Here are some key features that you should be looking for in marine binoculars:
Waterproof and Fogproof: Needless to say, binoculars that you want to use on a boat or near water need to be waterproof and fogproof.
Magnification and Lens Diameter: When you are looking at binoculars, you will see numbers like 10 x 50mm and 7 x 35mm. These are indicating magnification and less diameter correspondingly. In these examples, 10 and 7 are magnification factors. An object will look 10 times or 7 times bigger. You may think that the bigger, the better. Not quite, when you are on a boat that is constantly moving up down on the water. Higher magnification will also make it more difficult to keep an object steady in the view. Without special features like image stabilization, which we will discuss separately, the highest practical limit for magnification for marine binoculars is 7. Anything higher than that will usually bring more challenges than problems it solves. For the lens diameter, the bigger is usually better for visibility. With larger lenses, there will be more light coming in, which makes the view much better. You may be surprised to have much clearer view at night with binoculars compared to naked eye. However, larger lens diameter also means larger size and more weight. Carrying a large and heavy unit is not always practical on a boat, especially on smaller sized boats. Practically speaking, the ideal combination that has been accepted by most sailors is 7 x 50mm binoculars. They provide the best combination of magnification, steady view, light and weight.
Rangefinders and Compass: Many marine binoculars include a range finder. These are different than laser rangefinders found on some binocular models. Laser rangefinders are not suitable for marine use. While it may be convenient to have a rangefinder in your binoculars, we find it less and less common for people to actually use it. Many marine binoculars also include a compass that are imposed onto the image. This can be very handy for taking bearings. We don't see a compass as a must have but a as a nice addition on marine binoculars. It is somewhat of a personal choice.
Image Stabilization: Image stabilization (IS) is an exception to the magnification rule we mentioned earlier. IS binoculars provide a steady image even on a bouncing boat and can make higher magnification levels more practical and usable. The down side for IS binoculars is the price and complexity. They use electronics and can be more susceptible to maintenance issues compared to non-IS models.
For entry level marine usage, Bushnell H2O binoculars are almost impossible to beat for their $70 price. While they are not specifically made for marine use and may not be as rugged as some marine models, they are water proof and fog proof. Clarity, brightness and optics are high quality and provides the best value for casual uses.
On the negative side, they are a bit heavy and they do not float.
Bushnell H20 is our recommendation if you just look for quality binoculars for occasional marine or more frequent water use and don't mind the weight.
A step up from H2O and specifically designed for marine usage Bushnell Marine 7x50 binoculars are another example of Bushnell's product quality and value balance. While aesthetics is subjective, we particularly like the look and feel of this design.
With its price at slightly above $100, Bushnell Marine 7x50 is our recommendation for regular marine use for a budget.
When it comes to high quality optics, Nikon is hard to beat. So it is not surprise that Nikon OceanPro 7x50 provides top notch optical performance with an amazingly sharp image. These binoculars are perfect for day and night use.
Nikon OceanPro comes with a nice case that is suitable for on-boat storage and they are covered by Nikon's 25-year warranty in the US.
Nikon OceanPro 7x50 exists in different configurations with and without a compass. There is roughly $100 price difference between the two models.
If you are looking for serious marine binoculars for long term use in extended cruises, our recommendation is Nikon OceanPro 7x50 with compass. With its price tag close to $300, it is by no means cheap but provides the best in class optics with excellent warranty.
Fujinon Techno Stabi TS1232 is our pick in the category of IS marine binoculars. Compared to some other IS models, they provide much better stabilization, which makes them much more suitable for use on bouncing boats.
TS1232 provides good optical quality, contrast and color fidelity with crisp images. Common with IS binoculars, field of view is narrower than binoculars without IS. This is not specific Fujinon TS1232 and common for all IS binoculars.
With a price tag of $800, these binoculars are by no means cheap but they provide good value considering their sophisticated technology and high quality. So if you need image stabilization, Fujinon Techno Stabi TS1232 is our recommendation.
All three models provide good value and are suitable to different needs.