Buoys and Markers - Do you know what they mean?

Canoes and Kayaks

Buoys and Markers

Buoys and markers on our waterways are designed to guide you, provide you with information, help warn of any possible hazards as well as marking areas that are closed or controlled.

Whether you’re enjoying nature’s calm and tranquillity, surrounded by serene waters, paddling with the family for fun, or you’re a competitive kayaker, being able to understand what buoys and markers mean will increase your confidence and pleasure on the water.

We have compiled a list of buoys and markers commonly found in waterways and details exactly what they mean.

Buoys and Markers can be described as “aids to navigation” and encompass a wide range of floating and fixed objects (fixed meaning attached to the bottom or shore). They consist primarily of:


Beacons on a pole what do they mean

Markers that are permanently fixed to a body of water (usually by a pole or vertical structure).  A beacon attached with an illuminated light on top is commonly referred to as a “lighted beacon”.  A non illuminated beacon is called a “day beacon”. 


Buoys are floating navigational aids which are coloured, shaped and numbered differently to ascertain different meanings. Some may have lights affixed on top, while others do not.

what does buoys mean


Markers have two distinct colours (red/ green) to distinguish the positions along a water channel. They can take the form of a fixed beacon, lighted buoy, nun buoy or can buoy.

how to read buoy markers

Going upstream (from the open ocean):

  • Red-coloured markers (even numbers attached) need to be on the starboard (right) side of your boat/ canoe/ kayak.
  • Even number sequence should follow the correct order (eg. 2, 4, 6, etc.), moving forward upstream.
  • Green-coloured markers (odd numbers attached) need to be on the port (left) side of your boat/ canoe/ kayak.
  • Odd number sequence should follow the correct order (eg. 1, 3, 5, etc.), moving forward upstream.

Going downstream (towards open ocean):

  • Green-coloured markers (odd numbers attached) need to be on the starboard (right) side of your boat/ canoe/ kayak.
  • Odd number sequence should follow a reversed order (eg. 9, 7, 5, etc.), moving forward downstream.
  • Red-coloured markers (even numbers attached) need to be on the port (left) side of your boat/ canoe/ kayak.
  • Even number sequence should follow a reversed order (eg. 10, 8, 6, etc.), moving forward downstream.

*NOTE: Easiest method of remembering which side to put on your right side (starboard) is by reciting “RED, RIGHT, RETURN!” – the colour RED needs to be on the RIGHT for you to RETURN to land.



A type of cylindrical shaped lateral marker buoy,  with a cone-shaped head. These are always coloured red with even numbers written on them.

buoy in the ocean


Another type of cylindrical buoys with a flat head. These are always coloured green with odd numbers written on them.

what does green buoy mean


These are special aids which can be utilised in the form of any buoy/ marker mentioned above (lateral marker, nun buoy, can buoy, etc.).

Junction markers will have two colours displayed, one on top while the other is set below it.

what do red and green buoys mean on a lake

When a channel (water stream) splits into two, junction markers will be placed in the middle to let you decide which path to take.

The top colour determines the primary channel of the stream (recommended channel to take), while the secondary colour determines a secondary path for you to pursue if you deem fit.

A junction buoy with the colour red on top (primary colour) – while it is coloured green below it (secondary colour) – determines that the preferred channel to take is on your left, because the red colour signifies the starboard (right) side of your boat/ canoe/ kayak.

A junction buoy with the colour green on top (primary colour) – while it is coloured red below it (secondary colour) – determines that the preferred channel to take is on your right, because the green colour signifies the port (left) side of your boat/ canoe/ kayak.


Buoys which are striped with red-and-white colours determine that the surrounding waters are unobstructed and safe from all angles (usually in the open ocean).

what do buoy colors mean

These can come in different shapes (lateral markers, spherical, can buoys, etc.) and may have a red topmark (round-shaped) on top.


These are coloured black on top, and red below (similar format to junction buoys, but with different colours).

how to read buoys for boating

They indicates potential hazards or dangers around the surrounding waters, so proceed cautiously.


Black-and-white striped buoys signify that obstructions are in the way, between the closest shoreline and the respective buoys.

how to read water buoys and markers

DO NOT traverse between the obstruction-marked buoys and its shorelines.


These are special buoys to signify a potential mooring location.

Usually it requires permission by respective area owners, to allow boat mooring.

how to navigate river buoys

They can come in both spherical and cylindrical shapes, but their colours are specifically white with blue horizontal stripes in the middle.

Occasionally, mooring buoys are also coloured orange on top, and white below it.


what are yellow buoys for

These buoys do not fall into any other types of markers.  They are exclusively coloured yellow (from top to bottomand are used as an indicator of the following –

      • Ocean Data Acquisition Systems (ODAS) marks
      • Traffic separation marks where use of conventional channel marking may cause confusion.
      • Spoil Ground marks
      • Military exercise zone marks
      • Cable or pipeline marks
      • Recreation zone mark.
      • Boundaries of anchorage areas
      • Structures such as offshore renewable energy installations
      • Aquacultures.


These are the orange and white-colored Aids that are used to alert the Vessel operators towards a different type of warnings and regulations.

navigation buoys and markers meaning

Danger: The diamond shape is used when indicating boating hazards.
Restricted Operations: The circle indicated Regulated operations I the area such as restrictive speed limits.
Exclusive: The diamond with a cross excludes boats from entering into certain areas such as swimming only areas.
Information: The square usually contains helpful information such as distances and directions.


White buoys which carry a red flag (with a diagonal white stripe in the middle) on top. Signifies that the area has diving activities currently in place (you need to keep a distance of at least 150 feet away from the area).

what is the main function of a marker buoy


The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is a series of inland waterways generally running parallel along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.  Navigation aids along the ICW are the same as any other U.S. waterway, with the exception of extra yellow square box or triangles markings. Any yellow marking on these signs override the shape or color of the lateral markers they are affixed on, and indicate the side of the marker to stay on.

marker buoys at sea

Yellow Square – Indicates you should keep this marker on your left (port) side.

Yellow Triangle – Indicates you should keep this marker on your right (starboard) side.

After going through this comprehensive list of water markers you could easily find yourself overwhelmed at first trying to remember them all at once.  Don’t panic, enjoy your moments on the waters, and keep jogging your memory as you come across many of these markers and buoys. 

In time, they will become second-nature to you, no matter where you find yourself paddling the waterways of the United States.  

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