Resembling a huge stingray tail whipping down from a dark cloud, waterspouts are more spectacular than dangerous.
But have a little respect for this weather phenomena common in the summer months above the warm waters off coastal Florida.
“Although they’re small, it doesn’t imply they are totally harmless,” said Robert Molleda, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Miami. “They could contain 40, 50, even 60 mile per hour winds.”
Because these funnel-shaped clouds over the water are often fair-weather formations, relatively small and typically short-lived, don’t expect any advance warning from Doppler radar. The weather service often hears about waterspouts after they have happened from eyewitness calls to their offices.
“They are extremely difficult to detect on our systems,” Molleda said. “Their features are so small and don’t extend very far in the atmosphere.”
The NWS office in Ruskin received at least 20 calls from the public with information about a spectacular waterspout that occurred last Monday in the Gulf waters off Lee County, according to Russell Henes, a meteorologist with the Ruskin office.
“A lot of people saw it,” Henes said.
The waterspout, which reportedly took about 20 minutes to travel from Fort Myers Beach to Bonita Beach, began in Estero Bay about 7:15 a.m. June 25 and traveled across Lovers Key Carl E. Johnson State Park, he said.
Amateur photographer Wes Davis of Fort Myers Beach had his camera ready shortly after the funnel cloud formed during last Monday evening’s storm. A spectacular photo he took appeared on naplesnews.com.
“As we were sitting down for dinner, we noticed this amazing waterspout and wanted to share the pictures we captured,” Davis said.
Another waterspout or funnel cloud was spotted Friday evening in Estero, but there were no reports of a touchdown.
In another image on naplesnews.com, a visitor from Pennsylvania shared a photo of a waterspout spotted off the Naples Pier during the early evening hours last August.
In July 2005, a slow-moving waterspout spawned by thunderstorms roared down the Peace River near an Interstate 75 bridge, coming ashore twice as a tornado in Punta Gorda but causing only minor damage to one home.
“Waterspouts normally don’t come onto land because they get their power from the warmth of the water,” Molleda said.
Waterspouts are basically tornadoes over water. Although funnel clouds are probably more associated with the Midwest, Florida actually tops the list of the number of funnel clouds seen nationwide when waterspouts are taken into account.
Waterspouts can occur anywhere and anytime off Florida, but meteorologists said they are especially common in the warmer Gulf waters from Charlotte Harbor to the Keys from June through September. The most waterspouts — usually hundreds every year — are observed in the Keys area, the weather service reports.
Waterspouts are often caused when Florida’s west coast and east coast sea breezes collide. The warmer water provides a source for the air to rise, forming a vortex along narrow cloud bands in the warm, moist environment, Molleda said. Squall lines ahead of a cold front also can develop funnel clouds that can move ashore, he said.
Boaters seeing a waterspout should, obviously, try to get out of its way.
Meteorologists agree that the best way to do so is to move in a 90-degree angle away from the forward movement of the swirling column of wind and water. Because waterspouts normally move slowly, they are easily avoided, Henes said.