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If you’re headed to the beach you need to know some basic safety information for you and your family. In this article we’ll look at ways to keep you safe on the beach and in the water.
Where you sit at the beach, especially if you have children, can help reduce your risk of injury or emergency.
Where you choose to swim will also have implications for your safety. Beach Life Expert hopes this article helps prepare you for your visit to the beach.
Beach Safety On Land:
Choosing a Location at the Beach
Choosing a location at the beach might be more important than you think. It can help with safety for your children while they’re playing in the sand and in the ocean.
Below we cover a few considerations for establishing a base at the beach.
Lifeguard and Lifeguard Tower
Our first safety tip is common sense. Most large beaches have lifeguards patrolling the beaches on foot and in cars, but they primarily stay in lifeguard towers where they have an elevated view of the beach and ocean.
While in the tower they are continuously scanning the beach and the ocean with binoculars. They watch swimmers and look for predators (sharks!).
If you’re with family it’s a great idea to find a site near a lifeguard tower. Even though you can’t necessarily see inside the lifeguard tower, you can be sure they are watching.
The downside to laying/sitting near a lifeguard tower is many people will likely do the same and the area may be crowded. For adults who have significant beach experience it’s fine to be farther away, however if you have small kids who are weak swimmers, a lifeguard tower is the best place to be!
Related: Sunscreen Safely 101
While at the beach you should also be aware of the flags. We’ve all seen flags at the beach, but few of us understand what each color represents. The colors red, yellow, and green have similar meanings to our traffic lights.
Red is a serious flag with a warning. If you see this flag in the sand it means the ocean is dangerous. It could be due to large waves, shorebreaks, currents, rip tides, and swimmers should avoid the area.
Interestingly, swimming may still be allowed though not recommended. If you see 2 red flags or a flag with a white line through it, this means that swimming is not allowed.
Yellow flags are meant for caution. The ocean is ok so swim although the conditions might be rough. This includes the potential for rocks in the water or drop-offs in water depths.
It could also mean caution for predators in the water. If you decide to swim in the ocean with a yellow flag, make sure to do so in front of a lifeguard tower so they can keep an eye on your family.
When I swim in Southern California I usually see yellow flags on the beach even when the water looks good. If you see a yellow flag, don’t worry the ocean is likely ok. Proceed with caution.
Related: Beach Must-Have Gear
Green means go for it. Under these conditions the ocean is safe to swim. This doesn’t mean that all people the ocean will be without challenges.
Weak swimmers should remain vigilant because waves and currents are constantly changing. Although a green flag will give your family confidence the ocean is safe, make sure to use caution with small children and watch them accordingly.
Blue and Purple Flags:
These flags are seen less frequently than other flags. Blue and purple flags indicate danger from predators or jellyfish. Yes, these flags are serious.
The ocean won’t be closed but lifeguards have seen or reported jellyfish or sightings of shark in the area. Use caution when swimming with blue and purple flags.
Be Visible While Sleeping
When I was in college I frequented a beach in Southern California. Often I would go by myself to read and sleep on the beach. I would put my earplugs in and zone out from the world.
I always slept in the open but not all sunbathers do. Sometimes the beach is easier to access if you’re away from the water, hidden behind a dune.
I mention this because at the very beach I visited, a woman was killed while she was sleeping on the beach. The event was an accident and it was a lifeguard vehicle that killed her. She was alone and sleeping on the backside of a dune (small sandy hill) at the back of the beach.
Occasionally lifeguards will drive slowly on the beach to respond to calls and emergencies. In this case the driver wasn’t aware there was a woman sleeping on the other side of the dune. He/she couldn’t be seen by the driver and was killed by accident.
If you plan to sleep or use earphones, make sure you’re in an open area where other people, including lifeguards and drivers can see you. Don’t try to hide, even if you prefer a more quiet area.
Sunscreen for the Beach
Sunscreen is a big part of beach safety. As I mentioned in another blogpost, apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before exposure so your skin can absorb the sunscreen. Use an SPF of 50 for great protection (anything higher is over-doing it with little added benefit).
Make sure to apply sunscreen every 2 hours and more frequently if you are swimming or drying of with a towel. Dermatologists advise to use 1 ounce of sunscreen per application – thats approximately 1 shot glass of sunscreen. FYI: most people use too little sunscreen.
Eating at the Beach
There’s an old saying “wait 30 minutes to swim after eating”. While it might be good advice to let your meal digest, swimming after eating shouldn’t cause you problems. In fact, swimming after eating might help you burn some of those calories you just ingested.
There is a problem if you swim after drinking alcohol. We’ve heard 100’s of stories of people drinking too much alcohol and swimming in the ocean. It can be extremely dangerous because alcohol affects your balance and decision-making ability.
If there are strong currents or big waves, it makes the situation even more dangerous. Many popular tourist beaches have banned alcohol for good reason. Check out your local beach website to learn their rules for alcohol.
Beach Safety In The Ocean:
Look for Clues from the Beach
Before you jump in the water, it’s imperative you observe the ocean to see if it provides any clues. Does the ocean appear calm? Are the waves rough? Are there surfers or only swimmers? Are there clouds on the horizon?
Many beaches will have a surf zone and a swim zone. More-over, some beaches will have a beach area netted to protect from marine life, surfers, and boats.
Here are a few specific things to look for:
- Check the waves. Is there a shorebreak? (in other words, are there medium or large sized waves breaking very close to the beach in shallow waters?) If so, it can be dangerous for children and adults. Shorebreaks can cause broken bones and injuries if waves push people down against the sand in shallow waters. If there aren’t shorebreaks, are the waves big or small? This is important to note when allowing children to enter the water.
- Is there a rip tide? Rip tides or rip currents occur when the ocean returns water towards the ocean (think of water being pulling back to the ocean). Sometimes rip currents are hard to see, other times they can be observed when white wash comes together from 2 different directions. If you’re unsure about a rip current, ask the lifeguard on duty and he/she should be able to point them out for you. Check out the video below on rip currents.
- You can also watch people who are swimming and observe which way they are drifting in the water. It’s normal for there to be a slight lateral current in the ocean and you can account for that before entering the water. If you recognize swimmers drifting in a particular direction, try entering the water further down the beach. By the time you are ready to exit the ocean, you will be lined up with your spot on the sand!
Consider Water Quality
When visiting the beach you’ll want to know the water quality forecast. Most beaches around large cities have water quality reports for swimmers and surfers. These reports consider the currents and non-point source pollution, much of which comes from land.
As a general rule, days after heavy rains are usually bad days to go swimming – if you’re at a beach near an urban area. This is because rains wash our city streets and that water – much of it contaminated – runs into our oceans.
While living in San Diego, I remember a number of days the news advised against swimming in the ocean.
Scan the Beach
Similar to the above-mentioned safety tips, we should scan the beach to see where swimmers are and where lifeguards are. Entering the water around others and within sight of a lifeguard tower is a simple yet effective strategy to stay safe.
Look for debris on the beach like glass, driftwood, or other hazards. If you see these types of matrials on the beach, they are likely in the water also. The following are important to look out for:
There are a number of marine creatures that can cause us harm, but the 2 biggest ones are jellyfish and sharks. While most people will rely on lifeguards and helicopters for shark alerts, people at the beach can be on the lookout for jellyfish.
Jellyfish move with the currents and its possible that a smack (aka group) of jellyfish are washed ashore. If this is the case, jellyfish can be seen on the beach. If you see them on the beach, they’re likely in the water; be careful walking on the beach and swimming!
Note: If you’re bleeding, stay out of the water. We know from movies that sharks are sensitive to blood. Blood will alert a shark to believe you are injured. Most cases of shark attacks are due to mistaken identity so be careful while in the water and know the chances of a shark attack are slim.
You don’t want to get tangled in seaweed while swimming. Check the beach and if you see a lot of seaweed then take a good look in the area you’ll be swimming.
Recognizing seaweed is easy because it floats. Seaweed is fun to play with outside the ocean. If your children are brave have them make necklaces out of the plant or let them have fun popping the bubbles.
Rocks are another indicator of a no-swim area. If the beach is rocky or you see rocks sticking up out of the ocean, be careful when entering the water.
Snorkeling is often good around submerged rocks but only do-so if you’re a great swimmer and the current/waves are safe.
If you’re near a pier, fishermen might present added hazards. Of course, the men and women themselves won’t be the problem, rather, their line and hooks could get caught on a swimmer.
Lifeguards are usually great about keeping swimmers away from fishing. Fishing done from the shore should be far away from swimmers and surfers.
With sand and ocean safety in mind, there’s 1 acronym that will help you remember these safety tips. The acronym is FLAGS
Find the flags on the beach and find the lifeguards on duty
Look at the safety signs. Each beach or state might have varying signs or warnings. If needed you can likely find specific beach safety information online before your trip to the beach. These include alcohol rules and regulations.
Ask a professional. In this case ask a lifeguard. It’s their job to interact and assist you. They’re your eyes and ears at the beach.
Get a friend or family member to swim with you. Two is better than one, especially if something goes wrong. A second person can help get assistance or get you to safety.
Stick your hand high in the air and wave them like you just don’t care. No really, in case of an emergency wave hands in the air. Lifeguards know this form of sign language and will react quickly.
We hope this information on beach safety helped. It’s important to know that safety in the ocean isn’t the only thing we should be cognizant of. We also need to select a good sunbathing spot on the sand. Enjoy your trip to the beach!