Beach Safety, Dangers and Hazards

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Beach safety equipment at Castlehaven Beach, Isle of Wight, UK

According to the Red Cross, Being water competent in the ocean requires stronger and different skills than in a pool:
1) Always swim in a lifeguarded area.
2) Never swim alone, regardless of your age or level of swimming skills.
3) Keep within your fitness and swimming capabilities.
4) Be aware of weather and water conditions and heed warnings. [Source: Red Cross]

Whenever you are at the beach, ocean or other open water environment, watch and prepare for:

1) Changing tides.
2) Fast-moving currents and waves, even in shallow water.
3) Drop-offs that unexpectedly change water depth.
4) Unexpected changes in air or water temperature.
5) Hazards, such as underwater obstacles, rocks and debris.
6) Vegetation, marine animals and fish.
7) Other people’s activities in the same waters, such as boating.

Websites and Resources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium

Beach Safety Rules

Establish and Enforce Rules and Safe Behaviors
1) Enter the water feet first for your safety!
2) Always enter unknown or shallow water cautiously.
3) Only dive in water clearly marked as safe for diving, at least 9 feet deep with no underwater obstacles. Never dive head first into surf!

4) Do not enter the water from a height, such as a bridge or boats
5) Be careful when standing to prevent being knocked over by currents or waves.
6) Swim sober.
7) Supervise others sober and without distractions, such as reading or talking on or using a cell phone.
8) Swim with a buddy even in lifeguarded areas.

Take These Water Safety Steps
) 1Employ layers of protection including barriers to prevent access to water, life jackets, and close supervision of children to prevent drowning.
2) Ensure every member of your family learns to swim so they at least achieve skills of water competency: able to enter the water, get a breath, stay afloat, change position, swim a distance then get out of the water safely.
3) Know what to do in a water emergency – including how to help someone in trouble in the water safely, call for emergency help and CPR.
4) Be aware of the dangers of rip currents Responsible for most rescues performed by lifeguards, rip currents can form in any large open water area (including the Great Lakes), such as low spots and breaks in sandbars, or near structures such as jetties and piers.

Beach Dangers

Lightning: Since 2006, an average of 33 people have been killed annually by lightning in the United States. There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. When thunder roars, go indoors! The safest places during lightning activity are substantial buildings and hard-topped vehicles. Rain shelters, small sheds, and open vehicles are not safe. If you hear thunder or see lightning: A) Leave the water immediately, if swimming off shore. B) If you’re out in a boat, head back to shore as quickly as possible. C) If you’re unable to get to shore, lie down in the bottom of the boat or shelter in the cabin if available. D) Wait 30 minutes after the last thunder crack before returning to the beach.

Sunburn: Too much heat and sun can spoil a vacation. Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States, causing more deaths than floods, lightning, tornados, and hurricanes combined. Heat disorder symptoms include sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Spending the day at the beach can lead to any of these disorders but the most visible is sunburn, which can take up to 24 hours before the full damage is visible. Seek medical help right away if a burn is severe, especially if it is accompanied by a headache, chills, or fever.

Marine Debris: Our oceans are filled with items that do not belong there. Huge amounts of consumer plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day, making marine debris one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world's oceans and waterways. This debris, or litter, often ends up on our beaches, damaging habitats, harming wildlife, and making it unsafe for beachgoers to walk along the shoreline and swim in the water.

Cuts and Scrapes: Stay out of salt water or brackish water if you have a wound (including from a recent surgery, piercing or tattoo). If you feel it is necessary to go into salt water or brackish water with a wound, cover the wound with a waterproof bandage. Wash cuts thoroughly with soap and water if they have been exposed to seawater or raw seafood or its juices. Contact your medical provider if you develop a skin infection.

Ciguatera Fish Poisoning: in humans is caused by the consumption of subtropical and tropical finfish. A naturally occurring toxin found in an algae (dinoflagellate) species common in the lower latitudes is the suspected cause. The occurrence of toxic fish is sporadic, and not all fish of a given species or locality will be toxic. Ciguatera poisoning is self-limiting: symptoms usually subside after a few days, are dismissed as seasickness or a hangover, and are therefore under reported. /=\

Shorebreaks and Undertows

Shorebreak: A shorebreak is an ocean condition when waves break directly on the shore. Both small and high waves can be equally as unpredictable and dangerous and typically form when there is a rapid transition from deep to shallow water. The power of a shorebreak can cause injuries to extremities and the cervical spine. Spinal cord injuries most often occur when diving headfirst into the water or being tumbled by the force of the waves. Be sure to ask a lifeguard about the wave conditions before going into the water.

Undertows: An undertow is the water that recedes back into the sea, often with a rush, after a wave pushes water up the slope of a beach. When a large wave crashes onshore the subsequent undertow can pull swimmers and sand out to deeper water with a fairly strong force. To avoid really strong undertows it is best to avoid swimming when there are strong winds and large waves, as that is when undertows are most dangerous. [Source: Bradford Today, Aug 21, 2021]

Every day, some 6,000 waves break on a given beach. Each one creates an undertow. When big waves break on the beach, there is large uprush and then backwash of water and sand. The seaward-flowing water-sand mixture is pulled strongly into the next breaking wave. Swimmers can feel like they are being sucked underwater when the wave breaks over their head. They can be tossed around roughly, but this only occurs for a short time as undertow only only goes a short distance to the next breaking wave. It will not pull you offshore into deep water or pull you underwater. Undertows are generally only dangerous to small children who can't walk up the beach face against the strong backwash flow. [Source: Surfer Today]

Rip Currents

Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the U.S., as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes. Moving at speeds of up to eight feet per second, rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer. Panicked swimmers often try to counter a rip current by swimming straight back to shore — putting themselves at risk of drowning because of fatigue. Rip currents account for more than 80 percent of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. It is estimated that 100 people are killed by rip currents each year. If caught in one, don't fight it! Swim parallel to the shore and swim back to land at an angle. Always remember to swim at beaches with lifeguards. [Source: NOAA]

rip current

Rip currents are powerful-yet-narrow channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that quickly pull swimmers out to sea. They are created after a waves crash on the shore, then are funnelled through a break in the sand bar or another land formation. Rip currents are different from rip tides (See Below). They can be very strong and often occur when breaking waves push water up the beach face. This piled-up water must escape back out to the sea as water seeks its own level.

Rip currents typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. The best way to stay safe is to recognize the danger of rip currents. According to Surfer Today: Typically the return flow (backwash) is relatively uniform along the beach, so rip currents aren't present. A rip current can form if there's an area where the water can flow back out to the ocean easily - for instance, a break in the sand bar. Rip currents are generally only tens of feet in width, but there may be several at a given time spaced widely along the shore. [Source: Surfer Today]

Rip currents are often detected in about knee-to-waist high water. They can be difficult to escape by walking back toward shore against the current once you are in chest-deep water. These strong, offshore-directed currents pull the water or someone at all water depths through the surf zone. The current only dissipates offshore of the breaking waves where the water can be quite deep - certainly over your head. Moderate waves (two-to-three feet) on sunny days are very appealing to swimmers but can sometimes generate strong rip currents.

Robert Stewart wrote in the “Introduction to Physical Oceanography”: Water dumped inside the breaker zone must return offshore. It does this by first moving parallel to the beach as an along-shore current. Then it turns and flows offshore perpendicular to the beach in a narrow, swift rip current. The rips are usually spaced hundreds of meters apart. Usually there is a band of deeper water between the breaker zone and the beach, and the longshore current runs in this channel. The strength of a rip current depends on the Breaker Zone Beach Longshore Current. [Source: Robert Stewart, “Introduction to Physical Oceanography”, Texas A&M University, 2008]

Rip Tides

While the terms are often confused, rip tides are different than rip currents. A rip tide is a specific type of current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments, and harbors. As dangerous as rip currents are, rip tides are even more dangerous. They are extremely strong currents caused by the outflow of water from an inlet. They can be wider, stronger and pull swimmers a further distance than rip currents. These are the most dangerous of coastal water currents and are usually marked. Avoid them at all costs.

According to Surfer Today: A rip tide - or riptide - is a powerful current caused by the tide pulling water through an inlet along a barrier beach. When there is a falling or ebbing tide, the water flows strongly through an inlet toward the ocean, especially one stabilized by jetties. During slack tide, the water is not moving for a short time until the flooding — or rising tide — starts pushing the seawater landward through the inlet. Fishermen are well aware of these tidal flows and make their plans accordingly.[Source: Surfer Today]

Scientists often don't use the term rip tide. Tides are very long-period waves that move through the ocean in response to the forces of the moon and sun. Tidal flows called "rip tide" are associated more with inlets than beaches. They occur in constricted areas in bays and lagoons where there are no waves. These powerful reversing currents are named tidal jets by coastal engineers, and they carry large quantities of sand that form banks in the ocean opposite the inlet channel.

Myths About Rip Currents

1) Myth: A strong swimmer can outswim a rip current. Fact: Measured at speeds up to 8 feet per second (more than 5 miles per hour), rip currents can be faster than an Olympic swimmer. [Source: NOAA]

2) Myth: Rip currents pull people under water. Fact: A rip current will not pull you under water, but they can pull a swimmer away from the beach beyond breaking waves.

3) Myth: Human chains are an effective rescue technique. Fact: Human chains can be extremely dangerous. Rip currents may pull additional people out into the water from the chain, putting them at risk of drowning. This can quickly create a multiple-victim scenario, overwhelming trained rescuers.

4) Myth: Rip currents are always visible. Fact: Spotting a rip current can be difficult. To check for rip currents at the beach, stand back from an elevated position, like a dune line or beach access, and look for places where waves are not breaking. Any of the following clues may indicate that a rip current is present:

5) Myth: Rip currents are only present during bad weather. Fact: Rip currents can occur rain or shine -- even when waves of only about two to three feet high are present.

6) Myth: It’s always safest to swim where the waves are smaller. Fact: Not necessarily. A break in the waves can indicate the presence of a rip current.

Avoiding Rip Currents and What Do If You Encounter One

According to the Red Cross: Check conditions before entering the water: are any warning flags up? Ask a lifeguard about water conditions, beach conditions, and potential hazards. While in the water, stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist near these structures. [Source: Red Cross]

Signs of a Rip Current:
1) A channel of churning, choppy water;
2) An area of water that is a notable difference in color;
3) A line of foam, or debris moving steadily offshore; or
4) A break in the incoming wave pattern

How to Escape from a Rip Current
1) If you are caught in a rip current, stay calm and don’t fight it.
2) Swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current. Then, turn and swim to shore.
3) Alternately, float or tread water until you are free of the rip current and then head to shore.
4) If you can’t make it to shore, draw attention to yourself by waving and calling for help.

If Someone Else Is Caught in a Rip Current:
1) If someone is in trouble in the water, get help from a lifeguard.
2) If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 911.
3) Throw the victim something that floats – such as a lifejacket, cooler or inflatable ball – and yell instructions on how to escape the current. Do not attempt a rescue yourself unless you are a trained beach lifeguard.
4) Don’t form human chains (See Myths Above)
5) If you must enter the water, never enter without flotation and always keep the flotation device between you and the person in trouble.

Square Waves — They Are a Serious Danger Too

Stacey Leasca wrote in Travel+Leisure: “Be aware of the dangers of square waves. Yes, this is a real thing — and a truly stunning phenomenon at that — but it's also one of the most dangerous sights to see in the water. “Known as a "cross sea," a square wave occurs when two swells meet to form a square, often resembling a checkerboard pattern. As the European Space Agency explained in 2010, "The conditions are quite common in the ocean and occur when a windsea and a swell, or two swell systems, coexist." It pointed to a 2004 study that showed "a large percentage of ship accidents occurred in crossing sea states." [Source: Stacey Leasca, Travel+Leisure, March 2, 2022]

“HowStuffWorks further explained, these square waves are rather rare, but when they do occur, they generally can be found along coastal areas. A prime place to view them from a safe distance is along the western coast of France on the Île de Ré. (If you want to really get into it, HowStuffWorks also pointed to a scientific breakdown of the Kadomtsev-Petviashvili equation, which is why these waves form in the first place.)

“But these cross seas can form swells up to 10 feet high, as well as create unique wind patterns, making it difficult for boaters to navigate and swimmers to make their way through. So, again, while rare, if you do stumble across this, avoid heading out via a boat or swimming in the potentially rough seas. Instead, choose to spend your time relaxing on the sand, or just splash in the shallows for a refreshing dip and wait for better conditions to take your ocean plunge in peace and safety.”


Jellyfish are the scourge of many swimmers, who find large numbers of floating in the water at some beaches, and fishermen, who find them fowling their nets. Jellyfish have done well in places that have been overfished. With fish they competed with for food gone and turtles that fed on them also gone they consume plankton and their population explodes.

All jellyfish sting, but not all have venom that hurts humans. Of the 2,000 species of jellyfish, only about 70 seriously harm or may occasionally kill people. When on the beach, take note of jellyfish warning signs. Be careful around jellies washed up on the sand as some still sting if their tentacles are wet. Tentacles torn off a jellyfish can sting, too. If you are stung, don't rinse with water, which could release more poison. Lifeguards usually give first aid for stings. See a doctor if you have an allergic reaction.

In recent years huge swarms of jellyfish with numbers unseen before have been showing in places around the globe — from Spain to New York to Hawaii to Australia to Japan — where they hadn’t been seen before with a frequency and timing that are so alarming that some scientists suggest they may be a sign that the oceans are in decline. [Source: New York Times]

Huge swarms in Spain made headlines. "Spectacular growth has been found in jellyfish populations in Japan, Namibia, Alaska, Venezuela, Peru, Australia ... this is an international ecological problem," Josep-María Gili, at the Barcelona-based Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM),i said. In December 2007 hundreds of swimmers were stung off south-eastern Brazil.

from Australia

Relieving Jellyfish Stings

If you get stung by a jellyfish some people recommend applying meat tenderizer, vinegar or even urine to relieve the sting.According to the University of Hawaii: Cnidarian venom is a protein. The best way to treat a sting is to break down the protein chemically with a “sting kill” medication or meat tenderizer. Because heat also helps to break down proteins, hot water can be used on a sting. Some people develop an allergic reaction to the venom after repeated stings. It is important to seek medical help for a sting victim who faints or shows signs of unusual swelling or breathing distress. [Source: University of Hawaii]

According to the Medicine Man on, “The theory of urinating on a sting is that the urine contains some ammonia which helps with the stinging. Ideally vinegar is what you'd want to use, though unseasoned meat tenderizer, baking soda, or one-quarter-strength household ammonia can be used. Never wash the sting with fresh water. Use salt water if nothing else as fresh water may release more venom. Taking Benadryl, along with using an ice pack and treating the sting with bacitracin afterwards for about 3 days is what you'd ultimately want to wind up doing.”

According to “Susan Scott, “Oceanwatch” columnist for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, has investigated jellyfish stings in the field (as well as in the lab) probably as much as anyone, having spent years visiting injured tourists and the like on Hawaii’s beaches. A registered nurse, she and husband Dr. Craig Thomas authored “All Stings Considered: First Aid and Medical Treatment of Hawaii’s Marine Injuries.” In her column in 2001, Scott summed up years of study on a variety of sting “cures”: “Nothing worked.” In an e-mail to me, she summed it up another way: “Anything works.” This paradox goes to the heart of the urine myth. “Nothing worked” means that none of the main folk remedies — including urine, meat tenderizer and commercial sprays — did anything to stop the pain of a sting. On the other hand, “Anything works,” because the vast majority of jellyfish stings are not severe and their effects disappear within a few hours at most, no matter whether you urinate on yourself or simply do nothing.

Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful Algal Blooms(HABs) (popularly referred to as red tides) are dense populations or "blooms" of algae that form in coastal waters. A small percentage of these blooms can be toxic to marine animals and humans. People can get sick by swimming directly in the water and by eating contaminated shellfish. If a sufficient amount of toxins are ingested, the results can be fatal. Scientists can forecast the timing and location of blooms. This allows coastal managers and public health officials to make decisions regarding shellfish harvesting and beach closures to ensure the health of both residents and visitors.

Coastal beaches are among the most treasured natural resources in the nation, but beach closures or advisories caused by poor water quality often prevent the public from enjoying these resources. As water flows from land to coastal waters, it is often contaminated by untreated sewage from boats, pets, failing septic systems, fertilizers, and spills from hazardous substances. High levels of bacteria and other chemicals in the water can cause gastrointestinal illnesses in those who swim directly in the water. When visiting the beach, be aware of all beach closures and advisories.

Shark Attacks

Shark attacks, though rare, are most likely to occur near shore, typically inshore of a sandbar or between sandbars, where sharks can become trapped by low tide, and near steep drop-offs where sharks' prey gather. The relative risk of a shark attack is very small but should always be minimized whenever possible. To reduce your risk, don’t swim too far from shore, stay in groups, avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight, don't go in the water if you are bleeding from a wound, leave shiny jewelry at home, and avoid brightly colored swimwear.

If you are about to get attacked by a shark you can try a couple of things. First hit in the nose. Most of its sensitive sensory organs are located there, or rip at the gills or try to flip it over. Sharks go limp if you turn them upside down. Swimming in choppy water is another strategy; sharks, and crocodiles too, are supposed to shy away from white caps. ┡

Professional diver Captain Jonathan Smith told National Geographic it is best that people who spot a shark while out swimming should not try to run or swim away frantically.“Sharks can come up to water at waist height so the only advice I can give is that you should not have any kind of food that will attract sharks, but when they come for you, you can actually fend them off,” Captain Smith said. “So, the trick is to not splash on the surface. “There is no use swimming away from them when you see them because you will not be able to get away from them. When you splash the surface, it will make them get more excited and it will attack.” [Source: Wati Talebula, Fiji Times, December 2, 2020]

Beach Advisories and Beach Closures

Beach advisories and beach closures occur when water testing reveals the presence of one or more contaminants that exceed healthy standards. During a beach closure, water conditions are deemed unsafe for swimmers and other users. A beach advisory leaves it up to users as to whether they wish to risk going into the water. In the case of a beach closure, the state and/or local government decides that water conditions are unsafe for swimmers and other users.

How can beach-goers avoid the disappointment of arriving at their summer vacation destination only to find that authorities advise them not to swim there or that the beaches are closed altogether?

Unfortunately, there is no central database that provides information on beach closures and advisories in real time. The best way to find information on the current water quality of a particular beach is to plan ahead. In some cases, warning signs will be posted to alert people of the potential risk of illness from contact with the water. Signs may be placed for short-term problems or more permanent ones, when, for example, repeated monitoring indicates ongoing contamination.

Common culprits leading to beach closures and advisories include excessive rainwater that carries pollution from storm drains (like motor oil, pet waste, pesticides, trash, and pathogens) to recreational waters; “red tides” and other harmful algal blooms; and sewage and chemical spills from known sources. It is generally wise to avoid swimming after heavy rains or if the water is an unusual color without first checking with local or state health authorities.

Flags used in Florida

In the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA's Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System identifies potentially harmful blooms of the toxic alga Karenia brevis, where the blooms are, how big they are, and where they are likely to go. The toxins produced by the algae become airborne when waves break along the beach during a bloom, causing eye, throat, and nose irritation in most beach-goers, but more severe reactions in people with asthma and other respiratory issues.

Forecasts are distributed through conditions reports and bulletins. Conditions reports, which include forecasts of potential levels of respiratory irritation associated with blooms of the alga K. brevis in the near-term, are posted twice a week after confirmation of a HAB, and once weekly during the inactive HAB season. Additional bloom analysis is included in harmful algal bloom bulletins that are emailed to a subscriber list of state and local coastal resource managers, public health officials, and researchers. In many cases, NOAA's harmful algal bloom data contribute to authorities’ decision to post a beach closure or advisory.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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