The month of May unofficially marks the transition from spring into summer. The days are brighter and the weather is warmer. Children are wrapping up the school year, and families start planning out summertime activities. It’s the perfect month for families to start hitting the beaches.
A day at the beach can be as nice as it gets, between the sand, the sun, the surf, and the swimming. While it can be a fun and relaxing day for the whole family, it’s important to keep in mind some general rules for beach water safety.
First, make sure everyone understands the hazards and dangers at the beach. Some of the most common dangers include:
- Rip currents. These powerful currents of water can pull swimmers away from the shore and out to sea, and account for more than 80 percent of rescues performed by beach lifeguards. Because of their danger, beach authorities will place warning flags to let swimmers know if rip currents are present in the area. To escape a rip current, don’t try to fight it directly, but instead swim parallel to the shore and swim back to land at an angle. If you see someone caught in a rip current, call a lifeguard for help, and throw the swimmer something that floats; do NOT attempt a rescue them unless you are a trained lifeguard.
- Sunburn. The direct sunlight and heat at the beach can lead to sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Always use sunscreen at the beach, and drink water and stay hydrated; you can get a sunburn even when the sky is overcast.
- Contaminated water. Beach water can be contaminated from a wide variety of sources, including oil from boats, garbage from other beachgoers, nearby septic systems, fertilizer, runoff due to rain, or hazardous substance spills. The presence of harmful chemicals, bacteria, or other contaminants in the water can cause gastrointestinal illnesses or worse upon exposure or ingestion.
- Harmful algal blooms. Dense populations of harmful algae can form in warm waters, and a small percentage of these blooms can be toxic. These toxic algae formations are known as “harmful algal blooms” (HAB), and can cause physical distress through contact or ingestion.
- Jellyfish. While not universal to every beach, there are roughly 70 species of jellyfish that can seriously injure or kill people due to their stings. Even jellyfish washed up on the sand can still sting if their tentacles are wet.
- Sharks. Although not nearly as common as many forms of media may imply, shark attacks can still occur in coastal beach waters. Sharks can generally be avoided by staying closer to shore, in groups, and by swimming during the daytime. Bleeding wounds, shiny jewelry, and brightly colored swimwear may attract sharks in the area, so avoid entering the water when present with one or more of those items.
- Lightning. Not something that usually enters the conversation when it comes to water safety, lightning can be a concern due to the nature of beaches. The relatively open, flat land of a beach makes it very dangerous for people to be standing anywhere there during a lightning storm, as people and beach umbrellas could serve as the tallest targets in the area for a lightning strike.
Knowing the possible dangers at the beach is only the first step toward beach water safety. Anyone going to the beach, and especially families with young children, should adhere to the following beach safety guidelines:
- Find the nearest lifeguard stations, and make sure everyone in your group can easily locate them.
- Only swim in designated areas with a lifeguard present.
- Check with a lifeguard for any updates on current swimming conditions and water hazards.
- Always swim with a buddy.
- Always be on the lookout and avoid areas marked for the presence of rip currents.
- Do not overestimate your swimming abilities – stay close enough to shore to comfortably swim back.
- Always enter the water feet first; diving into the water headfirst can lead to serious injury.
- Never swim under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- If you are supervising other family members in the water, do not be distracted by other people or objects, such as cell phones.
- Use sunscreen before any time at the beach, and reapply frequently – particularly any time you enter and leave the water.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated under the hot sun.
- Always observe and obey any officially posted signs, flags, or notices.
- Young children and family members who are not proficient at swimming should always wear a life jacket in the water.
With all these guidelines in mind – as well as any current social distancing and mask guidelines – feel free to take a family trip to the beach for some fun. Just make sure to be smart, stay safe, and keep hydrated. People should enjoy water in all its forms and aspects, and a beach outing is great for both physical and mental wellness.