By Kelly Baughman
It’s that glorious time of the year on the Gulf Coast once again when locals and visitors alike can’t wait to soak up some rays with the scent of salt water in the air and the feel of sand between your toes. While a beach day can be a dream, without the proper safety precautions, your beach day can quickly turn into a nightmare. Here’s some tips to keep you and your family safe this season while at the beach.
First and foremost, be sure to educate yourself on the meanings of the beach warning flag system. Here on the Gulf Coast, flags are posted daily at public beach access points and national park access areas, and are updated throughout the day to inform you of current water conditions. Beach Warning Flags include:
Green – Low Hazard – Conditions are calm, and swimming is considered safe with caution.
Yellow – Medium Hazard – Moderate Surf and/or Current is present. Strong swimmers may enter the water with extreme caution.
Red – High Hazard – High Surf and/or Current is present. It is recommended that beach go-ers stay out of the water in these conditions as rip currents can consume even the strongest swimmers quickly.
Double Red – Water is closed to the public – These flags fly when conditions are far too dangerous for ANYONE to enter the water. Generally seen during tropical storms and hurricanes, it is illegal for anyone to enter the water while these flags are flying at the beach.
Purple – Dangerous Marine Life – This can mean anything from jellyfish to sharks. While it is not illegal to enter the water while the purple flag is flying, be aware that there is a chance to encounter dangerous marine life while swimming, even if you can’t see them with the eye.
The most dangerous water condition a swimmer can encounter in our area is a rip current. Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that can swiftly suck swimmers into deeper waters while pulling them under the surf. Moving at speeds of up to eight feet per second, they typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves.
According to NOAA, rip currents account for over 80% of water rescues performed by local authorities. Upon being caught in a rip current, most swimmers go with their instinct to fight the current by attempting to swim directly back to the shore. This usually ends in extreme fatigue which can lead to drowning.
If caught in a rip current, try to remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly. Instead of fighting against the current, allow it to take you out until you feel you can swim out of it in a direction parallel to the shore. If you are still unable to swim out of the current or reach the shore, float calmly or tread water while attempting to draw attention to yourself by waving your arms in the air and yelling for help.
The City of Orange Beach’s Beach Safety Chief, Brett Lesinger, said the dangers that exist are serious but can mostly be avoided with education and common sense. “Last year, Orange Beach rescue officials responded to 189 water rescue related calls. Of those, we had two fatal drownings. Both of which occurred in areas with no lifeguards present,” Lesinger said.
Currently, Orange Beach has five lifeguard towers, Tower 1 at Shell Beach, Tower 2 at Alabama Point East, Tower 3 and Tower 4 at Cotton Bayou, Tower 5 at Romar Beach, and roving lifeguards that patrol other beach areas in trucks, MUV’s, and Jet skis. Lesinger said lifeguards man the towers between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm in the spring, but increase those hours to 9 am until sunset in the summer time to ensure swimmer safety.
Lesinger said the best way to prevent a water emergency is to heed posted warnings and swim with a buddy. “Swimming alone is dangerous. Swim together with a friend or have someone keep an eye on you while in the surf. Even if you think you’re a strong swimmer, things can go wrong in the blink of an eye,” he said. And while visitors from other states may be strong swimmers, the factors that come with the currents and changing tides in Gulf waters may throw even the best swimmers a curve ball.
Lesinger said of whether or not to go into the water on a particular day, “When in doubt, just stay out.”
So you’ve decided to spend the day safely on the sand? Be aware of the dangers that lurk there as well.
The sun is extremely strong on the reflective white sands of the Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Perdido Key areas, so be sure to apply sunscreen before exposing your skin and reapply frequently while outdoors. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends Broad-spectrum” protection (protects against “both UVA and UVB” rays) of an SPF of 30 or greater.
Ultraviolet radiation can lead to skin cancer, skin aging, and even eye damage, so be sure to wear properly rated eye protection as well. It is best to keep babies 6 months old or less completely out of the sun as their skin is thin and absorb UV rays more readily than older children. They also have an increased risk of overheating, so keep children shaded and cool.
Keep in mind that even if you visit the beach on an overcast day, you’ll still need to wear sunscreen. Clouds filter out sunlight but not UV rays. On a cloudy day, you are still exposed to over 80% of the harmful radiation that causes burns and cancer.
In addition to sunscreen and water safety, you’ll need to be aware of the weather around you. Inclement weather can arise on the Gulf Coast very quickly, and it is important to vacate the beach in the event of thunder or lightning. More people are struck by lightning in Florida than anywhere else in the world, and with no watches or warnings for lightning strikes, it’s up to you to make the call on staying safe.
We’ve all been on the beach, basking in the sun, while a brewing storm several miles away rumbles in the distance. The human ear can detect thunder from around 10 miles away, and according to NOAA, a lightning shaft can strike as far as 10 miles from a charged cloud. Bottom line…if you hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Seek shelter!
As quickly as the weather can roll in it can also quickly clear up to blue skies, so it’s best to be safe, take a break, and wait for the weather to pass.
If you follow these simple rules, stay sober and hydrated, and use good judgement, your days on the beach will be…well…a day at the beach. And who doesn’t want to have a little safe fun in the sun?
For current conditions in Gulf Shores, dial 251-968-TIDE (8433).
For current conditions in Orange Beach, dial 251-981-SURF (7873).
For current conditions in Perdido Key, dial 850-934-2600.