A DAY AT the beach is a popular pastime for millions of people. In addition to spending hours in the surf and sun, the beach presents plenty of opportunities to see local wildlife and explore coastal ecology and bond with family and friends.
It is, however, vital that everyone observe safety measures to ensure that a good time is had by all.
People who frequently visit the beach will encounter various colored flags from time to time. The US Lifesaving Association, in conjunction with the International Lifesaving Federation, has developed a universal flag-warning system to alert beachgoers to potential dangers and water hazards. By taking notice of these colored flags, swimmers and the like can stay safe.
- Red flags: Red flags represent some of the more serious warnings and ocean conditions. While some beachgoers still swim under a red flag, it’s best to stay on land or, if you must swim, only do so while exercising extreme caution. Two red flags indicates that a beach is closed because the water is simply too rough – even for the strongest swimmers.
- Yellow flags: Yellow flags indicate high surf or dangerous currents and undertows. Extreme caution should be exercised, and it’s best to swim close to a lifeguard tower, if at all. Yellow flags also may indicate high populations of bait fish that attract predators close to swimming areas.
- Green flags: Much like green is the universal color to proceed in traffic, it is a clear indication that it’s safe to enjoy the water. Just keep in mind that the ocean is unpredictable, so exercise caution even when swimming under a green flag.
- Purple/Blue flags: A purple or blue flag may fly when potentially dangerous marine life has been spotted. Although swimming may be allowed under a purple or blue flag, keep an eye trained on the water for jellyfish, predator fish and other hazards.
With miles of open coast line, Carteret County hosts a large number of beachgoers, and with high beach traffic comes dangers that inland people aren’t accustomed to dealing with – wildlife.
The emergency department at Carteret General Hospital warns that stingrays have a sharp barb that can impale the skin and cause extreme pain. First treat the sting with water as hot as you can stand to help relieve symptoms. If the pain is extreme or the barb is still in the skin, a medical consultation may be necessary.
Jellyfish stings bring a lot of pain as well. First treat with vinegar soaks for 15-30 minutes. NEVER use regular water as it will make it worse. Regular water causes a continued release of the toxin, while the acetic acid in vinegar makes it stop.
It is rare that a human will encounter a shark in Eastern Carolina, although, encounters have definitely seen an uptick in recent years. When surfers and swimmers splash they create a visual target for wildlife searching for prey. Most attacks, officials warn, occur near shore, between sandbars and near steep drop-offs. A good rule of thumb is to avoid swimming near piers where bait scraps may be discarded, stay in groups, avoid shiny jewelry and swimming suits and never swim during dusk or twilight, high activity hours for sharks.
Waders can be at risk of cuts from the razor-like edges of oyster shells. Oyster shells have a lot of bacteria and the shells are hard to see. Medical treatment is needed to evaluate shell remains and to treat infection. Prevention is always best, warn the experts.
The stark reality is that despite myriad safety tools, drowning is the leading cause of injury death among children ages 1-4 with three children dying every day in the country as a result of drowning. In a water emergency, every second counts, with many happening silently and quickly before anyone even noticing.
If someone is missing, the American Red Cross recommends that you check the water first, whether you’re poolside or sitting on the beach. “Throw, don’t go” is the mantra. Having a life preserver, or alerting nearby lifeguards who do, is always preferable to heading into the water yourself to make a rescue. There have been numerous reported cases of rescuers themselves getting caught in rip currents and pulled away from shore.
An active drowning victim may be vertical in the water but unable to move or tread water. They may attempt to press down with their arms at their sides in an attempt to keep their head above the water line. Never assume that a swimmer in distress is joking or playing around, the Red Cross warns.
The tried and true safety rules continue to be the same:
- Make sure your children know how to swim and set limits for them.
- Have children wear a life jacket – but never rely on it to babysit.
- Never leave children alone in or near the water.
- Don’t dive into shallow water.
- If you can’t swim, don’t let your feet leave the ground. Drop offs are common.
- Stay alert for changes in the weather and ocean.
- Watch for rip currents.
- Be prepared, learn CPR.
An estimated 80 percent of beach rescues are attributed to rip currents, according to the US Lifesaving Association. These strong, narrow currents moving away from shore, are hazardous not only for new swimmers, but for strong, experienced swimmers as well. More than 100 people die annually from drowning in rip currents say recent National Weather Service statistics.
Swimmers may find that rip currents are more pronounced around rock jetties, piers and docks. Despite a strong swim stroke, those caught in a rip current find it hard to make it back to beach. The NWS recommends that if caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the shore until out of the current, then turn toward the beach.
Beachgoers should remain aware of all posted warnings and exercise extreme caution anytime they swim in the ocean.