Be Safe on the Water This Summer

By: Bill Mahan, Florida Sea Grant Agent – UF IFAS Extension Bay County

It’s that time of the year when our beaches and waters fill up with folks who want to enjoy their time soaking up some rays and playing in the water! However, the water can be a dangerous place, so be alert to things around you!

General Water Safety Tips

  • Take swimming lessons and become a stronger swimmer.

  • Protect children from dangerous currents and breaking waves by having them wear life jackets.

  • Swim in designated beach areas and stay 150 feet away from piers and breakwaters.

  • Check the beach forecast before heading out and pay attention to warning flags throughout the day.

  • Recognize the signs of drowning and learn CPR (Red Cross, American Heart Association). Drowning may not look like you think. When drowning is portrayed in the movies, it often involves the drowning person splashing and making noise, calling out for help. However, in most real situations, drowning can be a quiet affair with people nearby not recognizing that a person is in trouble.

Tips for Swimmers

  • Always enter the water feet first. Don’t dive in head first.

  • If you become tired, switch between swimming and floating until you reach shore.

  • Stay calm: Fear, panic and exhaustion can be a deadly combination. Focus on breathing and keeping your head above water.

  • If in danger: Face the shore and call for help.

Tips for Walkers/ Waders

  • Do the stingray shuffle: When you are walking or wading in the water, shuffle your feet along the bottom to chase off stingrays. This gives the ray an opportunity to swim away.

Parents: Take the Pledge and Be a Water Watcher

Be a Water Watcher! Take the pledge to keep an eye on members of your group when they are in or near the water!

Be a Water Watcher! Take the pledge to keep an eye on members of your group when they are in or near the water! Credit – Be Current Smart

Carefully Watch People in Your Group — Learn How to Help Someone Else

Many people have died while trying to rescue others caught in rip currents. Don’t become a victim yourself. The most effective defense against drowning is closely watching people in your party.

  • Throw anything that floats to the person in trouble, like a life ring or cooler.

  • Depending on where you are, seek help from park staff, friends or others.

  • Wear a life jacket if you must go in the water — it can save you and the person in trouble

  • Ask others to stay away from piers and breakwaters..

  • Pay attention to warning flags.

    • Green = Low Hazard. However, stay aware of changing conditions.

    • Yellow = Medium Hazard. Watch for rip currents.

    • Single Red = High Hazard. Stay on the beach and out of the water. A red flag means that swimmers are in danger of drowning due to rip currents or other hazards. Dangerous currents are often present near structures, regardless of weather conditions.

    • Double Red = Water closed to public.

    • Purple = Dangerous Marine Life. Jellyfish, stingray, shark, etc.

Keep an eye out for Rip Currents

Keep an eye out for Rip Currents – Photo by NOAA

Rip Currents

Rip currents can be killers. They account for more than 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that quickly pull swimmers out to sea. They 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 and always remember to swim at beaches with lifeguards. For more information about rip currents, visit NOAA’s Rip Current Safety Website and/or UF IFAS Solutions for your Life Website. To view a rip current video.


In the United States, an average of 62 people are killed each year by lightning. Already in 2008, 24 people have died due to lightning strikes. In 2007, lightning killed 45 people in the U.S, hundreds of others were injured. When thunder roars, go indoors! The safest place during lightning activity is a large enclosed building, not a picnic shelter or shed. The second safest place is an enclosed metal vehicle, car, truck, van, etc., but NOT a convertible, bike or other topless or soft-top vehicle. Wait 30 minutes until after the last thunder crack before going back to the beach. For more information about lightning safety, visit NOAA’s Lightning Safety Website.

When at the beach, if you see lightening approaching head for good cover

When at the beach, if you see lightening approaching head for good cover – Photo by NOAA


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 shark’s prey gather. The relative risk of a shark attack is very small, but the risks should always be minimized whenever possible. To reduce your risk:

  • Don’t swim too far from shore

  • Stay in groups – sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual

  • Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight when sharks are most active

  • Don’t go in the water if bleeding from a wound – sharks have a very acute sense of smell

  • Leave the shiny jewelry at home – the reflected light resembles fish scales

    Cruising shark - Photo by NOAA

    Cruising shark – Photo by NOAA

  • Avoid brightly-colored swimwear – sharks see contrast particularly well

To learn more about sharks, visit NOAA’s Shark Website.


Keep an eye out for jellyfish. All jellies sting, but not all jellies have poison that hurts humans. Of the 2,000 species of jellyfish, only about 70 seriously harm or occasionally kill people.

  • Take note of a purple flag flying at the beach, it could indicate that jellyfish are present. Be careful around jellies washed up on the sand. Some still sting if their tentacles are wet. Tentacles torn off a jelly can sting, too.

  • If you are stung, wash the wound with vinegar or rubbing alcohol. Or sprinkle meat tenderizer or put a baking soda and water paste on the sting. 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.

There are several species of jellyfish that can cause problems for swimmers – Photo by NOAA.


Too much sun can spoil a vacation. And it can take up to 24 hours before the full damage is visible. The two most common types of burns are first degree and second degree burns.

  • First degree sunburns cause redness and will heal, possibly with some peeling, within a few days. These can be painful and are best treated with cool baths and bland moisturizers or over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams.

  • Second degree sunburns blister and can be considered a medical emergency if a large area is affected. When a burn is severe, accompanied by a headache, chills or a fever, seek medical help right away. Be sure to protect your skin from the sun while it heals.

Common sense and a few simple precautions can help you and your family have a safe and healthy day at the beach. For the US Lifesaving Association’s top ten beach and water safety tips please visit their website.

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