Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Staying safe at the beach: Rip currents, jellyfish, sharks, and other hazards

A trip to the beach can turn deadly (or painful) due to natural hazards but being aware of risks and mitigating hazards is a good way to prevent problems.

Rip currents are often difficult to spot and can appear to be calm areas of water (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
Rip currents are often difficult to spot and can appear to be calm areas of water (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

SOUTHEAST N.C. — Picture this: warm weather, blue skies, and your toes in the sand — it sounds like a perfect lazy summer day at the beach. Maybe you decide to cool down in the ocean and find yourself bobbing around when suddenly you realize you are a little too far out.

As panic sinks in and you start to swim towards dry land you realize your efforts are in vain and your whole body is getting tired, all the while you are drifting further into the Atlantic — you have gotten stuck in a rip current.

It’s not the only potential danger in the ocean, though. There are also sharks. And, of course, there are some things on shore that ruin your day at the beach, too, including stepping on jellyfish and, of course, good old fashioned sunburn.

Rip currents

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA), 80 percent of all ocean rescues are related to rip currents and annually more than 100 fatalities across the country are due to rip currents.

While it is obvious that swimming at a beach with lifeguards is one of the safer options, there are plenty of area beaches that lack lifeguards or maybe ocean rescue season has not started just yet.

So what is the best course of action for surviving a rip current?  According to the National Weather Service, there are several things swimmers should keep in mind when dealing with these often unseen dangers.

  • Relax. Rip currents don’t pull you under.
  • A rip current is a natural treadmill that travels an average speed of 1-2 feet per second, but has been measured as fast as 8 feet per second — faster than an Olympic swimmer. Trying to swim against a rip current will only use up your energy; energy you need to survive and escape the rip current.
  • Do NOT try to swim directly into to shore. Swim along the shoreline until you escape the current’s pull. When free from the pull of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.
  • If you feel you can’t reach shore, relax, face the shore, and call or wave for help. Remember: If in doubt, don’t go out!
  • If at all possible, only swim at beaches with lifeguards.
  •  If you choose to swim on beaches without a lifeguard, never swim alone.  Take a friend and have that person take a cell phone so he or she can call 911 for help.

Sharks

The sand tiger shark is a migratory species, found off the coast of North Carolina each summer. Although not technically related to the tiger shark, they are a close relative of the great white. (Port City Daily photo/PHOTO BY: SAM BLOUNT)
The sand tiger shark is a migratory species, found off the coast of North Carolina each summer. Although not technically related to the tiger shark, they are a close relative of the great white, and can grow to 10.5-ft. long. (Port City Daily photo/PHOTO BY: SAM BLOUNT)

Sharks are a fear on most every swimmer’s mind, regardless of the actual dangers posed by the large predatory fish.

“NOAA states that while shark attacks are rare, they are most likely to occur near shore, typically inshore of a sandbar or between sandbars where sharks can be trapped by low tide, and near steep drop-offs where sharks’ prey gather. While the risks are small, it’s important to be aware of how to avoid an attack,” according to previous reporting.

Suggestions from NOAA for reducing the risk of a shark attack include:

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

Sunburns

Most everyone has experienced a sunburn at one point in their life and while not often thought as a major concern for many, overexposure to UV light can cause serious long-term problems including skin cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using at least S.P.F. 15 sunscreen at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. Wearing a hat, long sleeves, and other protective clothing is also recommended to keep skin protected.

Jellyfish

Portuguese men of war, which float through the waters, are often brought to shores across the globe by strong currents. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Darrow, UNCW marine biology faculty.
Portuguese men of war, which float through the waters, are often brought to shores across the globe by strong currents. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Darrow)

Jellyfish and Portuguese Man of War have been spotted along the beaches of New Hanover County and surrounding area beaches already this season and the little floating creatures can pack a punch.

Often times beachgoers will spot them washed up on shore and other times they can be spotted in the water but it is best to avoid them when you can.

“While all jellyfish sting, not all contain poison that hurts humans. Be careful of jellies that wash up on shore, as some can still sting if tentacles are wet. NOAA recommends that if you are stung by a jellyfish to first seek a lifeguard to give first aid. If no lifeguards are present, wash the wound with vinegar or rubbing alcohol,” NOAA suggests.

And what about that … other method of treating stings?

Turns out, it’s a myth. In fact, urine can actually aggravate the stinging cells of jellyfish, making things worse. These cells, which detach and stick into the skin of prey, can continue to inject venom. Urine, as well as fresh water, can cause an imbalance to the salt solution surrounding the stinging cells, causing them to continue to fire. According to Scientific American, if you don’t have vinegar or rubbing alcohol, rinsing with salt water may be your best bet.


Send comments and tips to Michael.p@localvoicemedia.com

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