How to Stay Safe at the Beach and in the Ocean
There’s nothing like relaxing at the beach on a warm summer day—listening to the waves roll in, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, and watching the kids laugh and play in the sand.
I personally grew up around different beaches all my life (I’m a Navy brat). I also love to travel and surf, so I’ve been lucky to see many different beaches around the world.
That’s why today I’m sharing 7 tips to keep you and your kids safe at the beach and in the ocean. I want the beach to be a place of good times and happy memories for you and your family, like it always has been for me.
1. Pick a Suitable Beach (and Check the Ocean Conditions)
Not all beaches are created equal. This is true not only for different beaches around the world but even for different beaches within the same town.
Some beaches have sandy ocean bottoms and some have rocky or coral bottoms. Some beaches have strong ocean currents or steep drop offs (where the ocean gets deep over a short distance). Others can be more calm or have more gradual drop offs (where the ocean stays relatively shallow for a long distance).
However, the ocean conditions can also change from day to day. A beach that was very calm one day can be completely different another day with large waves and strong currents.
The key is to know your family’s swimming abilities and to pick a location that suits those needs.
For young kids or kids who are not strong swimmers, it’s best to pick a beach with a large sandy beach area and a sandy ocean bottom. You’ll want to avoid beaches with steep drop offs and instead find one where the ocean stays relatively shallow near shore (if possible). If this is not possible, then consider keeping your children entertained on the beach with games, toys, and sand castles and avoid entering the ocean.
Also, check the local forecast for the day to see if there are any warnings or high surf conditions. (In the US, you can check the general surf zone forecast for different areas, or you can find surf forecasts all over the world on surfline.) If the surf looks strong, there’s still plenty of fun to be had on the beach without going into the ocean.
If you’re not familiar with the beaches in the area you’re visiting, you can always go to the local surf or dive shops to ask for advice. Or, find the lifeguards at the beach and ask them which beaches or areas they recommend for your family’s needs.
Try to choose a beach with lifeguards on duty.
Speaking of lifeguards, this leads nicely into Tip #2.
2. Locate and Swim Near the Lifeguards
When you first arrive at the beach, look to see where the lifeguard towers are located (if any). And check to see if the lifeguards are on duty.
If the lifeguards are on duty and you plan to swim in the ocean, try to swim near the lifeguard towers so they can see you easily.
If there are no lifeguards on duty, consider staying on the beach if you’re unsure of the ocean conditions or if you or your children are not strong swimmers.
Keep in mind that even strong swimmers can drown in the ocean. It’s easy to underestimate the power of the ocean and it’s currents.
3. Know What the Different Beach Flags Mean
Once you’ve located the lifeguard tower, look for any colored flags posted near the tower or on the beach. These typically indicate the ocean conditions or sometimes indicate the swimming zones.
Also, look for a posted sign that tells you what the different flag colors mean. (The meanings can be different in different areas and countries.) If you don’t know what a flag means, then be sure to ask the lifeguard.
4. Watch the Ocean Before Entering
After you’re settled at a spot on the beach, watch the ocean for about 15-20 minutes before entering (similar to what surfers do).
Waves come in sets. So, there will be periods of time where the ocean appears calm and periods where waves will roll in one after another.
Sometimes, people will arrive at the beach between sets and think the ocean is calm. But once they venture into the water, they suddenly encounter waves that are larger than expected when the set rolls in.
This is especially important if you’re going to take a child into the ocean with you. While you may be able to handle larger waves on your own, it can be challenging to do so while holding a child.
Also, kids who are not strong swimmers should wear US Coast guard-approved life jackets that fit properly.
Never turn your back on the ocean
Ever seen those videos where someone is standing at the shore line with their back to the ocean, maybe waving to the camera or talking to someone, and then suddenly a giant wave comes out of nowhere and slams them into the sand?
Well, this is actually a very common way people get injured at the beach. Sometimes, these injuries are very serious or even fatal.
So, teach your children to never turn their backs to the ocean AND to always swim with a buddy.
5. Know How to Escape a Rip Current (and Teach Your Kids)
The image above shows a dye test that illuminates a rip current at a beach in North Carolina.
What is a rip current?
A rip current is a strong, narrow current in the surf zone that quickly flows away from the beach. Sometimes people mistakenly refer to these as rip tides or undertow, but those are different phenomena. You can read more about the difference between the three terms.
I’m going to focus on rip currents in this article because they are the most dangerous for beachgoers.
A rip current will not pull you under water, but it can quickly carry you away from shore.
How do you spot a rip current?
Rip currents can sometimes be difficult to spot. But typically, rip currents occur in the calmer areas between where the waves are breaking.
The image below shows an example of a rip current.
If there’s sand or sediment in the water, you may see the rip current carrying it away from shore (but not always). See the image below for an example.
Also, rip currents tend to form near a jetty or pier, so it’s best to avoid swimming near those structures.
If you’re at a beach that’s popular for surfing, watch the surfers and see where they enter the ocean. Surfers typically paddle out in the rip currents to take advantage of the easy ride out away from shore.
You can see many more photos of rip currents by NOAA.
How do you get out of a rip current?
If you’re swimming in the ocean and suddenly realize you’ve been pulled far away from shore, you are likely caught in a rip current.
Do not try to fight the current by swimming straight back to shore. These are strong currents, and you will get tired without making much progress.
To escape a rip current, swim parallel to shore to get out of the rip current. Then, start swimming back to shore.
If you are tired or having trouble escaping, try to stay calm and float on your back. Then, wave or yell for help.
Watch the video below from the National Ocean Service showing good examples of rip currents and how to escape them.
It’s important to teach your kids what a rip current is and how to escape it.
I remember when I was about 8 years old, I was playing in the water at the beach when I was suddenly pulled away from the beach to where I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore.
I was treading water and trying to swim back to shore, but I wasn’t making any progress. And I started getting tired very quickly.
At that moment, I realized I was in a rip current. I knew I needed to swim parallel to shore to escape, but I was so tired I didn’t know if I could make it.
Luckily, there was a man near me who saw that I was struggling. He was able to pull me parallel to shore so we could get out of the rip current, and then he pulled me back to shore.
Even though I knew what I needed to do, you can see how easy it is for a child to become tired and start to panic.
This leads us to Tip #6.
6. Watch Your Kids and Know Their Swimming Abilities
I know this seems obvious, but there are so many distractions at the beach (especially if it’s crowded).
Also, it can be easy to think your older child will be ok in the surf and not watch them as closely. But it doesn’t take long to get pulled away from shore by a rip current or for a big wave to come unexpectedly and knock a kid down. Even adults are in danger of these things.
So, make sure there’s always an adult actively watching kids on the beach or in the ocean. “Actively watching” means not reading a book or looking at a cell phone, but continuously watching the children.
If someone is caught out in the ocean and in trouble, alert a lifeguard and try to avoid rescuing that person yourself. Often times, people who attempt to rescue someone from the ocean get stuck themselves and need to be rescued.
If possible, try to throw something that floats to the person, like a boogie board or other flotation device, while waiting for the lifeguard or help to arrive.
If you or your child are not strong swimmers, stick to the beach. There’s plenty of fun to have on the beach such as throwing or kicking a ball around, playing games, and building sand castles.
If you do take your child into the ocean and they are not a strong swimmer, make sure they wear a properly fitted life jacket that’s approved by the US Coast Guard.
Here’s a few other rules kids should know:
- Always enter the water feet first (to avoid a neck injury)
- Always swim with a buddy
- Stay away from piers, rocks, jetties, or other structures while swimming
7. Provide Sun Protection for the Whole Family
Sun burn is the most common injury for people at the beach. And it doesn’t take long to get a sun burn.
Also, if you’re going on vacation to a beach destination, keep in mind that some areas of the world have much stronger sun rays than others. The closer you are to the equator, the stronger the sun’s rays will be.
I used to live in Hawaii, and I remember when I first moved there, I got the worst sun burn of my life. I seriously underestimated how strong the sun is in Hawaii and burned so much faster there than I did on the US mainland.
Here’s a few tips to protect you and your family from the sun:
- Wear hats, sunglasses, and/or rash guards for sun protection, and use a beach tent or umbrella for shade. The sun is the strongest during the middle of the day (10 am to 2 pm).
- Wear a rash guard when swimming in the ocean. It’s more protective than sunscreen. Even though sunscreen is advertised as waterproof, I find that it washes off quite easily in the ocean.
- Use waterproof, broad spectrum sunscreen that’s at least 30 SPF (I prefer 50 SPF or higher).
- Consider using reef safe sunscreen, which excludes certain chemicals in sunscreen that can kill the reef. (And if these chemicals kill the reef, do you really want them on your skin? Not me.) Better yet, wear a rash guard so you only need to apply sunscreen to the few exposed areas of your skin.
- Apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before going out into the sun or water. Your skin needs time to absorb the sunscreen for it to be effective. Remember to reapply every couple hours or after playing in the water.
- If you’re going to a tropical beach, consider using zinc, which is a stronger form of sunscreen. It is usually thicker so it doesn’t wash off as easily in the ocean.
- Stay hydrated. Make sure you have plenty of water and snacks. It’s easy to become dehydrated while out in the sun for many hours.
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Let’s all do our part to keep kids safe at the beach and in the ocean by following these guidelines:
- Pick a suitable beach (and check the ocean conditions)
- Choose a beach with lifeguards on duty
- Locate and swim near the lifeguards
- Know what the different beach flags mean
- Watch the ocean before entering
- Never turn your back on the ocean
- Know how to escape a rip current (and teach your kids)
- Watch your kids and know their swimming abilities
- Inexperienced swimmers should wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets
- Always swim with a buddy
- Provide sun protection for the whole family (and stay hydrated)