Swim Guide was created to help answer questions about the quality of the water in order to help prevent people from getting sick.

Our priority is to help people avoid waterborne illnesses by making it easy to see whether or not water has met or failed to meet recreational water quality criteria.

Is the water “safe” for swimming?

Swim Guide answers the question “can I swim here?” by providing reliable and current recreational water quality data for over 7,000 beaches. Swim Guide, however, does not answer the question “is the water safe?”

Water quality is only one factor that determines if the water is “safe” for swimming. If water is contaminated it can make you ill. Other factors, unrelated to bacteria and other contaminants can ruin or even endanger your trip to the beach.

What else makes a beach “unsafe”?

There are a lot of things that can make your trip to the beach unsafe, from falling coconuts to marine life, to dangerous weather events and water hazards. Being prepared and always paying attention to advisories and local, current conditions will significantly decrease your risk of getting injured.

Below is a list of additional safety concerns for beach goers.

Drowning

Drowning is always a danger when you are on or near the water. According to the International Life Saving Federation: “1.2 million people around the world die by drowning every year, that is more than two persons per minute. From that more than 50 percent are children.” Drowning is the number one cause of death in children ages 1 to 4, and the second highest cause of death in children under 10.

While swimming is a fun recreational water activity, it is also an important survival skill. Swimming isn’t instinctual. We have to learn to swim, and we have to learn how to protect ourselves and others around the water.

You can reduce your chances of drowning by learning to swim, and learning how to be safe in and near the water. If you have children in you care, never forget you are their lifeguard.

Rip Currents
The United States Lifesaving Association estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on the nation’s beaches exceeds 100. In addition, it is estimated that 80 per cent of all life guard beach rescues in the United States are rip current related. Rip currents aren’t just a concern for coastal beachgoers, as they can occur at any beach with breaking waves (including fresh water beaches, such as those on the Great Lakes). In fact, on the Great Lakes, rip currents are responsible for almost 50% of drownings.

If you are caught in a rip current, it’s important to remain calm and not try to fight the current. A rip current will just pull you farther from shore and not underwater. Read more on rip currents here, and what to do if you ever get caught in one.

Photo by Tom Gill

Extreme Weather Conditions

Following a rain event the 48 hour rule is the standard to protect your health against elevated contamination. But there are other weather conditions and events that can make the water and beaches unsafe, and downright deadly.

Cyclones
Cyclones include typhoons, hurricanes, tropical storms, Nor’easters, and winter storms. These low pressure storms generate huge winds, huge waves, and a lot of rain. In the winter, add to this mix blowing snow and ice. As exciting as this might sound, this is definitely not the time to head to the beach. During a cyclone sea levels can rise several meters. Storm surges and flooding are common, and sustained winds can reach over 100km an hour. Stay well away from the shore and waterways during any extreme weather events, seek appropriate shelter, and heed all warnings and evacuation orders from local authorities. Most injuries and deaths during cyclones are caused by flooding and storm surges.

Photo by Mrs. Gemstone

Tsunami
If you are in a coastal area and feel a strong earthquake, you should immediately seek higher ground as it is likely a tsunami will be imminent. Do not head to the beach. In fact, approximately 99% of all tsunami fatalities occur within 30 minutes of when the tsunami was generated and 160 miles of it’s origin. The deadliest tsunamis in recent history were the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Sumatra Indonesia, followed by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami that hit Japan. Having warning systems in place and being educated on tsunami preparedness make a huge difference, and it is for these reasons that the 2011 Tohoku tsunami resulted in a much smaller death toll than the 2004 Sumatra tsunami.

Lightning
Getting struck by lightning is rare, the odds of it happening to you are 1 in 12,000. However, certain scenarios, including being on the beach during a storm, can increase your risk. If you are at the beach and hear thunder, seek shelter immediately. Chances are you are the tallest thing in the area, making you a more attractive target for a lightning bolt. In the last decade, there have been an average of 31 lightning-related deaths in the United States per year. On the bright side, 90% of victims survive after getting struck by lightning.

Photo by Andrew Malone

Extreme Heat
Heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States. Heat related illnesses and symptoms include sunburn, heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is responsible for causing sunburns, and it is the most harmful between the hours of 10:00am and 4:00pm. Sunburns are painful, damaging to the skin, and increase your risk of skin cancer. Heat stroke is the most serious heat related injury and is defined as a core body temperature of 106°F or higher. Other common symptoms of heat stroke are headaches, nausea and unconsciousness. If heat stroke is not treated immediately it can lead death or permanent disability. In order to protect yourself from heat related injuries, always wear sunscreen, seek shade and stay hydrated.

Aquatic Life

Fire coral, lion fish, saltwater crocodiles. When you head to the water at your favourite swim spot, you are sharing the water with aquatic life. Some of them can hurt you with bites, burns, and stings. You can avoid an unpleasant encounter by being aware of the marine life that your are swimming with, following best practices, and always respecting that you are a guest in their watery home.

Photo by Tom Weilenmann

Sharks
Cue the jaws theme song. When beachgoers think of dangers in the water, sharks take a lot of heat, thanks in large part to mainstream media’s portrayal of them. In reality, shark attacks are extremely rare (about 1 in 11.5 million). So rare that you are more likely to get injured from a toilet than a shark. On average, 6 people die from shark attacks annually. To put things in perspective cows kill an average of 20 people annually and bees, wasps and hornets are responsible for 58 deaths a year. You have more to fear from jellyfish than from sharks. You are more likely to die or get injured building your sandcastle than because of a shark. (We’re serious. Read the sand section below). We added sharks to this list to underline how unlikely it is you will ever be attacked by one and to point out that humans are far more of a threat to sharks, and are responsible for an average of 100 million shark deaths a year.

To minimize your chances of an encounter, avoid swimming in brackish waters, don’t wear jewellery or anything shiny, don’t swim at dusk or dawn, don’t wade or go in the water with bait or chum, and take your cues from locals and lifeguards.

Stingrays
Death by stingray is extremely uncommon. There have been only about 17 recorded deaths worldwide. But stingrays can cause injury to beachgoers. They sting people with their venomous barbs when they feel threatened. The best way to avoid getting stung is to do the “stingray shuffle”. In shallow water, stingrays often bury themselves in the sand and unsuspecting beachgoers often step on them, causing the stingray to react by stinging. Shuffling your feet along the sand will cause a vibration that will scare away nearby stingrays and decrease your of getting hurt. If you do get stung, notify a lifeguard. Most stings can be treated within an hour. In the off chance that a part of a stingray barb gets stuck in your skin, do not attempt to pull it out, and seek medical attention immediately.

Jellyfish
While all jellyfish are equipped with stingers, most jellyfish stings are harmless and don’t pose a serious threat to humans. Out of the 2000 species of jellyfish only about 70 are capable of seriously injuring or in extreme cases, killing humans. Jellyfish are responsible for an estimated 100 deaths per year. Box jellyfish are the most dangerous, as their venom causes paralysis in humans, and leads to drowning. Portuguese-Man-of-War can also cause painful stings and even death. If you spot a jellyfish on the beach (known as Mesoglea), avoid it. As even when they wash ashore or are dead, jellyfish can still sting you. If you do get stung, leave the water immediately. If a severe reaction happens notify emergency services or a lifeguard immediately as they are trained and equipped to deal with jellyfish stings.

Photo by Ann Marie Morrison

Other Factors

Falling Coconuts
It seems foolish to mention – but falling coconuts pose a real threat to beachgoers. Some reports have even claimed that they kill 150 people a year (which would make them more dangerous than sharks). And although there isn’t definitive statistical evidence to back up this claim, there are reported incidents of them causing injury to the head, neck and back. It has even been reported that falling coconuts can cause blows to the head at a force exceeding 1 metric ton. Because of this threat, some places remove coconuts from trees or in the case of Queensland, Australia, the trees were removed completely from beaches in order to prevent injury.

Sand
Digging holes in the sand is a fun beach activity that many people enjoy. However collapsing sand holes can lead to injury or even death. Sand hole collapses often occur by the shoreline and can be triggered by digging, tunnelling, jumping or falling. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine documented that there were 31 fatal incidents related to sand hole collapses over a 10 year period – and an additional 21 injuries. Victims of sand hole collapses are often fully submerged by the sand, leaving very little evidence to their location. Even sand hole collapses that don’t cover someone’s airway are dangerous, as sand can put pressure on a person’s chest, making it hard to breath. To prevent sand hole collapses from happening, don’t dig holes that are bigger than knee-deep for the smallest person in your group – and always fill them in afterwards.

Garbage and Marine Debris
Accumulations of plastics, glass, textile, fishing gear, discarded needles, an endless amount of other debris can be a danger on the beach and in the water. Cuts and infections are possible from stepping on debris, and entanglement can happen in the water.

There are a lot of things that can make a day at the beach “unsafe”, but preparedness and paying attention to water and weather conditions will significantly decrease your risk of illness and injury.

Photo by Salve

More Articles Like This


Swim Guide shares the best information we have at the moment you ask for it. Always obey signs at the beach or advisories from official government agencies. Stay alert and check for other swimming hazards such as dangerous currents and tides. Please report your pollution concerns so Affiliates can help keep other beach-goers safe.

Swim Guide, "Swim Drink Fish icons," and associated trademarks are owned by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.| See Legal.

© Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, 2011 - 2017