Beach Safety Tips from an Ocean Lifeguard Mom
I used to be a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard. Yup, a genuine Baywatch babe… but I was the real deal.
Then I gave birth to my daughter and retired after 20 years of service. You can take the mom out of the tower… but you can’t take the lifeguard out of the mom.
Today I am sharing 25 beach and ocean safety tips that everyone should know.
You may also like 8 reasons I allow my child to go barefoot.
25 Beach Safety Tips from an Ocean Lifeguard Mom
I know lifeguards can sometimes be the bummer police. Trust me when I tell you we hate that part of our job more than you do.
Our most important role is to make sure everyone goes home safely, and sometimes what we tell you is not what you want to hear. Please know that it is for the safety of you and your children.
25 Beach Safety Tips from an Ocean Lifeguard Mom
1. Swim near an open lifeguard tower.
Only swim near open lifeguard towers. You are putting your safety at risk when you swim in any area where there is not a lifeguard present.
Typically lifeguards are never without their rescue can or tube. There is a lifeguard in this tower because the can is hanging. (The guard on duty happens to be my husband.) If you don’t see the rescue can or tube on the tower, look on the beach for the lifeguard on duty. They are usually easy to spot in their “reds.”
Before Kauai had lifeguards the locals were often known to save tourists from drowning. When I lived there before I became a lifeguard I used to frequent a beach called Lumahi Beach. It was nicknamed Luma-die because of the number of drownings that occurred there.
One day I can remember one of my local friends saying, “We’re going to make some rescues today… Are you ready?” He explained that a huge rip current was pulling next to the rock jetty with the adjacent river flowing into it. Together they created one of the biggest and strongest rip currents possible. The river was often stopped by the berm, but not this day. The surf was huge and the river was flowing like crazy out to sea.
About an hour later we were having fun body surfing in it. The ocean and river currents together were so powerful that they created a standing wave that you could body surf forever – or until you got “sucked out.” The locals all knew to begin swimming down the beach away from the river parallel to shore when this happened. Unfortunately, the tourists did not, and many died.
All of a sudden my friend took off heading out to sea screaming, “Come on!” He was headed toward a tourist couple that had gotten sucked out. When we got there they were in a state of total panic barely keeping their heads above water. My friend shouted, “Help her!” as he continued toward the man.
I reached her right as a big set wave came and I allowed it to smash into us as I grabbed on to her. I held my breath as we tumbled for what seemed like an eternity toward shore. The force of the wave pushed us close enough where I could reach the bottom with my feet and drag her slowly to safety.
In that moment, the lifeguard in me was born. I had saved someone’s life and I was forever changed by it. When I moved back to Santa Monica a few years later I joined the Santa Monica College Swim team and eventually became a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Below is a picture of me working Santa Monica South my first year as a lifeguard. One of the busiest beaches in the County.
2. Ask the lifeguard about ocean and beach conditions.
The best advice is to go talk to the lifeguard and ask questions before heading into the water. Lifeguards are more than happy to teach and inform the public. It’s our job and it helps pass the time. We prefer it to calling you out of the water to tell you, or rescuing you later.
3. Pay attention to flags and signs and learn what they mean.
Most beaches and lifeguard organizations will have signs, flags and cones placed to inform the public of beach conditions, rules, and public safety. Not all beaches and organizations use the same signs and flags, and some don’t even use them in the same way. Some organizations use flags of various colors to communicate the ocean conditions. Always check with the lifeguard to learn more.
The photo’s below contain examples of some signs you might see. They often mark areas to stay away from due to strong currents, piers, and jetties. Some signs designate emergency vehicle access and areas to keep clear in the case of an emergency. In Los Angeles County the lifeguards are required to place a cone perimeter around all towers for emergency vehicle access.
There are also some signs that designate swim and surf areas as shown in the photo collage above on the bottom right. There will usually be a flag and a sign that has an arrow pointing towards the swim area, and an arrow pointing towards the surf area.
The black ball flag is a yellow flag with a black ball in the middle of it. It means that there is no surfing allowed except for in designated surfing areas. Unfortunately large beach crowds can sometimes cause the lifeguards to shut down surf areas so that everyone goes home safe.
4. Look towards shore when you hear whistling or yelling.
When you hear whistling or yelling look towards shore to make sure it’s not a lifeguard trying to get your attention. One of our mottos is “prevents before rescues.” We prefer to move you to a safe place instead of rescue you later.
If you see a lifeguard motioning you to move down the beach or come in follow their directions. Often we don’t need you to come all the way in. We are just trying to move you out of a dangerous area where a there is an inshore hole, rip current, or rocks and piers close by. Just move in the direction the lifeguarding is directing you. If confused or wanting to learn more walk in and ask. We are always happy to teach you and your family about ocean conditions and beach safety.
If the lifeguard is motioning for you to come in. It means they would like to talk to you about the something – it usually does not mean you are doing anything wrong or have to get out of the water. They are there to teach, inform, and make sure everyone goes home safe and happy.
5. Apply sunblock often & bring shade if you plan to stay a while.
Use a chemical free sunblock that contains only zinc or titanium as the active ingredient. Chemical sunscreens are dangerous and have been known to cause skin cancer. There are lots of fantastic choices on the market today that don’t contain chemicals. Re-apply often when swimming.
If you use a pop-up the general rule of thumb is to keep it in the same line as the lifeguard towers. Pop-up’s closer to shore can obstruct our vision. If there are swimmers blocked by the pop-up we will have to tell you that you have to take it down and/or move. That’s a big bummer for everyone. We hate being the bummer police as much as you hate being told to move after the beach has already filled.
Umbrellas can go closer to shore, but be prepared for a lifeguard to come ask you to lower it if they can’t see the kids in the water behind it. Thank you so much for your understanding about this. We really want to be able to see your kids and make sure they are safe.
6. Keep your children far away from storm drains even when closed.
Wherever there are storm drains there is toxicity. Many storm drains are contaminated with extremely toxic substances due to illegal dumping into gutters. Absolutely everything in the street eventually ends up traveling down storm drains into our ocean. Even when closed these areas often have a build up of toxic substances. Keep your family as far away from them as possible.
7. Stay away from rocks, jetties, and piers.
There are several dangers to be found by rocks, jetties, and piers:
- They often have rip currents pulling right next to them.
- It is really easy to forget exactly where you are and get pushed into them causing serious injuries.
- There are often unexposed rocks and/or pilings just below the surface of the water.
Often these areas are marked with flags, signs and even buoy lines to keep people out of them. Keep your family as far away from them as possible to be safe.
8. Don’t swim near surfers.
If you arrive to swim in an area where there are surfers present but no designated swim or surf areas. Please find a spot where there are no surfers to swim in. It is unsafe for swimmers and surfers to be in the same area.
My daughter and I at Santa Monica Lifeguard Headquarters. Her mother and father met working as lifeguards so she thinks they’re pretty awesome.
9. Always use a leash when surfing, and a leash and fins when body boarding.
There are a few reasons to use a leash and/or fins:
- You won’t lose your floatation and end up at risk.
- Your surfboard and body board is less likely to hit someone when you use a leash.
- Fins make it really easy to get out of rip currents. Just kick parallel to shore until you are free and clear.
10. Swim Parallel to shore not out to sea.
When enjoying the ocean please refrain from swimming straight out to sea even if you see a buoy or breakwater you would like to swim out to. Sometimes these are a lot farther than they look and people are too tired to make it back to shore. Other dangers of swimming straight out are getting hit by passing boats or stuck in rip currents. Please don’t put your life at risk.
If you are a strong swimmer and would like to swim around one of the buoy’s we have set out, ask the lifeguard on duty first. They would like to communicate with you about it on dry sand instead of chase after you on a paddle board to make sure you know what you are doing.
11. Don’t use inflatables in the ocean.
Bummer police, I know, but there are many reasons for this. Inflatables (including balls) are extremely dangerous in the ocean for several reasons:
- They provide a false sense of security and people will head out farther than they would without them. If it was to pop in the surf their lives would be at risk.
- It’s really easy to get sucked out into a rip current when floating around.
- Floaties that you put on the arms of children can actually cause them to drown in the surf.
- Chasing after inflatables floating away is another way to put yourself at risk. It is more than likely that the inflatable is getting sucked out into a rip current. Don’t follow it out or we might have to follow you.
There is one exception to the no inflatable rule. Coast Guard certified inflatables with 5 chambers are allowed in the ocean. Please only use designated launching and landing spots if you intend to use these. Ask the nearest lifeguard for more information or call your local Lifeguard Headquarters.
12. Stay close to the little ones.
Little ones can easily get lost, knocked down by small waves, and slip into inshore holes quicker than you can blink an eye. Children have drowned in only a few feet of water because they were unable to get up after falling down. Keep them close to you and keep them safe.
13. Teach your children to go to the nearest lifeguard when “lost.”
All lifeguard organizations deal with lost children and usually have a system in place to safely return them to their parents. In most organizations it does not matter what tower you go. The lifeguard calls into HQ to notify personal of the description of the missing child and lets them know if they are “holding” the child, or “looking” for the child. The lifeguard then notifies their main station and the lifeguards working in the towers nearby.
As soon as both the parents and the child talk to any lifeguard they will be reunited. When you see a young child sitting in a chair on a lifeguards deck this is a sign that they are “holding” a missing child and they are now looking for the parents. Often the child will be given binoculars to look and sometimes the lifeguard will walk the child down the beach in search of their parents. I have never in my 20 years of service heard of a missing child (or missing parents) that were not located using this system.
14. Never throw sand.
Sand-throwing is not allowed and can cause injuries to the eyes of beach patrons not even involved in the sand war. Please refrain from this activity.
15. Don’t tunnel into Berms or dig too deep of a hole — and please fill in all holes before you leave the beach.
Tunneling into berms is an extremely dangerous activity. They can collapse and kill children stuck inside the tunnel. In LA County, it is illegal to dig past your knee, but this is not really enforced. All we ask is that you keep your children safe. Be very careful of your hole collapsing with someone in it.
Please, please fill in the hole before you leave the beach no matter how deep it is. Holes can be very dangerous to the unsuspecting passerby and can cause serious injuries.
I know several lifeguards that have hurt themselves by falling into holes while running from their tower to make a rescue. Sometimes they were hurt so badly that they were not able to continue to make the rescue. We have a fantastic backup system so this has not resulted in a drowning – but it can.
Please fill in your holes. We are not looking for them… we are busy watching the person in the water we are running to save.
Like to dig in the sand? Check out these tips on Building a Sand Castle.
16. Learn to Identify Inshore Holes and Rip Currents.
Inshore holes are caused by large surf digging a hole in the shallow areas. They are dangerous to little ones bouncing along in the shallows when they suddenly find themselves underwater and unable to swim. One minute your child will be happily bouncing away, the next they will be gone. Watch them closely and keep them out of areas with holes.
You can spot inshore holes because the water is often darker. Parents are deceived by these areas and think that they are safer because the surf is often smaller. They are actually the most dangerous areas on the beach.
Rip currents often pull out of inshore holes. Waves rush into them as they crash to the shore and find an easy way out by filling into inshore holes. As soon as you can no longer touch bottom you will be pulled out to sea in the rushing water. Many times you will be completely unaware of this until it is too late.
Rip currents are rivers of water heading out to sea. Instead of reinventing the wheel I am going to direct you to an excellent resource put together by the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Organization. Click here to learn more about Rip Current Safety.
If you ever find yourself far out to sea stay calm and never ever bail your flotation if you are on a surfboard or bodyboard. Either swim parallel to shore to find a spot without a rip current pulling to come in safely, or wait for the lifeguard to come get you.
Trust me, they see you getting sucked out and are on their way. They might even be whistling at you and waving you in. If you don’t do anything or are having trouble getting in they will come get you. Often our “victims” are not drowning – they just need a little help.
17. Know about Tides.
With some exceptions that I won’t go into there are generally two low tides and two high tides every day. If you put your stuff near the water line when the tide is coming up you stuff will eventually get wet and possibly washed out to sea. If you place your stuff close to the water when the tide is going out, you should be fine unless you plan to stay all day.
Be aware of when the tides are coming in and out and you should be able to keep everything safe and dry. There are usually tide boards on lifeguard towers you can look at to learn the high and low tides for the day.
18. Shuffle your feet in shallow water.
Shuffle your feet when in shallow water. This will alert all stingrays that you are coming and they will know to stay away from you. Stingrays are like bee’s, they will only sting you if they feel that they are in danger. They are most often stepped on when they sting someone.
Shuffle your feet and you will easily prevent yourself from getting stung. If you are heading out to an area where there are already lots of swimmers it is more than likely that they are long gone, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.
19. Know basic bee, jellyfish and stingray first aid.
Bee’s and jellyfish are most often a minor injury. Most lifeguard towers are able to treat both. Numbing agents like medicine are often used to treat the pain of a bee sting while vinegar is used to treat the pain of a jellyfish sting. Yes, the “Friends” episode is true. You can also urinate on a jellyfish sting to provide relief.
The danger of bee and jellyfish stings is when someone has an allergic reaction to the sting and goes into anaphylactic shock. This is a true life-threatening emergency. Often people who are allergic carry epi-pens and know how to use them to prevent this.
Some people are unaware that they are allergic if they have never been stung. It is always best to have a lifeguard check them out to make sure. If you notice the person having any trouble breathing notify the lifeguard and/or call 911 immediately.
To learn more about jellyfish and sting rays check out the resource the LA County Lifeguards have put together by clicking on the link.
20. Never dive in head first.
Always put your hands out in front of you when diving under the waves. Sometimes sandbars can be right where you least expect them and you don’t want to hit your head on the bottom causing a head and/or spinal cord injury.
21. Learn Signs & Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injurys.
Signs of a Spinal Cord Injury:
- Pain or tenderness in the neck or back.
- Cuts, scrapes or abrasions to the head or face.
- Numbness and/or tingling in the arms and legs.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Weakness in the arms and/or legs.
- Partial or complete paralysis.
If someone has a suspected spinal injury:
- Get the lifeguard or dial 9-1-1.
- Advise the injured person not to move; especially the head, neck or back.
- Maintain the position you find them in and help support their head and neck until help arrives.
- If they are in the water, keep them still while maintaining an open airway.
22. Be aware on the Bike path.
Bike paths are like roads. You should always look both ways before crossing. Bicycles have a hard time stopping and have the right of way. Please wait for them to pass before crossing. Be aware of your children and be careful not to let them dart across without looking both ways first.
23. Hydrate, Hydrate, and Hydrate some more.
Bring plenty of water when you go to the beach and drink it often. Water is always best. Drinks containing caffeine can lead to dehydration. Dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke if enough water is not consumed. Do you and your family a favor and bring lots of water to the beach especially on a hot day.
24. Don’t drink alcohol and swim.
Bummer police once again I know. But the facts are clear and undeniable. Drinkers are sinkers. Plain and simple.
25. Don’t bring glass to the beach.
Glass breaks easily and becomes dangerous to anyone that steps in the sand where the pieces lie.
One last thing — Please Don’t Litter.
Take only pictures (and maybe a few shells), leave only footprints – thank you for keeping our beaches beautiful for everyone to enjoy. 🙂
There are many things to consider when thinking about beach safety, especially where the little ones are concerned. I hope that you feel confident enough after reading these tips to keep you and your family safe at the beach so you can concentrate on having fun.
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