Keep your family safe while at the beach this summer with these swimming safety tips.
I was a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard for 20 years. Yup, a genuine Baywatch babe–but I was the real deal. You can take the mom out of the lifeguard tower, but you can’t take the lifeguard out of the mom. Keep your family safe this summer with this list of beach and ocean swimming safety tips!
This article shares information about rip currents, how to teach your kids about ocean conditions and water safety, water safety tips, and basic first aid information. Follow these swimming safety tips to keep everyone safe while at the beach and in the water this summer.
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Beach and Water Safety Tips for Parents and Caregivers
I know ocean lifeguards can sometimes be the bummer police. Trust me when I tell you that we dislike that part of our job more than you do. We want you to be happy, have fun, and go home safely… However, 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 and Swimming Safety Tips from an Ocean Lifeguard Mom
1. Always swim near an open lifeguard tower
Only swim near an open lifeguard tower. You are putting your safety at risk when you swim in an area with no 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 around on the beach for the lifeguard on duty. They are usually easy to spot in their “reds.”
Personal Story of Why It’s Best to Swim Near a Lifeguard
Before Kauai had lifeguards, the locals were often known to save tourists from drowning. When I lived there for a few years in the late ’80s, I frequented a beach called Lumahi. It was nicknamed Luma-die because of the number of drownings that occurred there.
One day in the late 80’s 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 berm often stopped the river, but not this day. The surf was huge, and the river was flowing like crazy straight out to sea.
About an hour later, we had fun body surfing in it. Together, the ocean and river currents 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.
You can do it!
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. He shouted, “Help her!” as he continued toward the man.
I told her everything was going to be okay, to take a deep breath and hold it. I grabbed on to her, turned us around, and kicked us into the next set wave so we could ride it to shore. 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. At that moment, the lifeguard in me was born. I had saved someone’s life–and I was forever changed by it.
How I Became a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard
When I moved back to Santa Monica a few years later, I joined the Santa Monica College Swim team and took the tryout swim to become a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Fire Department in 1994.
After passing the swim and an interview, I was invited into an intense para-military ocean lifeguard training program. I graduated from the Los Angeles County Fire Department Ocean Lifeguard Training Academy in 1994 and retired from service in November of 2014.
2. Ask the lifeguard about beach safety, water safety, and ocean conditions
The best advice is to 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.
3. Pay attention to beach flags and swimming safety signs and learn what they mean
Most beaches and lifeguard organizations will have beach safety signs, flags, and cones to inform the public about beach and ocean conditions. Not all beaches and organizations use the same swimming safety 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 so residents know at first glance what to expect. Always check with the lifeguard on duty to learn more.
The photo collage below contains examples of some beach safety signs that you might see. They often mark areas to stay away from due to strong currents, piers, and jetties. Some beach safety signs designate emergency vehicle access and areas to keep clear in an emergency.
In Los Angeles County, the ocean lifeguards must also place a cone perimeter around all lifeguard towers for emergency vehicle access. Please keep this area clear, or the lifeguard on duty will have to tell you to move.
Some swimming safety signs designate swim and surf areas. There will usually be a flag and a sign with an arrow pointing towards the swim area and an arrow pointing towards the surf area, as shown in the photo collage above. Another water safety flag that you might see is the “blackball flag.” The “blackball flag” is a yellow flag with a black ball in the middle.
When you see the black ball flag flying, there is no surfing allowed except in designated surfing areas. Unfortunately, large beach crowds can sometimes cause the lifeguards to shut down surf areas so that everyone goes home safely.
4. Teach children to go to the nearest lifeguard when “lost”
Teach children to go to any lifeguard tower when they find themselves lost, or go to the nearest lifeguard tower the second you find yourself missing a child. No harm, no foul. All lifeguard organizations deal with lost children daily and have a safe system to return them to their parents safely.
As soon as both the parents and the child talk to any lifeguard, they will be reunited. I have never in my 20 years of service heard of a missing child (or missing parents) that was not located using this system.
5. 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 could not get up after falling. Keep children close to you to keep their water safe.
6. Learn to identify inshore holes and rip currents
Inshore holes are caused by large surf digging a hole in the shallow areas on the beach. They are dangerous for young children bouncing along in the shallows when they suddenly find themselves underwater and cannot swim. One minute your child will be happily bouncing away; the next, they will be gone. Watch children closely and keep them out of areas with inshore holes.
You can spot inshore holes because the water is often darker. People are often deceived by these holes and think they are safer to swim because the surf is smaller, but these areas are the most dangerous places to swim on the beach.
Rip currents will often pull out of an inshore hole. Waves rush into them as they crash to the shore and find an easy way out by filling into inshore holes. As soon the person can no longer touch the bottom, they will be pulled out to sea in the rushing water. Many times the person will be completely unaware of this until it is too late.
What is a rip current and how do you get out of one?
A rip current is a river of water heading out to sea, as shown in the graphics above and below. When and if you find yourself getting pushed out to sea, stay calm. You are probably in a rip current. If you are on a surfboard or bodyboard, stay on it. Do not jump off and attempt to swim to shore.
The swimming safety graphic below shows how to get out of a rip current safely. When you are in a rip current, not making any forward progress, swim or kick parallel to the shore. Or wait for the lifeguard to come to help you. Trust me. The lifeguards see you getting sucked out and are on their way.
They are probably standing on their deck looking at you through their bino’s or grabbing their lifeguard can and heading your way. They might even be whistling at you and waving you in to make sure that you really need help. If you don’t do anything or are having trouble, the lifeguard will come to get you. Just stay calm. Often “victims” are not drowning. They just need a little help.
7. 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 their mottos is “prevents before rescues.” That means that lifeguards are trained to approach and inform the public to prevent rescues instead of waiting until someone is “drowning” before they take action.
If you see a lifeguard motioning you to move down the beach or come into shore, follow their directions. They try to move you out of a dangerous area where there might be an inshore hole, rip current, a pier, or rocks close by. Move-in the direction that the lifeguard is pointing.
Ocean lifeguards are there to teach, inform, and make sure everyone goes home safe and happy–it’s our job!! We are always happy to teach you and your family about ocean conditions and water safety. If you are confused or want to learn more, walk in and ask the lifeguard what’s up.
8. Apply sunblock often and bring shade if you plan to stay a while
Chemical sunscreens are dangerous and have been known to cause all sorts of problems, including skin cancer! There are lots of fantastic choices on the market today that don’t contain chemicals. Use a chemical-free sunblock that contains only zinc or titanium as the active ingredient. Re-apply often when swimming.
Bring some shade with you to the beach if you plan to stay awhile. Hats, clothing, and/or rash guards with sun protection, beach umbrellas, and/or pop-ups are all great options. Unfortunately, regular tents are not allowed on the beach. If you want to use a tent… try a beach tent!
If you use a pop-up, don’t move it closer to shore than the lifeguard towers. Pop-up’s closer to shore can obstruct the lifeguards’ vision. If the pop-up blocks swimmers, the lifeguard will tell you that you have to take it down and/or move it. That’s a big bummer for everyone.
Umbrellas can go closer to shore but be prepared for a lifeguard to come to 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!
9. Keep your children far away from storm drains at the beach even when closed
Wherever there is a storm drain, there is toxicity. Most 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 children and family as far away from them as possible!
10. 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 effortless 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 danger. Keep your family as far away from them as possible.
11. Don’t swim near surfers
This is an important swimming safety tip. If you arrive in an area where there are surfers present and do not see a designated surfing area, please find a spot where there are no surfers to swim in. It is unsafe for swimmers and surfers to be in the same spot in the ocean.
12. Always use a leash when surfing, and a leash and fins when bodyboarding
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 bodyboard are 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.
13. Swim Parallel to shore not out to sea
When enjoying the ocean, please do not swim straight out to sea. Do not attempt to swim out to a buoy or breakwater. Holding onto buoys and climbing onto breakwaters is also discouraged. Buoys and breakwaters are often a lot farther than they look, and swimmers become 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 buoys that the lifeguards have set out, ask the lifeguard first.
14. Don’t use inflatables in the ocean
Bummer, police, I know, but there are many reasons for this water safety tip. Inflatables (including balls) are extremely dangerous in the ocean for several reasons:
- Inflatables can provide a false sense of security that causes people to go out farther in the ocean than they would without them.
- An inflatable can pop in the surf and put a swimmer’s life at risk if they rely on it for floatation.
- It’s effortless 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 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.
15. Don’t throw sand
Go ahead… Tell your children that the lifeguard said no sand-throwing. Send them over to the lifeguard tower to ask if they must. Sand-throwing is not allowed and can cause injuries to the eyes of beach patrons not even involved in the sand war. Please tell your children to refrain from this nasty activity.
16. Don’t tunnel into berms or dig too deep of a hole — and please fill in all holes before you leave the beach
This is an important beach safety tip. Tunneling into berms is an extremely hazardous activity. Tunnels can collapse. Please keep your children safe.
Please fill in any holes you dig before you leave the beach. A hole is 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. Lifeguards have a fantastic backup system in place, 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.
17. Know about tides
There are generally two low tides and two high tides every day, with some exceptions that I won’t go into. When you put your stuff near the waterline when the tide is coming up, it will get wet and may even be 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. There are often tide boards on open lifeguard towers where you can read 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 bees; 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 many 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 stings and jellyfish stings are most often minor injuries. Most lifeguard towers can treat both. Numbing agents like medicine are often used to treat the pain of a bee sting, while vinegar is great for neutralizing a jellyfish sting. Yes, the “Friends” episode is true. You can also urinate on a jellyfish sting to provide relief–lol!
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 sting victim having trouble breathing–notify the lifeguard and/or call 911 immediately!
Stingray injuries are more difficult to treat and often require an emergency room visit because the barb must be removed. Soak the area in hot water to draw the toxin out if available, and calmly make your way to the hospital.
20. Never dive into the water head first
Always put your hands out in front of you when diving into the ocean under the waves. Sandbars are often right where you least expect them! If you hit your head on the bottom, it can cause a neck or spinal cord injury.
21. Learn Signs & Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injuries.
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.
- Help support their head and neck until help arrives.
22. Be aware when near or on a bike path
Bike paths are like roads. 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 the 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. To cut down on waste we filer our own water and use re-usable double walled steal bottles that keep drinks cold (or hot) for hours.
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 any 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 seashells), leave only footprints – thank you for keeping our beaches beautiful for everyone to enjoy. 🙂
Related: Under the Sea Ocean Art Projects
Beach and Swimming Safety Tips for Kids and Families
There are many things to consider when thinking about beach and ocean safety, especially where the little ones are concerned. I hope that you feel confident enough after reading these swimming safety tips to keep you and your family safe at the beach so you can concentrate on having fun.
Learn more about Rhythms of Play HERE!