Swimming in natural waters can be an incredible way to connect with nature. However, even for the strongest of swimmers, these waters can be challenging. Knowing what the conditions are before you swim is the safest way to enjoy swimming in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
There are waters in which swimming isn’t just ill-advised, but downright deadly. Consider Dominica’s Boiling Lake, whose temperature routinely ranges from 180-197°— certainly unsafe for swimmers. Or Russia’s Lake Karachay— the most polluted place on earth. This body of water was used as a dumping ground for radioactive materials in the 1950s, and a series of accidents in the following years only increased the levels of radiation in the water. It’s immediately clear that these bodies of water are unsafe, but what about those that are typically swimmable? How do you know when it’s not safe to swim there?
Water conditions can change quickly; knowing what to do if you are caught in potentially hazardous conditions is vital to survival. Always listen to the local forecast, look for signs posted at entrances to lakes, rivers, or ocean beaches, and check websites for more information before going for a swim in any natural waters.
Rip currents are “powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that quickly pulls swimmers out to sea.” The NOAA reminds you if you are caught in a rip current do not waste energy trying to fight the current and swim toward the shore.
Swim parallel to the shore while in the current and back to land at an angle. It is difficult for swimmers to keep up the stamina to swim back to shore, so remember to always swim at beaches where there are lifeguards in case you get into trouble in the water.
Big waves can bring about shore breaks. These happen when big waves hit the shore with little to no water underneath them. The danger for swimmers occurs when you’re caught in a wave, and it carries you back to shore; the wave can then slam your body into land, which could cause potentially serious injuries. There is no real advice out there for surviving waves, but conventional wisdom says you should try to dive down underneath big waves if you can.
The best thing you can do is try not to panic, which is arguably difficult if you are caught in a wave and think you might not make it to the surface for air. The more you panic, the more difficult it becomes to hold your breath until you are pushed to the surface.
If you are in an area where a tsunami warning has been issued, it’s vital that you give it the utmost respect and stay out of and away from the water. A tsunami happens when there is an earthquake out in the ocean or on islands. In open water, a wave gathers more and more power and speed.
Natural signs to warn you a tsunami is imminent are:
- Water drastically receding from the coastline. If you can see much more of the ocean floor than normal, this is a sign you need to get to higher ground.
- A roaring sound will accompany a tsunami. It does not sound natural, it sounds more like an engine
- Big waves have nothing on a tsunami. A wall of water will rush toward the shore and will keep moving inland much farther than the natural high tide
Beach goers might assume the most dangerous marine animals are sharks. In reality, sharks aren’t as commonplace as you might think. While it’s never a good idea to swim if there’s a shark warning or a shark sighting at the beach, there are other dangerous warnings you need to know about.
Jellyfish kill more people each year than sharks do. While shark attacks are rare, jellyfish sting people every day. They don’t often attack, but the waves can carry them close enough to brush a tentacle against you—and that’s sufficient to cause a reaction.
These reactions can range from mildly irritating to deadly, depending on the type of jellyfish. If you or someone you’re with gets stung by a jellyfish, you can rinse the area with vinegar and try to pick out the visible tentacles with tweezers. If the reaction continues to worsen, seek medical treatment.
There are so many places people can pay to swim with stingrays, you may think they are safe animals and not a concern. However, these are controlled situations with experienced staff. In the wild, these animals should be given a wide berth.
A stingray’s spine is sharp, and they use it when they feel threatened. The venom can be fatal to humans. If you do happen to step on a stingray and get stung, you must seek immediate medical treatment. A sting from a stingray is likely not fatal, but it depends on where you get stung and how many times. Always take stingray warnings seriously, regardless of which beach you’re visiting.
Red Algae Bloom
Harmful Algae Blooms (HABS), or Red Tide, create dangerous conditions for humans and animals. The blooms create toxic airborne irritants that can harm human health. These red tides can contaminate and kill marine animals. If contaminated shellfish are consumed, humans can contract Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning.
Swimming in these conditions is not likely to be fatal but can cause respiratory symptoms like coughing and wheezing. Skin conditions, such as rashes, might be developed as well. Anyone with pre-existing respiratory diseases is advised to avoid beaches with HABS.
Knowing how to handle the conditions and what they mean for open water swimming is the first responsible thing you need to do when heading out for a swim. Having the right equipment is another. At Born to Swim we offer high-quality swim gear in colors that are just as fun as swimming itself. Visit our website to see all the gear we have available for individual swimmers and customizable gear for teams and clubs!