Jaws, released in theaters way back in 1975, forever cemented a fear of shark attacks in our minds. Innocent porpoises diving and out of waves can clear the water instantly when one person screams, “Shark!” No one questions it — see a fin and panic ensues.
Sharks, though, are hardly the most dangerous thing in our oceans. In fact, National Geographic reports that the United States records about 19 shark attacks per year resulting in one death every two years. Though millions of people flock to U.S. beaches each year, the risk of attack or death is negligible.
If Jaws isn’t a big danger, what is? The answer is rip currents. According to NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), approximately 50,000 people are rescued from rip currents by life guards in the United States each year. Fifty THOUSAND! Sadly, about 100 people die each year from getting caught in rip currents, mostly at beaches without life guards. Even more heart-breaking is that these deaths are easily avoided.
How do rip currents work?
Rip currents are present on just about every beach in the world every day. When waves break, most of the water rushes in toward the beach — that’s how we ride the waves. Rip currents, though, pull back out toward the ocean at speeds of up to eight feet per second, much faster than anyone can swim. If you’ve been in the ocean, you have felt them pulling at your feet. The higher the waves, the faster the currents tend to be. Thus, the more dangerous they are.
Why do people drown in rip currents?
|Rip current safety|
When caught in a rip current, many people panic. Not expecting to be pulled away from the beach, they frantically swim to get back to shore. The problem is that the rip current pulls them away faster than they can swim against it. That feeling of being swept out to sea increases the panic. Panic too much and drown from the fatigue of fighting the current and swallowing water. All of it is completely avoidable!
What should I do instead of panic?
Rather than panic and fight the current, remain calm. How? Make sure every member in your group understands what a rip current is — simply a current pulling away from the beach for a few minutes. Then make sure that everyone understands how to respond if caught in a rip current.
You can’t swim toward shore against the current!
Instead, swim parallel to shore to break free of the current. In a particularly strong current or if you can’t break free for another reason, stay calm and ride it out. Once you get beyond the outward push of the current you can swim out and around the current back to shore. (See the diagram above or click here for more information.)
Other helpful tips
- Never swim alone.
- Do not swim while consuming alcohol — intoxication decreases awareness and leads to many ocean related deaths each year.
- Obey life guard instructions. If they say it’s too dangerous to swim, stay out of the water. They know what they’re talking about!
- Review ocean safety rules every time you go to the beach.
- Rest, rehydrate and refuel often. You use more energy playing in the ocean than you might realize. Take breaks to rehydrate and refuel so that you have the energy to swim to shore if you ever do get “taken for a ride” on a rip current.
- If you can’t swim out of the rip current, tread water, wave your arms and yell for help — without panicking!