Our top 5 ocean safety tips for travelers

Planning on swimming or sunbathing during your next beach vacation? Check these ocean safety tips before you wade out.

People on the shoreline during the day.
Beach in Naples with the pier in the background.

There's nothing quite like the astounding power and beauty of the ocean—but to quote a certain superhero's uncle, "With great power comes great responsibility."

With something as wild and unpredictable as the sea, taking a personal interest in ocean safety is key. That's why even those who are frequent sun worshippers need to remind themselves of a few ocean safety tips before they hit the beach.

1. Always swim within a lifeguarded area—and follow their directions

Lifeguards are trained to identify risks like riptides, rough conditions, and hazards in the water.

So it's always a good idea to find a beach with a lifeguard—and be ready to respond as their advisories change over the day. Stay within their marked safe swimming zone and ensure any small children you've taken to the beach understand that the lifeguard is there to help keep them safe (and that it's imperative to follow their rules).

Birds eye view of Navarre Beach with a coastline of tourists enjoying the ocean.

2. Take precautions before—and after—you wade in

The ocean is an environment. And like any facet of the natural world, each ecosystem is distinct. So before you set off on your beach vacation, look into the common flora and fauna that you might encounter when entering their home.

Ask: What kind of jellyfish might I see? Are there dangerous times of day? What sort of tidal conditions—and water quality issues—might I need to keep in mind?

As a general rule, it's a good idea to use the senses you have at your disposal when assessing ocean water safety.

  • Look and see if there are large rocks, kelp paddies, red tides, rip currents, or signs of ocean life and inclement weather.
  • Confirm you can hear the lifeguard.
  • Sense with your feet and body: Shuffle to avoid stepping on potential hazards, like broken bottles or stingrays; assess if the water quality looks and feels good—not too cold or irritating to the skin.
  • Bring a buddy, and make sure you can hear and see one another as you swim.
  • Never dive in head first—always wade in slowly.

Seasons change the way the ocean moves and how the creatures within behave. Make sure you're looking at the right conditions for the time you've scheduled your trip. (And who knows, your research might turn up some amazing natural events happening during your stay).

3. Brush up on rip current safety

Rip current safety tips are among the most important pieces of information you can share with your party.

Rip currents (sometimes called rip tides) are a natural phenomenon where strong currents form near the shoreline and funnel out into open water. Rip currents are common in large bodies of water—both oceans and the Great Lakes boast the ability to create them—but can sometimes be difficult to identify.

Ranging in size and strength, the hazards rip currents present are another reason to seek out the vigilance of a lifeguard.

One surefire way to know if you're caught in a rip current is an inability to swim closer to shore, even if you're pointed directly at it. This is why rip currents are so dangerous: Like a resistance pool, swimming against a rip tide will tire you out, eventually taking you off shore and putting you at risk of drowning.

Should you be caught in a rip current, remain calm and swim parallel to the shoreline until you are no longer moving out to sea. If you find you cannot, signal to the lifeguard for help.

4. Be thoughtful of other common dangerous water conditions

Sneaker waves, shorebreak, and hypothermia are potential ocean swimming safety hazards.

Sneaker waves, also commonly called sleeper waves, are abnormally large oceanic waves that follow a series of smaller waves. While this might sound fun to the surfers among your party, be conscious of their potential to sweep unsuspecting swimmers out to sea, or to move large debris into your path at ferocious speed.

Shorebreak are conditions in which sandbars build up in the shallows, forcing waves to break more quickly and in shallower conditions. Shorebreak's powerful waves and shallow waters are a dangerous combination: Get knocked over, and you could find yourself slammed into hard sand. In shorebreak conditions, keep away from the water's edge and follow lifeguard instructions.

Hypothermia is a systemic regulatory breakdown of the body set off by remaining in cold temperatures for too long. Hypothermia from water exposure, while more common in cold oceans like the Pacific, can still strike in traditionally warmer places, too. Characterized by a sluggishness and a loss of feeling in the limbs and extremities, hypothermia can sneak up on unwary swimmers.

When swimming in cold water, ensure you take frequent breaks out of the water to warm up—in very cold temperatures, a wetsuit is advisable. Check in with yourself and the party you're swimming with frequently, and monitor children carefully. A lifeguard can help identify and act to slow hypothermia, so it's always good to swim near one and follow their guidance.

Wooden path leads down to beach in California

5. Be safe out of the water, too

What would a list of ocean safety tips be without including sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun hats?

Overexposure to the sun can put you and your companions at risk of the short-term discomfort of sunburn or heatstroke and the long-term risk of skin cancer. Be sure to cover up, reapply sunscreen, and know when you've had enough.

Additionally, take responsibility for keeping your beaches safe and hospitable for locals, visitors, and the ecosystem both on and off land. In the United States, dogs are welcome on some beaches, but not others. Follow local rules about what your beach allows, and be sure to pick up any waste your four legged friend might create during their beach day.

And just as in camping, make an effort to leave no trace—pack out your trash, and get some good karma by picking up any rubbish you might encounter on your way out, too. It's good for your health, the health of the community, and sea life far beyond the shoreline.

Ocean swimming safety FAQ

The best way to feel confident swimming in the ocean is to become a strong swimmer. If you have never had formal swim instruction, seek out a course before your trip to build strength and confidence.

Unlike a pool, the ocean can be choppy, and conditions ever-changing. Make sure you've done your research, reviewed safety precautions with your party, and keep in close proximity to a lifeguard at all times. For extra security, wear a lifejacket and approach swimming with caution.

Ocean swells can be dangerous, especially on days where the surf is bigger. To mitigate risk, stay within the lifeguard's designated swimming and surf zones, and follow ocean water safety guidelines for your local area.

The greatest threat to swimmers in the ocean are dangerous water conditions, like rip currents, sneaker waves, shorebreak, and water temperature. These threats are all very good reasons to only swim with a lifeguard on duty.

Like any physical activity, there is risk to swimming in the ocean. But by following these—and other—ocean safety tips, you can be prepared.

The safest time to swim at the beach is whenever there is a lifeguard available and conditionals are good. Typically, this is during the day and on beaches outfitted with lifeguard stands and stations.

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