Surfing, kayaking, boating, swimming, and other ocean activities can be fun. But the ocean is also an uncontrollable force of nature that can be dangerous. Ocean dangers include:
- Drowning: Between 2018 and 2019, the highest percentage of unintentional drowning-related deaths for individuals ages 14–17 took place in open water (including oceans), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Rip tides: More than 80% of surf beach lifeguard rescues are related to rip currents, according to the United States Lifesaving Association.
- Human activities: In its Boating Safety Statistics Report, the U.S. Coast Guard noted 767 boating fatalities in 2020.
So, be cognizant of ocean safety tips to keep children, teens, and adults safe and ensure everyone can enjoy fun activities in the sun and surf.
Have Fun, but Stay Safe in the Water
Following ocean safety tips to reduce instances of drowning, heatstroke, sunburn, and injuries helps to ensure that in-water activities remain fun. A key step in staying safe is to be aware of common dangers, including the following:
Drowning, which can be fatal, occurs when liquid deprives the body of oxygen through suffocation or by interfering with breathing function. More children die from drowning than any other cause, according to the CDC.
Not all drowning occurs in the ocean, nor does drowning always result in death. However, nonfatal drowning can damage organs, including the brain, potentially resulting in long-term impairment.
Tips for reducing drowning scenarios and helping others stay safe include:
- Never go into the water alone if you can’t swim.
- Get trained on CPR and rescue techniques.
- Remain close to shore, where your body can handle the pull of the waves and currents.
- Swim only where lifeguards are present.
- Never drink alcohol when swimming.
When body temperature rises uncontrollably above 104 F, the natural sweating mechanism can fail, resulting in the body’s inability to cool itself down to a safe temperature. When this occurs, heatstroke can soon follow. Symptoms of heatstroke include altered mental state, flushed skin that’s hot to the touch, nausea and vomiting, rapid heart rate and breathing, and headache. Left untreated, heatstroke can result in brain damage and impact other vital organs.
Tips for preventing heatstroke include:
- Dress lightly to allow the body to cool.
- Remain hydrated.
- Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest parts of the day.
- Be aware of how medications impact your body’s ability to react to heat.
Sunburn is an inflammatory reaction to overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The short-term effects of sunburn include redness, discomfort, and pain. Symptoms of sunburn include swelling and blistering of the skin; fever; chills; feelings of faintness; and dry, itchy, and peeling skin.
Frequent sunburn can speed up the aging of the skin and ultimately lead to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. As of 2022, an estimated 99,780 people in the United States had melanoma of the skin, according to the American Cancer Society.
Tips for reducing sunburn include:
- Avoid excessive exposure to the sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which are typically peak hours of sunlight.
- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear a hat, long sleeves, and other clothing to protect sensitive skin.
Injuries from ocean activities include drowning, falls, and cuts. A common cause of injury occurs when waves break on the shore, also known as shorebreak. Diving headfirst into a shorebreak can cause serious harm, including spinal cord injuries. In Hawaii, a state known for high waves, 32% of spinal cord injuries were due to ocean activities, according to Hawaii.gov. Symptoms of an acute injury include severe pain, swelling or bruising, tenderness to the touch, numbness, and limited range of movement.
Tips for preventing injury include:
- Enter the water feet first.
- Stay within designated swim areas.
- Avoid using alcohol or any other substance that can impair judgment.
7 Hazards: Be Aware of Ocean Dangers
Ocean dangers that can potentially impact beach vacationers vary from chance encounters with marine life and toxin-producing algae to rip tides and underwater debris such as sharp rocks. Common hazards to look out for include:
1. Marine Mammals, Fish, and Other Creatures
When considering ocean dangers from wildlife, many people think about shark attacks. However, sharks are not the most dangerous marine animal. In fact, shark attacks are rare. Still, to minimize the risk, refrain from swimming too far from shore, stay close to others, and avoid swimming at night. The most dangerous marine animal of all is the box jellyfish, whose venom is so powerful it can kill up to 60 people, according to Ocean Info. Other dangerous marine creatures include blue-ringed octopuses, flower urchins, titan triggerfish, sea snakes, and barracudas.
2. Human Activities
From surfing and jet-skiing to parasailing and boating, ocean activities can be fun. But they can also be dangerous if people are careless. High winds pose a danger to parasailers, as wind can lift them too close to beachgoers in the water or on shore, causing injury. Individuals also should avoid swimming too close to structures such as piers and jetties, which can pose a risk of injury if swimmers are pulled by a rip current and hit the structure.
3. Rip Tides
Rip tides are powerful currents that flow away from the shore. A rip tide can quickly pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea. To stay safe, beachgoers should be able to recognize the signs of potential rip currents, including fewer breaking waves, evidence of objects floating out to sea, or sandy water that extends beyond the waves. Lifeguards who see evidence of rip currents typically communicate the danger to swimmers, so paying attention to them is important. Swimmers should move parallel to the shore if caught in a rip tide — not against the current.
Rain does not pose much of a risk to ocean swimmers, but if it’s accompanied by a thunderstorm, lightning can soon follow and cause a safety hazard. The odds of being struck by lightning are about 1 in 500,000, according to the CDC. However, being outside puts you at greater risk for being struck. According to data from the National Weather Service, 283 U.S. lightning-related fatalities occurred between 2010 and 2021, with a peak of 40 deaths in 2016.
5. Heat and Sun
When people are exposed to extreme heat, they can suffer from heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Over 1,300 extreme heat-related deaths occur per year in the United States, according to statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And too much sun can result in sunburn. But going to the beach is about more than enjoying the water; it’s also about taking in the sunrays, a great source of vitamin D and good for our bodies. Be sure to properly hydrate, wear light clothing, and take precautions such as applying plenty of sunscreen.
Harmful germs in the ocean water, such as bacteria, create 90 million cases of various illnesses every year in the United States. Pollution, sewage discharge, and agricultural runoff that make their way to the ocean are some key sources of bacteria. Harmful algal blooms, also known as red tides, can also be toxic to humans and pets. In addition to checking on the condition of the ocean water from a resource such as the EPA website, steps you can take to keep safe include washing your hands with soap and water after coming out of the water prior to eating and avoiding the water altogether if you have an open wound.
7. Underwater Rocks and Debris
The ocean floor is in constant flux and at the mercy of the powerful tidal forces. With every wave, underwater rocks are tossed about, and many can be sharp. If stepped on, they can cause cuts, bleeding, and infection. Pollution adds to the ocean floor’s hazards. Debris from consumer products such as plastics, metals, and fishing gear, or from factory pollution, can make its way toward the shore, where beachgoers are vulnerable.
Ocean Hazard Resources
The following resources provide information about ocean dangers and hazards, as well as ocean safety tips.
- American Red Cross, “Swimming Safely at the Beach”: Offers beach safety tips to help make you and your family be safer while in the ocean
- Healthline, “How to Stay Safe at the Beach”: Discusses the importance of knowing the rules, paying attention to beach flags, swimming safely, and more
- Mayo Clinic Health System, “Boating This Summer? Make Safety Your Top Priority”: Highlights basic safety rules for a day on the water, regardless of boat type
- Riverside Medical Clinic, “Your Guide to Beach & Ocean Safety”: Explores the beach’s flag-based communication system and how individuals can follow it to understand changing sea conditions
- National Ocean Service, “Five Sea Creatures to Avoid at the Shore”: Explains five potentially dangerous sea creatures that show up on or near the shore
- National Ocean Service, “Nine Dangers at the Beach”: Discusses keeping safety tips in mind in face of common ocean dangers
- TravelingMom, “Teach Your Kids to Swim Before a Family Beach Vacation”: Focuses on the importance of brushing up swimming skills to help keep children safe in the ocean
15 Ocean Safety Tips
Going to the beach should be fun and worry-free. Following these 15 ocean safety tips can help people stay safe when participating in activities in or near the ocean.
1. Be Vigilant
Be aware of your surroundings and know where children and family members are at all times. Being vigilant also means paying attention to posted signs and obeying the lifeguards.
2. Identify Indoor Shelters
Upon arriving at the beach, look for indoor areas that can provide protection from lightning strikes. At the first thunderclap, immediately head for shelter.
3. Wear Water Shoes
On sunny days, the sand on the beach can get extremely hot. Protection can come in the form of water shoes, which also help protect feet from sharp objects and other underwater debris.
4. Apply Sunscreen
Sunscreen should be applied generously to make sure that all exposed skin is covered. This includes ears, shoulders, and the back of your legs. For areas of the body difficult to reach, such as the back, ask a family member or friend to apply sunscreen for you.
5. Wear a Life Vest
Life vests, or life jackets, save lives. Regardless of swimming ability, anyone engaged in recreational boating activities should wear a life jacket, according to Water Safety USA. Additionally, inexperienced swimmers or nonswimmers in open water and preschool children not protected by touch supervision should wear life jackets, which need to fit well to be effective.
6. Use a Flotation Device
Floatation devices for children — and adult nonswimmers — include armband and vest floaties, inflatable tubes that wrap around the middle, kickboards, and foam noodles. The best choice is a floatation device a child can’t lose hold of. Young children should always be supervised.
7. Learn to Swim
Statistics reveal the importance of learning to swim or brushing up on your swimming skills. In a 2019 report, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation found that most people age 15 and older could not swim unassisted. Each year, an estimated 236,000 deaths worldwide are due to drowning, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
8. Pay Attention to Lifeguards
Lifeguards offer protection and warnings for beachgoers, providing guidance on safe areas to swim. They are constantly on the lookout for potential dangers, from swimmers struggling to stay above water to sharks and rip tides.
9. Don’t Touch Marine Life
It is important to enjoy activities such as collecting seashells without touching live animals, fish, or other ocean creatures. Snails resting on the ocean floor, for example, may seem harmless but could be deadly. The cone snail is one example. A single cone snail’s venom can kill up to 700 people, according to a StatPearls study.
10. Operate Boats Safely
Recreational boating accidents resulted in 767 deaths and 3,191 injuries in 2020, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. To minimize the danger, watch your speed and always respect navigational aids such as buoys.
11. Watch the Weather
Thunderstorms can generate strong winds, which affect currents and can quickly change ocean conditions. Additionally, hot days can trigger dehydration and sunburn. Before heading to the beach, keep track of weather changes by checking mobile devices for updates.
12. Stay Hydrated
Ocean water cools your body — but only superficially. You may not realize it, but the constant motion of the waves takes a physical toll on you, causing you to sweat and lose precious fluids. Highlighting the risk of becoming dehydrated while immersed in water may seem contradictory, but stepping out of the ocean periodically — and drinking plenty of freshwater — is important.
13. Discuss Water Safety
While guides such as this one provide safety tips to anyone who takes the time to read them, not everyone is aware of water safety tips. Therefore, reviewing tips and plans with children and partners is important to help ensure a safe and enjoyable time at the beach.
14. Pay Attention to Signs or Flags
Ocean conditions can change throughout the day. Distant storms can create turbulent waters, creating rip tides and dangerous waves. As you enjoy your time at the beach, be aware of signs and flags that indicate ocean water conditions and other warnings.
15. Have an Emergency Preparedness Plan
Expect to have fun, but also prepare for the worst when planning a trip to the beach. Before you set off, be sure to create an emergency management and preparedness plan that lays out how to stay in touch when you’re away from your family and friends, as well as how to access emergency resources, important documents, and medications.
Your Health and the Ocean
Ocean experiences are meant to be fun. But without vigilance and proper planning, a trip to the beach can end in tragedy. The ocean is best enjoyed when safety is the No. 1 priority, and preparedness provides beachgoers peace of mind.
Should an accident, injury, or illness occur at the beach, a health care practitioner can help patients to recover. However, a perhaps equally important role for health care practitioners is to practice preventive care by educating patients on ocean safety tips.