Every year, tourists stand on the shores of Carmel by the Sea in Monterey County, California admiring the calm pristine blue water and on a hot day, longing to dive right in. There are signs posted along the white sand beach warning visitors of the dangerous undertow.
But for many visitors who gaze out at the beautiful Pacific, it's difficult to take the warning seriously. To the naked eye, it looks shallow and there seem to be plenty of rocks to hold onto should a current sweep your legs from under you. Every few years in Monterey County, a tourist is swept out to sea.
Summer time is the perfect time to enjoy our countries lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. Our national mindset seems to view all things as recreational and and safe for families. Witness, for example, last year's continuing tragedies at Yosemite National Park where 14 guests lost their lives because guests treated visiting a national park like they were in an amusement park. The wild is, by definition, not safe.
The Dangers of Water
The danger of natural water is varied and many issues are not just about drowning. The safest way to approach summer water time is to know your water. If you have a trip planned, a quick search on that specific body of water will let you know what the dangers are. Make sure you and your family are prepared for swimming in lakes and oceans.
Swim Lessons Before You Go
Even if they've had them before, the kids should have a refresher of swim lessons before they go if it's been awhile. If they aren't going to be at swimming pools, this is especially true. It's much harder to swim in natural water for a variety of reasons like currents, toxicity, depth and width of body of water, and uneven bottoms.
Get the Facts on Your Water Area
Information is the best defense against accidents and surprises. These are some of the basics you need to know:
1. Lifeguards on duty
You take a substantial risk letting the kids swim anywhere without a lifeguard on duty. This is especially true of the ocean. Don't let the kids swim alone. Make sure the strong swimmers, even in a calm lake, have a buddy with them.
2. Currents and undertow information
If the area has strong currents and undertow, don't swim there. Find out if the locals swim there. If they don't, there's a reason for it.
3. Creatures of the deep?
Check for posted warnings about animals in that part of the water. Adhere to warnings about sharks and jellies in the ocean, and have your children wear swim shoes.
4. Geography of the water
The Pacific Ocean gets really deep, really quickly in some spots? Lakes have dips ane uneven ground below the water that can be tricky - and dangerous. If your kids aren't used to having to keep themselves afloat for long periods of time, provide floatation devices. Or better yet, make it a quick swim for the stronger swimmers in the family. Maybe it's a good time to make sand castles instead. If no one is else is swimming at that beautiful picturesque beach there might be a reason.
5. Anything else?
Know who else will be in the water, especially at a beach. Is it a beach known for surfing? If so, it's not going to be a great place for a five-year-old who, while getting dunked in the surf, might suddenly find a surfboard gliding over him. Are boats and jet skis allowed? Make sure to tell kids where they can swim (only to this buoy, etc.). Most coastal areas have designated swim areas. No matter how pretty the other beach looks, they need to stay in the designated swim area.
Ban the flip-flop and the Croc. Rivers and streams and lakes have sharp rocks, they could have scorpions, crawdads, and all sorts of creatures you don't want your kid surprising with their feet. Any shoe that isn't securely attached will come off and be lost and won't provide proper support. Best to get out the Tevas and the Keens.
That lake might look beautiful and awe inspiring, but you need to know what your kids are literally getting into. Many of our country's favorite vacation spots have either naturally occurring microbial bacteria issues or man-made pollutants in the water.
Around man-made lakes and reservoirs, look for older housing developments too close to the shores. If the houses are close to the shore, the septic tanks are even closer. Does the recreational area allow jet skis and motor boats which dump gasoline into the water?
Regions with loose environmental protection and a tendency towards deregulation fever are another place to watch out for toxicity in the waterways. Even our rivers (a current usually helps to flush out toxins to the sea) are not necessarily safe bacteria-wise. Are there ranches with livestock or non-organic farms upstream from where you are swimming? A common 'bug' kids catch in the summer is giardia — which though treatable causes a nasty case of diarrhea. In areas near refineries or chemical dumping, children can develop flu like symptoms, which aren't indicative of influenza but a toxic reaction instead.
The federal and some state governments will post signs about levels of toxicity around waterways, but truth hurts business and many states and areas of the coast have weak government protection. However, many areas of the country also have local environmental organizations that also post toxicity information — normally much more stringent in nature. For example, Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, California lets surfers and swimmers know if it's a 'clean day' by fed standards or by theirs. Concerned parents in the area use Heal the Bay's recommendations for water activity to be on the safe side.
Swim early in the season! Bacteria breeds in stagnant, sitting water, and tends to occur in late August when rivers and lakes are lower. Contaminants rely on their concentration and lack of current to spread.
Enjoy the Water
It's an overwhelming lot to be concerned about, but the precautionary time you take will lead to a healthy, happy summer — low on the emergency room visits. Enjoy!