In my third and fourth decades I lived in Chicago where there are many things to love, and many things to endure. Epitomizing this duality is the beautiful but unforgiving Lake Michigan, which during storms can behave as though it were an angry ocean.
Freshwater lakes and rivers are crucial in facilitating evolution of vast numbers of plant and animal (including human) species on Earth. I’ve loved exploring all manner of freshwater bodies of water, standing or flowing, since I can first remember.
In my life I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to reside near and explore saltwater beaches in New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, California and Hawaii, and to visit and explore saltwater beaches in Jamaica, Mexico, Ireland, Panama and Canada.
Of all the places in which I’ve resided or visited, the most fun I’ve experienced (during one of the toughest periods of my life) was in the early 1970s in Southern California.
When my family moved to Huntington Beach, cabbage and strawberry farms—where our neighbors’ daughter rode her horse, were just behind our backyard. A long stretch of wide, white-sand ocean beach was still covered by droves of “grasshopper” oil pumps.
When I seek cognitive relaxation, my mind’s eye sees myself walking through the foamy remainder of rhythmic waves at Huntington Beach, at sundown…
In reality, such mental imagery is a dangerous illusion for the unprepared!
Unless rendered uninhabitable through human- or natural-catastrophe, all beaches—freshwater or salt, are ecosystems. The more unspoiled an ecosystem, the more dangerous it may be to human health.
In decades of travelling to places featuring ocean beaches and fishing, I’ve learned some safety tips that may be useful to people travelling to unfamiliar ocean “hot spots.”
I spent many enjoyable vacations with my family visiting Florida’s western beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, primarily between the cities of Clearwater and Fort Myers Beach.
Many species of shark cruise along and nearby Florida’s western coast, opportunistically hunting. Potential human predators are Bulls, Tigers and Great Whites. Schooling Hammerheads in the shallows are terrifying.
Florida beaches we visited typically were relatively calm, with minuscule waves spaced far apart. We were there in middle-to-late summer, so the water was pleasantly warm.
Starting at the point where the water stopped on the beach, water depth increased until it got about knee-high (I was two inches shy of six feet tall). In this area I saw little baitfish swimming—zigging and zagging, stopping and accelerating, frequently changing their direction of travel. This first deep spot was often 20 to 30 feet from the beach.
From this point, as one went deeper into the Gulf the water became shallower—ultimately to about half the depth of the deep spot.
Continuing another 20 to 30 feet further into the Gulf, the water became deeper—usually below my neck, but in places above my head: the second deep spot.
As happened after reaching the first deep spot, when continuing further into the Gulf the bottom became shallower. However, unlike water closer to shore, water after this second sandbar was darker (due to the depth) and less clear, and waves were more significant.
I only swam past the second sandbar once, on my first visit to the beach, but I didn’t feel secure—I felt like a baitfish with eyes on me. After this experience I rarely went into water deeper than my knees, in the Gulf.
Many sources confirm that sharks hunt in the water beyond the second sandbar, and also in the water between the first and second sandbars.
It should be mentioned that many in-shore shark bites occur in murky water (e.g., after the first or second sandbar) which contains fish blood (e.g., from fishing piers and/or fishing boats). Also, sharks are attracted to splashing noises which mimic fish that are feeding or are in distress.
In 2020, US national news broadcast stories of Great White sharks cruising in-shore along the California coast. Federally protected, the population of this species is increasing because of the large resident populations of their primary food—seals and sea lions.
Juvenile White sharks mistake swimming/surfing wet suits for prey, when they are in water holding large populations of seals and sea lions.
Along the US Atlantic, Pacific (not in Hawaii), and Gulf of Mexico coasts, being “stung” by a stingray can bring one’s outing at the beach to an instantly miserable conclusion.
Many fishing boat crew and anglers whom I’ve met in Florida use a paste made of water and Adolph’s meat tenderizer placed on the wound to counteract the stingray poison—but this home remedy is not universally promoted.
Jellyfish stings resulting from intact Jellies, as well as from tentacles which have broken free, are common on all three coasts.
Use of Adolph’s meat tenderizer to counteract Jellyfish venom is widely recommended, however more thorough scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of this home remedy is needed.
Finally, every person considering setting foot in an ocean must be able to identify life-threatening rip currents, undertows, and rip tides.
Identifying and avoiding these phenomena is the best policy. If in doubt, best to ask a lifeguard or defer.
Better safe than sorry…
Beach Safety Tips
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
January 27, 2021