Tide pools along the coast of Portugal.
Important info for maximizing good times and minimizing harm
I know how to swim in the water, dive under waves, and body board. I've tried stand up surfing before, with only some success, although am proficient at bodyboarding. I know what lives in the water - I've seen a shark swimming near a jetty, I've seen dolphins and sea lions many times, I've seen pelicans and terns diving in the water to catch fish, and I've seen jellyfish washed up on the beach.
I know how to make awesome sand castles, what kind of stuff is found on the beaches after a big storm, how to catch sand crabs when the waves roll in, and much more. My favorite thing of all at the beaches is exploring tide pools when the tide is low.
Here I explain for visitors to beaches similar to those I am familiar with in Southern California, which are found worldwide, and particularly to anyone not so familiar with beaches and tide pools, safety tips and guidelines for exploring tide pools and also for dealing with rip currents when swimming in the water.
Also important for safety is to know about some specific animal species that can cause harm, such as jellyfishes, sea urchins, and moray eels. This is discussed in separate articles about invertebrate and vertebrate animal species found at the beaches and in the tide pools of Southern California – and much of the information applies to other locations around the world as well.
Resources exist online for determining high and low tides. I look for days that have low tides, since they’re my favorite for heading to the beach. I’ve also seen tide calendars that you can put on your wall, showing the rising and falling tides, and the approximate times when tides will be lowest. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night, other times it’s right when you’d be able to go to the beach, such as middle of the day or afternoon.
The NOAA website provides information about high and low tides in California and other places in the USA.
Tide pool exploration in Washington, USA.
Safety tips for walking on rocks and exploring tide pools
Adjacent to many beaches are areas with rocks and tide pools, which may be covered by water when tides are high, but exposed and begging to be explored when tides are low. Here I explain my safety rules for exploration.
(1) First thing to avoid is slipping when stepping on the rocks. Shoes with a good grip are essential, such as tennis shoes. Sandals or bare feet won’t do, for example. Your feet need to be protected by sturdy shoes that are resistant to slipping.
Wet and smooth rocks are the most likely to be slippery. Also, some of the plants such as sea grasses and kelp can be very slippery. Don’t assume you can safely step on them as you’re walking along.
The one time I slipped and fell was when someone’s big fat dog had been running around on the rocks and I stepped in dog doo. I hit my knees on barnacles and my pants tore at the knees and I bled quite a bit. This was when I was fourteen years old and already very experienced with tide pool exploration.
(2) Next, watch for loose rocks that can move, rotate, or roll if you step on them. Some boulders will be perfectly stable and others that are quite large and appear stable aren’t. Be careful with each step, and either test out rocks carefully or avoid them. Don’t assume they’re safe if you don’t know for sure.
(3) Watch what the surging waves are doing. I’ve seen people walking along, and a wave comes in and knocks them over. Waves can suddenly surprise people because some time can go by in between waves. Study how they’re behaving and keep in mind that it’s constantly changing and not always perfectly consistent.
I’ve been walking along somewhere that was passable, and awhile later when I tried to go back that way, the water level had risen. This happens a lot, so be aware of it.
(4) Watch your head if you pass under overhangs or into caves. Hitting your head is the opposite of fun.
(5) Don’t try things that are risky like taking a big jump, or something that makes balancing precarious and difficult.
(6) Watch for pools of water that are so still you may not notice them. Water of course is entirely transparent, and you can be walking on rocks and step in water you didn’t notice, which can be slippery.
(7) Barnacles are often good to step on for a grip on the bottom of your shoes. They look like tiny holes, and are hard and sharp. They can cut you bad if you fall on them, like what I described above. You can however step on them to get good traction.
(8) Watch out for the sun and make sure you have sunscreen and limit your time in the sun.
(9) Make sure you don’t drop anything in the water like a cell phone, keys, or wallet.
(10) Don’t go alone unless you think you really know what you’re doing and you are aware of the risks. Kids shouldn’t be allowed on the rocks without someone older to watch them.
Boy jumping into the surf in Portugal.
Safety for swimmers - dealing with rip currents
Rip currents are water currents near the surface of the water that move directly away from the shore, cutting through the lines of waves heading toward shore. Where they will form is not always predictable. They can be hazardous to beachgoers.
A swimmer caught in a rip current can panic and exhaust themselves trying to swim against the current, or perhaps they may not be good swimmers and may fear drowning. Rip currents are the #1 cause of lifeguard rescues at beaches, and in the USA a few dozen people die each year from rip currents.
A few things to know about rip currents, and tips for dealing with them:
- They cannot hold a swimmer down and drown them.
- They travel beyond the breaking of the waves, but not many miles out into the ocean.
- It’s possible to learn how to spot a rip current and thereby avoid it. One good resource is the NOAA website.
- Instead of panicking and trying to swim against the rip current, which usually isn’t possible, a good strategy is to remain calm and swim parallel to shore, and you will soon be out of the rapidly-traveling rip current, which usually isn’t very wide, and you will then be able to swim back to shore.
- Because it is necessary for swimmers to understand the dangers of rip currents, and to know how to recognize them and deal with them, those less familiar with beaches should in my opinion only consider beaches with lifeguards on duty.
- Surfers who want to go further out quickly may use rip currents on purpose for transportation.