The idyllic image of a Caribbean beach involves placid, clear waters gently lapping against a palm-lined shore, but while you can find plenty of calm beaches in the Caribbean, playing in the water always carries a risk of drowning. As experienced Caribbean travelers can tell you, even islands with mellow beaches lined with resorts can also have coves and beaches with rough surf. The danger of drowning also rises when storms are nearby. To prevent tragedy, follow these tips from the Red Cross and the U.S. Lifesaving Association on ocean and beach safety...
Time Required: Whenever you are in the water
- Most important: learn to swim, and learn how to swim in the surf. It's not the same as swimming in a pool or lake. To stay safe, both adults and children should know how to swim.
- Stay within the designated swimming area, and swim only at a lifeguard protected beach. Note: many beaches in the Caribbean have no lifeguards. Check before you swim!
- Never swim alone.
- Be cautious at all times and check local weather conditions. If in doubt, don't go out. In the Caribbean, tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes can greatly increase the hazards of swimming, even if they never directly touch the island you are visiting.
- Swim sober. Water and alcohol don't mix. Alcohol impairs your judgment, balance and coordination. You need all three to be safe in, on and around the water. Don't allow that rum drink by a Caribbean beach be your last.
- Leash your surfboard or bodyboard to your ankle or wrist. With a leash, the user will not become separated from the floatation device. You can consider a breakaway leash. A few drownings have been attributed to leashes becoming entangled in underwater obstructions. A breakaway leash avoids this problem.
- Don't float where you can't swim. Nonswimmers should not use floatation devices to go offshore. If they fall off, they can quickly drown. No one should use a floatation device unless they are able to swim. Use of a leash is not enough because a non-swimmer may panic and be unable to swim back to the floatation device, even with a leash. The only exception is a person wearing a Coast Guard approved life jacket.
- Don't dive headfirst, protect your neck. Serious, lifelong injuries, including paraplegia, as well as death, occur every year due to diving headfirst into unknown water and striking the bottom. Bodysurfing can result in a serious neck injury when the swimmer's neck strikes the bottom. Check for depth and obstructions before diving. Go in feet first the first time. Use caution while bodysurfing, extending a hand ahead of you.
- Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards. Ask a lifeguard about surf conditions before entering the water.
- Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist near these structures.
- Pay especially close attention to children and elderly persons when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause a loss of footing.
- Keep a lookout for aquatic life. Water plants and animals may be dangerous. Avoid patches of plants. Leave animals alone. In the Caribbean, coral can cause serious cuts, and species like the lionfish and jellyfish can inflict painful stings.
- Make sure you always have enough energy to swim back to shore.
- If you are caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly. Never fight against the current. Rather, swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle -- away from the current -- towards shore.
- If you are unable to swim out of a rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore. If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.
- The Red Cross has developed swimming courses for people of any age and swimming ability. Contact your local Red Cross chapter to find out which aquatic facilities in your area offer Red Cross swimming lessons.
- Be aware of the signs of heat stroke -- another common beach hazard -- which usually include hot, red skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing.
- If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, call for help and move the person to a cooler place, apply cool, wet cloths or towels to the skin, and fan the person. Keep the person lying down.
What You Need
- Eye protection
- Foot protection, like water shoes
- Flotation device