by Steve Alexander
An estimated 7 million people visit Galveston Island each year, most crossing the causeway during summer. And most of these summertime visitors come to experience the beach- to wander, swim, and tan in the warmth of the sun.
If you’re one of them, keep in mind this important fact- the beach is part of our natural world, locally representing the shoreline edge of a big and powerful Gulf of Mexico. When you’re at Gulf’s edge, have a good time and enjoy yourself, but do so safely. Please consider the following suggestions for a safe summer at the beach.
SWIM NEAR A LIFEGUARD
Statistics show you’re much less likely to experience an unwelcome event at the beach if you swim near a lifeguard. A lifeguard not only can warn you away from dangerous situations, but also can be of assistance to you in the water if help is needed.
LEARN THE FLAG WARNING SYSTEM
This is a system of color flags that alerts visitors to water conditions and warnings. The color flag flown at the top of lifeguard towers matches water conditions and warnings for that particular day. The color flags used in this system and their meaning are depicted in the photo above.
Green and yellow flags designate calm or normal conditions, but caution is still warranted when in the water. Remaining colors- red, purple, and orange- denote water conditions that warrant attention. Pay special attention to a red flag. Red indicates strong onshore winds and high surf, conditions that can spawn rip currents- water movements offshore strong enough to carry a swimmer away against their will. Being caught in a rip current is a dangerous situation and can result in drowning. On a red flag day, be safe- stay in shallow water no more than waist deep.
Pay attention to a purple flag as well, one alerting swimmers to venomous marine life like Portuguese man-o-war, a stinging jellyfish, or stingrays. Likewise, note an orange flag, one warning of the potential for harmful bacteria in the water. This occurs when large amounts of freshwater runoff reach Gulf waters. Runoff may contain high levels of bacteria from animal waste or untreated sewage. On an orange flag day, be safe- avoid ingestion of potentially harmful bacteria by keeping your head above water as much as possible.
There is nothing more important than keeping yourself and those you love safe while at the beach this summer. Paying attention to and following the suggestions above will help you do just that!
For additional information on staying safe at the beach this summer, please check out www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com.
Steve Alexander teaches wetlands management at Texas A&M University at Galveston and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council. He is the author of Exploring Galveston: A Naturalist's Guide to the Island.