Chris Brewster: Lynn, unfortunately there is no central source that identifies all of the beaches in Florida or the U.S. that provide lifeguards. There probably should be and we should work on that. Another challenge is that where lifeguards are staffed the hours and seasons of lifeguard protection vary. The United States Lifesaving Association has a certification program for lifeguard programs which demonstrate that they meet our minimum recommended standards. They are listed on our Web site at: http://www.usla.org/Train+Cert/certagencies.asp. That's probably a good place to start. At least you will know that in the communities listed, there is quality lifeguard protection. You need to find out though if they are staffed at the beach where you will swim. Give them a call.
I would also recommend, when making travel plans, that you ask about lifeguard protection. For example, if you will be staying at a hotel near the beach, why not ask the hotel if lifeguards are provided at the beach and when? Or ask where the nearest lifeguard-protected beach can be found. Another option is to ask local community public safety departments. When you arrive, double-check to make sure the lifeguards are, indeed, on duty.
Sorry, but it does take a little digging on your part to find out. It's frustrating, I know. You don't have to ask if there is a fire department or police department. You can assume they will be there, but lifeguards are a different story.
Angela in North Carolina writes: A few weeks ago we were on vacation at the Outer Banks in N.C. We found an area that had an underwater sandbar and my young children were able to play in the calm water between the sandbar and shore. Is that a bad choice, letting them play in an area like that??
Chris Brewster: Angela, the calm area between the beach and the sandbar can be deceivingly dangerous in some cases. If there are waves present, they will normally push water over the bar, causing pressure to build up in that calm area. Eventually, the pressure may cause a break in the sandbar and what had been a very calm condition can become a very strong offshore current -- a rip current. This can be sudden and unexpected.
If you see any waves offshore, don't assume that the area inside the sandbar will be protected from rip currents. It won't. Keep your kids close to shore, supervise them closely, and swim near a lifeguard.
Patricia in British Columbia writes: With the hurricane season under way and with the prospects that this will be a bad year for hurricanes, how do you think that these storms will impact beach currents?
Chris Brewster: Patricia, hurricanes have two major effects on rip currents. First, they generate waves that are larger than normal. These waves can travel hundreds of miles and affect beaches well outside the immediate influence of the hurricane itself. Generally speaking, larger waves will cause stronger and more prevalent rip currents.
The second impact of hurricanes on rip currents is longer term in nature. Rip currents seem to thrive on uneven conditions in the sea floor near the beach. Hurricane waves can change bottom topography and cause those uneven conditions. So even long after the hurricane waves subside, rip currents may be much more likely to exist after a hurricane, even with gentle surf conditions.
Tyler in Oregon asks: How shallow do you have to stay to be safe from rip currents?