Swim With Caution: Summer's Beach Dangers

During the summer, it's easy to get caught up in the sun, surf and sand at the beach. Slather on some sunscreen and you're ready to go, right?

Not so fast.

Dangers lurk beneath the surf that can put a damper on any summer holiday.

Marine animals, including jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-war and lionfish — or worse, tiger sharks in some areas — can make things painful for unwitting swimmers.

By staying informed and being aware of potential beach dangers, beach visitors can avoid discomfort, injury or even a trip to the emergency room.

In the summer, the probability of run-ins with marine animals — dangerous or otherwise — is much higher. Swimmers are catching waves and sea creatures move toward the coast in search of warmer waters, said Christopher G. Lowe, professor of marine biology at California State University, Long Beach.

While marine animals themselves can cause some hazardous situations, some of the most dangerous beach encounters are initiated humans who flock there during the summer, Lowe said.

Beachgoers should consider that the central cause of most beach dangers is human behavior, not animal behavior, he added.

"Encounters are going to be much higher in the summer than in the spring, fall or winter when most people are in the water," Lowe said. "Remember, we're guests in the ocean — it's a wild environment and there's more than just one of us taking advantage of those habitats at the same time."

He added, "If it's a matter of reservations, were always crashers to the party. We crash the party and in summertime we crash the party in huge, huge numbers.

Basic suggestions from the experts included being well informed about beach areas and marine wildlife.

"People need to read up on the areas they're going to," Lowe said. "They need to be aware of their surroundings. There are not safety regulations or rules that the animals have to follow. Weird things do happen."

Here are some important facts, warnings and suggestions to consider before you dive in.

Tiger Shark

Keep away from river mouths and sandbars to avoid tiger sharks and other predatory fish.

Where are they? When can they be found?

In some locations such as Hawaii and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, tiger sharks are spotted year round.

They often are encountered by swimmers in murky water, near sites where rivers feed into an ocean area or near runoff areas.

Beachgoers should avoid swimming at dusk and dawn, said Andy Dehart, general manager at the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.

Swimmers should stay away from baitfish like minnows, he said, because the small fish tend to attract larger, predatory fish.

"If there's a sandbar present — bait fish will hang out inshore or closer to the beach," he said.

Because the sharks do see in color — high contrast colors like yellows, whites or silver — they spot and follow the shiny bait fish. Humans have to be particularly careful when they're swimming or wading in those areas.

The danger

"The worst case scenario is that you get bit. Tiger sharks can get up to 14 feet or so and a little nibble from a tiger shark can do a lot of damage," Lowe said.

But it is very seldom that flesh is removed, and it is even less likely that people are consumed by sharks, Lowe said.

"It's not that they are attacking people because they consider them food — when you get big, you can bite first and decide whether you like it later."

How big is the threat?

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