As the weather warms, more Southern Californians will be flocking to the beach. However, beachgoers need to pay attention to safety before they enter the water.
Christopher Lowe, professor of marine biology at CSULB, is one of the nation’s leading experts on shark and stingray behavior, as well as marine game fisheries.
“We’ve had recent fatal shark attacks in Southern California and Mexico, which has many people concerned about going to the beach again, but beachgoers need to put things in perspective,” Lowe said. “These are really, really rare events. While it’s truly unfortunate, I don’t really think people have much to worry about. The chances of someone being bitten by a shark in Southern California are so small that in many ways, it’s an unrealistic worry. But, there are other hazards they should pay attention to when they go to the beach.”
In terms of marine life dangers, he noted that people need to be careful of stingrays, particularly in the Seal Beach area, but at other regional beaches as well. “The chances of people being injured by stingrays are going to go up if conditions are calm," he said. "If there are few waves, stingrays come in closer to shore. If the water is particularly warm near shore, there is a higher chance that rays will aggregate."
The way that people can avoid getting stung is to do the stingray shuffle”— shuffling feet through the sand as they walk along, which helps avoid stepping on a ray and encourages the animals to swim away. “Many lifeguards in local municipalities will post warnings if stingrays are abundant during certain times of year at particular beaches,” Lowe said.
“It’s important that people who are going to the beach do some homework and look up some information on what types of marine life can be found around the beaches they plan to go to so that they can be prepared when they get there,” he said.
Jellyfish stings are another concern, he said, adding that stingrays and jellyfish are far more likely to be encountered on a day-to-day basis than the possibility of encountering a shark. “And, even those chances are pretty small. Of course, almost all of our local beaches have very well trained lifeguards who are accustomed to treating these injuries if they occur.
“It’s really important for people who may not go to the beach all the time to swim and play in areas where there are lifeguard towers,” he emphasized. “Probably the biggest danger for beachgoers really isn’t marine life at all; it’s mainly the ocean itself. Far more people drown than are injured or killed by marine life.
“Knowing the beach, knowing whether there are rip currents present, knowing your abilities in how well you can swim are probably the most important things that beachgoers need to pay attention to. Relying on other flotation devices such as water wings, Boogie boards, foam noodles and things like that can be really dangerous if you can’t swim well,” Lowe pointed out. “The most important beach safety advice is that your kids know how to swim and that you don’t overestimate your abilities when you go in the ocean.”
Rip currents also can be dangerous, he noted.
“They aren’t always easy to see, especially for people who don’t go to the beach much. The currents are strong enough to easily pull people away from shore and quite often, people try to fight that instead of going with the flow and allowing the current to carry them out and carry them back. They try to fight it to the point that they get exhausted and that’s when a lot of people panic and drown,” he said. “It’s important to ask the lifeguards about where the good areas are to swim in — where the dangerous areas are and where to avoid rip currents. Lifeguards are very well trained in Southern California to advise the public on where the safest places are to go.”