Going to the shore this summer? If you’re heading to a sandy coast, you might want to do more than lie on a towel or practice your doggy paddle. On the sand or in the water, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the ocean, from shelling to snorkeling to surfing. Here are our top tips for a fun-filled day at the beach.
Under the Sea
Snorkeling is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to experience the underwater world. You can rent or buy inexpensive gear near popular clear-water spots.
Choose a location where lifeguards are present, and ask the lifeguard about conditions before getting in the water. Plan your entry and exit points prior to getting in the water. Swim into the current on entering and then ride the current back to your exit point. Pop your head above the water periodically to ensure you aren’t drifting too far out, or near rocks. Wear a rash guard; it will keep you from being fried by the sun. It’s best to snorkel with a buddy and stay together—this is safer, and you’ll have someone to point out that colorful fish.
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Think of the ocean as someone else’s home—don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you, or leave any trash behind. Don’t touch any ocean creatures; they may reveal hidden stingers. Do not bump against or step on coral—touching it can kill the delicate creatures that reside within the hard shell. Coral reefs grow only an inch or two a year.
Catching a Wave
Even if you don’t have a surf board, you can still ride the ocean’s waves.
The technique for catching waves is the same with or without a board. Swim out to where the swell is just beginning to break, and position yourself toward shore. When the next wave comes, lie on your board (if you have one), kick like crazy, and catch it! You’ll feel the push of the wave as you glide in front of the gurgling, foamy surf.
When body surfing, put your arms over your head, bring your index fingers together (so you look like the letter "A"), and stiffen your body like a board to achieve the same effect. If you don’t like to swim too far out, stick with body boarding and body surfing close to shore. Shore break (if it isn’t too steep) can be exhilarating to ride.
You’ll know it’s too steep if you hear the sound of slapping when the waves hit the sand. You’re looking for waves that curl over and break farther out, then roll, not slap onto the sand. Always watch first to make sure the conditions aren’t too strong.
Searching for Shells
The reasons people shell are as varied as the shellers themselves. You might collect simply for the fun of discovery, for displaying, or for use in gardens or crafts.
Veteran shell-seekers go out before the sun rises so they can be the first on the beach after a storm or night of high tide (Storms and cold fronts bring in the best catches). Most shellers use a bag to collect their finds.
Once you’re ready to pack shells for transit, wash them thoroughly to remove sand and debris. Then wrap fragile species such as sand dollars and sea urchins in tissue paper or cotton, then newspaper. Last, place your shells in a cardboard or plastic box. To display them, restore the shell’s luster by brushing it with baby oil.
Safety in the Surf
Beautiful beaches can be dangerous at times due to large waves and strong currents—so much so that many beaches rate wave hazards using colored signs. Ask a lifeguard what level of caution each color indicates.
Visiting beaches with lifeguards is recommended, and you should swim only when there’s a normal caution rating. Never swim alone or dive into unknown water or shallow breaking waves. If you’re unable to swim out of a rip current, tread water and wave your arms in the air to signal for help.
Even in calm conditions, there are other dangerous things in the water to be aware of, including razor-sharp coral, jellyfish, eels, and sharks. Jellyfish cause the most ocean injuries. Reactions to a sting are usually mild (burning sensation, redness); however, in some cases they can be severe (breathing difficulties). If you are stung, pick off the tentacles, rinse the affected area with water, and apply ice. Seek first aid from a lifeguard if you experience severe reactions. The chances of getting bitten by a shark are very low, but to be safe avoid swimming at dawn, dusk, and night, and stay out of places with murky water, harbor entrances, or steep drop-offs.
Respect the Sun
The sun is particularly strong in the summer, and beach visitors should take extra precaution to avoid sunburns and long-term cancer risks due to sun exposure.
Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Cover areas that are most prone to burning like your nose, shoulders, tops of feet, and ears. And don’t forget to use sun-protection products on your lips. You should apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before you plan to be outdoors and reapply every two hours, even on cloudy days. Clouds scatter sunlight, so you can still burn on an overcast day.
Wear light, protective clothing, such as a long-sleeve shirt and pants, broad-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Stay in the shade whenever possible— especially on the beach—by using an umbrella. Remember that sand and water can reflect up to 85% of the sun’s damaging rays.
Children need extra protection from the sun. Apply sunscreen frequently and liberally on children over six months of age and minimize their time in the sun. Sunscreen is not recommended for children under six months.
Photo Credit: istock / Wildroze