Increasing Rip Current Awareness Through Education and Research.



Dr. Beach's Water Tracer is a method of detecting surface water currents, especially life-threatening rip currents at surf beaches, has been developed. The water tracer is biodegradable and non-toxic.

Photo: Water Tracers (Dye balls), which can easily be thrown tens of feet, are orange in solid form.

Water currents are often difficult to discern, especially dangerous rip currents at surf beaches. Coastal scientists use water tracers by adding concentrated dye in powder or liquid form to water and then wading into the ocean and pouring it into the water (see video: Beach Rips: Dangerous Currents). A much more convenient and safer way for beachgoers to use a water tracer is by having the dye in the form of a ball that can be thrown from shore.

The YMCA kids at South Beach called them “magic rocks” when Dr. Leatherman threw a fluorescent, orange-colored dye ball into the water and it dissolved to form a beautiful green plume of water. This really got their attention because the fluorescent dye was so visual, and the brightly-colored plume immediately began moving in the longshore current. Waves are apparent, but currents are largely invisible. Many beachgoers do not even realize that there are currents at oceanic beaches, much less dangerous ones. Great Lakes beaches are also subject to rip currents, especially the southern end of Lake Michigan.

Beachgoers presently have no direct means of detecting rips and other dangerous currents. Red flags are used on many U.S. beaches to warn the public of marine dangers, such as big waves, rip currents, sharks, and other hazards. Signs are often posted at beach entrances with idealized diagrams of a rip current, but rips take many forms so that they are often not recognized by the general public. In addition, rips are not always visible or readily apparent (even to trained lifeguards) so that beachgoers enter the water with little to no knowledge of the presence or strength of a life-threatening current.

Photo: The floating dye ball quickly dissolves in marine waters, releasing a plume of dye that is shown tracing the tidal current in Biscayne Bay, Florida.

Photo: Large dye ball plume traces the longshore current at Miami Beach, Florida.   The dye ball is neutrally buoyant in water so that it floats at the surface.

Rip currents are the most serious hazard that threatens bather safety on most of the world’s surf beaches. It is estimated that 100+ people drown each year on U.S. beaches and perhaps thousands worldwide. Statistics from the US Lifesaving Association show that approximately 80 percent of all lifeguard rescues (more than 50,000 yearly) at surf beaches are the result of rip currents. Put into perspective, rip currents are responsible for more deaths than floods, hurricanes or tornadoes on an annualized basis according to the National Weather Service.

Beach Safety Facts:
• Rip currents are the most dangerous aspect of surf beaches; in the United States, more than 100 people drown annually, and lifeguards rescue 10,000s of people each year that are caught in these powerful, seaward-flowing currents.
• Rip currents are hard to detect and common on many beaches; there can be many rips on a beach, and alongshore currents can move you along the beach into a rip current.
• The seaward pull of the water is often felt in knee-deep water. At waist depth, the current can make it difficult to maintain your footing in even moderately strong rips.
• Many beachgoers are drowned on sunny days when the waves are only 2-3 feet high.
• Rips are difficult to predict because these currents can be produced both by strong onshore winds or an offshore storm when there is no wind at the beach.
• Rip currents are most prevalent on Pacific coast beaches, but many drownings occur along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Florida has the highest number of rip drownings because it has hundreds of miles of great beaches, sunny weather, and warm water.
• During the summer of 2010, 25 people drowned in rips in the Great Lakes.

Understand the Dangers of Rip Currents:
• View the short video “Beach Rips: Killer Currents” at www.ripcurrents.com or www.DrBeach.org before going into the water.
• Consult the United States Lifeguard Association web site (www.usla.org) for further information.

Rip Currents are Often Invisible--Signs, if present, vary by location and may include:
• Change in water color from the surrounding water—lighter color and murkier from bubbles and sediment or darker because of an underwater channel where the rip flows.
• Gap in breaking waves where the rip is forcing its way seaward through the surf zone.
• Agitated (choppy) water that extends beyond the breaker zone.
• Floating objects moving steadily offshore.
• Rip currents are especially hard to detect during times of strong onshore winds and confused sea conditions.
• This is not a check list. If you are not sure, then don’t go into the water.

Email us at drbeach@drbeach.org with your comments and rip photos


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