The weather is warming up and schools are letting out for the summer. Soon, the beaches and rivers in the area will be full of bronzed bodies looking to relax with a dip in the gulf.
On a trip to the beach, one should always take precautions. In a matter of seconds, a pleasant day splashing in the water could take a dangerous turn. Brad Baker, Emergency Services coordinator, urged the public to be safe this season.
"If you're not a good swimmer, make sure you take a personal flotation device," Baker said. "If you're on a boat, you should always wear a personal flotation device."
Blackwater River is already buzzing with activity, according to the coordinator. Just last weekend, the river was full of thrill-seekers clustering north of the train tussle. He noted around 15 boats—some with water-skiers—and Jet Skis swirling about by Russell Harber Landing.
"That's just a setup for a potential problem," Baker said.
Baker recommended paying attention to surroundings, and remaining alert. With so much activity, it's easy to get lost. The river can be a source of floating dirt, debris and underwater stumps, which make diving potentially deadly because of the unknown dangers. To combat the potential blunt objects, Baker recommended swimming in familiar areas.
"Feet first, every time," Baker said. "Avoid diving head first to avoid neck injuries."
The beach offers its own set of inherent dangers and reasons to take extra care. Unlike slow-moving rivers in the area, the beach can turn treacherous during heavy surf conditions. But even during a calm day, rip currents can develop and threaten swimmers in the water.
"They're prevalent in our area," Baker said. "There's no one spot that says 'this is a rip current.'"
Rip currents form when water "rips" a hole in the sandbar, creating a fast-moving channel heading back out to deeper waters. The composition of the sugar white sand on area beaches result in sandbars that are packed loosely, when compared to beaches in other areas of the country.
It is recommended that one remains calm and swim parallel to the beach, if found caught in a rip current. Victims often tire themselves out trying to fight the current and succumb to drowning.
"The more you panic, the more it's going to pull you under," Baker said. "It's about understanding your limitations."
Since the season began March this year, lifeguards have performed four water rescues where they had to physically assist someone out of the water. There were 44 similar rescues from March to Oct. of 2012 and 69 rescues from March to Oct. of 2011.
Baker recommends always swimming by a lifeguard station when at the beach. The county took over responsibilities of the park area east of the Navarre pier after hurricane Ivan.
"We have increased our lifeguard presence on the beach," Baker said. "There have been no drowning victims on our beach, this year."
Terry Wallace, Navarre Beach Utilities Supervisor, stressed the importance of having lifeguards on duty for the public.
"We normally have 12 lifeguards on duty," Wallace said. "We'll have around 12-14 this year."
But it's not just rip currents that can be dangerous for beach-goers. The Gulf of Mexico is full of sea life, like jellyfish, which can put a damper on a pleasant day.
"We've got Portuguese Man-O-Wars," Wallace said. "They pack a pretty good punch with their sting."
The beach uses a color-coded flag system to depict the swimming conditions. Green means it's safe to be in the water. Yellow lets swimmers know they should be cautious in the water. And red means the conditions are not safe and lifeguards will shut down the beach to the public. A purple flag is also flown with the red, yellow or green flag, denoting that there is dangerous marine life, such as jellyfish or sharks.
"We just ask them to pay attention to the flag colors," Wallace said. "We've got the signs up at all the public access areas."
While there's much to be concerned about with water safety, Baker said to remember another, long-term potential danger.
"Don't forget about the bright sun," he said. "Make sure you have your sun block."
Flag warning system
Two red - Water closed to public
One red - High surf and/or strong currents
Yellow - Moderate surf and/or currents
Green - Calm conditions, exercise caution
Purple - Dangerous marine life