Dr. Beach's Survival Guide
Stephen P. Leatherman, 2003
New Haven: Yale University Press,
106p. ISBN 0-300-09818-9.
Cloth, USD 20.00; Paper, USD 9.95.
Available from Amazon
This small format (13 X 20 cm) hardcover book contains a wealth of information. It is slanted primarily for the layperson, but there will be professional coastal researchers who will also benefit from reading this first complete guide to beach safety. The subject matter is diverse, covering not only hydrodynamic aspects of beaches but also dangers associated with sharks and jellyfish. Many topics are very basic and might seem a little strange to those of us who have worked on and around beaches for many decades. We must consider therefore that most people who use beaches generally do not live near them, but come to the coast for vacations and it is thus a time for recreation and fun. The book considers not only the sensational or high profile dangers associated with beaches but also hazards that are insidious such as water pollution and perhaps somewhat less so, HABs (Harmful Algal Blooms).
Chapters include (1) sharks, (2) rip currents, (3) beach smart, and (4) conclusion. This layout gives little impression of the wealth of other information that is contained with these main subject matter groupings. The appendices contain much useful and practical information viz. shark attacks versus other injuries, warning signs on the beach, common marine organisms that can injure you, America's top beaches, and how the top beaches are chosen.
The shark attack capital of the world is New Smyrna Beach, just south of Daytona Beach, on the central Atlantic coast of Florida. Not surprisingly, Florida is the leader in shark attacks in the world, mainly due to the large numbers of tourists visiting Florida beaches. Of the 338 shark attacks that have occurred in U.S. waters, 220 were in Florida. As Leatherman points out, most of these shark attacks are not fatal and result from small sharks (one- to two-meter range) feeding on schooling fish where blacktip and spinner sharks are most often implicated. Most of the shark 'attacks' are in actuality cases of mistaken identity where the sharks mis¬take a swimmer or surfer for food. Most sharks 'taste' with a bite and usually find human not very good eating. So, we are told, the 'attacks' are really just little nibbles. Yet, there have been cases where young swimmers have lost limbs or have been seriously maimed and so, even though the person survived the attack, the encounters with sharks must be regarded as serious and potentially life threatening. For me, all shark attacks are serious and one of the main reasons why Finkl does not scuba dive any more. Close encounters of the shark kind were enough to encourage me to err on the side of caution in an attempt to prolong survival in one piece. Nevertheless, shark attacks are prominent in the minds of beach-goers and they make front pages of newspapers as part of the hysteria that reporters love to generate. Leatherman's comments are thus most welcome as they represent a voice of reason in an otherwise largely mythical realm where 'shark stories' abound unabated.
The most common type of shark attack is the 'hit and run,' which takes place in shallow water (one to two meters deep), where small sharks bite a swimmer, bather, or surfer on an extremity and then let go. These cases are probably better described as 'shark bites', usually occurring in murky water where baitfish are plentiful. Severe injuries are associated with sneak or ambush attacks (great white and bull sharks) and bump and bite or circling attacks (tiger sharks). These incidents usually occur in much deeper water. It should be noted that about 90% of shark attacks are recorded in water depths less than 2 meters. Because sharks feed during twilight and nighttime, these are the best times for swimmers and divers to avoid the water. Leatherman provides lists of actions that can reduce an already slim chance of shark attack. Just to show how slim shark attacks are, compared to home improvement injuries, the Florida Marine Research Institute has compiled an interesting dataset that shows in the United States (in 1996) there were 198,849 injuries from nails, screws, tacks and bolts; 138,894 injuries from ladders; 43,687 injuries from toilets; 10,907 injuries from buckets; and only 18 injuries from sharks. Quite an impressive list, I must say. Compared to the 43,687 injuries from toilets, shark at¬tacks are hardly worth mentioning and yet they make national TV news with not a whisper of those 43,687 toilet injuries to be heard! I suppose this is because sharks are more photogenic and conjure up more vivid images of distress than do toilets. Alas! But, the point is well made because one is far less apt to be bitten by a shark than inured around the home.
Rip currents by far account for most of the beach rescues where swimmers are rapidly pushed offshore by fast moving shore normal currents. About 80% of ocean rescues (more than 70,000 per year) involve saving someone caught in a rip current. The vast majority of rip current rescues in Florida take place in Volusia County on the central east coast. Leatherman reports that in a typical year, thousands of people are pulled out of these murky waters, especially near New Smyrna Beach (where shark bites are also frequent). On the Florida Panhandle near Panama City in Bay County, there have been 24 rip current drownings since 1989. Most of the victims were from the heartland of America and thus not familiar with coastal currents nor aware of their potential dangers. California and Hawaii are well known for their rip currents as are beaches in other counties such as Australia and Brazil. The best way to escape a rip current is to swim parallel to the shore and not try to fight the current by swimming back to the beach. It is usually impossible, even for the strongest swimmers to out swim a rip because a strong rip current moves at about 1 m per second, which is as fast an Olympic swimmer. Rip currents have been measured at 1.5 m per second at big surf beaches in Australia, making it clearly evident that is it impossible to swim against such fast currents. One of the biggest problems associated with rips is fear once a swimmer realizes that the beach is becoming farther away. Trying to remain calm and swimming along the beach to a returning inshore-flowing current will usually have the desired result of safe transport back to the beach.
The 'Beach Smart' chapter contains many useful hints for enjoying the beach. Sunburn tops the list of beach peril. It should be emphasized that even one bad sunburn can, later in life, lead to serious or fatal skin cancer (melanoma) and it thus behooves all beach-goers to use sun blockers. Tourists from higher latitudes often forget than the sun is much more intense in the lower latitudes and that special care should be taken when on the beach, especially in summer. Leatherman reports that about 50,000 people are diagnosed annually with melanoma, representing a frightfully impressive 1800% increase since the 1930s. Beach lightning is a much-underrated hazard as many people use umbrellas to block the sudden downpours during a summer thunderstorm. Unfortunately, a beach umbrella can act as a lightning rod, with devastating results. In the United States, on average 73 people are killed and 300 injured by lightning strikes each year, according to the National Weather Service. Florida is the lightning capital of the United States, with about 10 deaths per year.
Hazards associated with water pollution, red tides (HABs), jellyfish, and other critters such as sting rays can be problematic. It is thus important for beach-goers to use common sense before entering the water, being especially cognizant of weather conditions several days prior to their swim. This is especially important because the overland flow of rainwater to storm drains carries many pollutants from residential areas, commercial, and industrial locations, that may include fertilizers, pesticides, feces, illegal plumbing, and industrial chemicals. Many of these hazards are invisible because they reside in the water in ionic form, yet they can be lethal to the unsuspecting swimmer. Pay attention to pollution alerts and stay out of waters that are designated as unsafe for swimming and other water-related activities. Especially hazardous are bacteria and viruses that can survive in polluted waters for long periods of time, especially around marinas, storm drains, and outflow pipes.
Last but not least are dangerous waves that occur on steep beaches. Leatherman quotes Sandy Beach, on the island of Oahu in the Hawaii Islands, where waves 1.5 m to 3 m often break in knee-deep water during heavy surf conditions. Common juries associated with waders, daring swimmers, and body surfers include broken necks, sprained limbs, and inured backs. The best advice for the novice or casual swimmer is to stay away from shorebreaks. Fortunately, they are uncommon in most U.S. beaches and virtually unknown along the Gulf of Mexico's beaches where the beachface is very gently sloping.
All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative booklet. I recommend it to all those who use the beach and to those who venture farther offshore. None of us knows everything and there is always something new to learn. Over-confidence can be dangerous in and around the water as there are always surprises just when we think we have mastered the game. Novices are at extreme risk and this book is really for those who think they know but do not know. When on the beach, ignorance is not bliss and can, in fact, be harmful to your health, even your survival. Read Dr. Beach's Survival Guide to help avoid those little shark nibbles on Florida's beaches.
Charles W. Finkl
Coastal Education and Research Foundation (CERF)