Stingrays and Jellies and Rips - Three hazards of San Diego beaches

Summer is here and that means busy season for southern California beaches, despite a lingering June gloom that has been continuing well into July in recent years. People come from all over the country seeking sunny beach fun, but getting sunburnt seems the least hazardous issue, probably because it’s the one most visitors are prepared for.

It never hurts to remind visiting beachgoers that, even though the skies may be foggy and overcast, the sun can still burn through the clouds, so sunscreen lotion is absolutely essential, both out of the water and in.

Protection from the sun is not the only advice I have for summer visitors. As a native San Diegan, a surfer, and lifelong beach-goer, I’ve had my fair share of encounters with creatures, and currents, of the sea. I’ve been caught in a few rips and subject to attacks of both jellyfish and stingrays in my hometown waters of San Diego, and I have a bit of advice to offer the first-time visitor to Southern California beaches.

Jellyfish in the Water — And on the Beach

Jellyfish can be as problematic on the beach as in the water, in fact, more so because people walking and running barefoot are not always looking where they step. Trying to bury a washed up jelly in sand only serves to disguise it, bringing even more of a surprise to the wayward stepper. When I see a beached jelly, I draw a circle around it in the sand with arrows pointing toward it, as most locals know to do as a courtesy. Eventually the tide washes away the circle and the jelly. It’s less often that I’ve been stung by a jellyfish in the water – they are usually easier to spot and avoid, as they look like blobs of purple or white floating plastic bags.

Stingrays – And What to Do If You’re Stung

La Jolla Shores, popular with families of swimmers and surfers, is also particularly popular with stingrays who favor the shallow sandy waters in the summer, for mating and giving birth. The golden rule to avoid stingrays is “Shuffle, don’t step”, meaning drag your feet heavily when wading in to the waves – the vibration alerts stingrays and they will scuttle away. I also stomp my feet in place if I’m aware of stingrays nearby. Even so, I’ve been stung more than once (usually jumping off my board and landing on one), and it is incredibly painful! The best and most effective remedy is to immediately soak the foot (or whatever part is stung) in water as hot as you can bear without scalding your skin. Lifeguard stations are (or should be) always ready with the hot water buckets. Don’t expect to stand up and walk away after 5 minutes — you’ll need at least 30-45 minutes (and several changes of water to keep it as hot as possible). And don’t be surprised to see the small wound bleed heavily, that’s normal. Though the toxin from a stingray’s barb is not fatal, it does cause a great deal of pain. The sharp throbbing pain will persist, in my case it has been 24-48 hours, sometimes longer, and the only relief will be to just keep soaking in hot water.

As a mother now raising my child to love, respect and appreciate our San Diego beaches, I am pleased to note that, when my child attends summer surf and ocean activity camps, the instruction always includes the “Stingray Shuffle”, in addition to the first-aid treatment of stings from ocean creatures. The ocean is home for jellies and rays and they aren’t going away, so the best action is to educate people on prevention and treatment.

Rip Currents

Rips, or rip currents, occur when the ocean water forms a “river” traveling from the shore back out to sea. A rip current is easy to spot when you know what to look for: a trail of whitewater forming perpendicular (at a right angle) to the shore – it can move along a beach, it’s dynamic, and often catches swimmers and bodysurfers unaware until they realize they have drifted out beyond the breaks.

If you find yourself caught in a rip current, the most important thing is DO NOT PANIC. Stay calm. Do not try to swim directly in as you will quickly become exhausted – imagine trying to climb up an escalator that is continually moving down – you expend a great deal of energy but get nowhere. Instead, start swimming parallel to the beach. Essentially you need to get out of the river (off the escalator) by moving to the side of it. Then swim toward shore diagonally away from the rip. Look for where the waves are breaking and head in that direction – the breaking waves will bring you back toward the beach. If you become exhausted and need help from a lifeguard, raise one or both arms over your head and wave side to side to get their attention. They are probably already watching you. If you are fine, pat your head. If not, wave.

San Diego beaches are a “paradise” for visitors, but our summertime lifeguards are at their busiest. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way to ensure you enjoy your southern California beach vacation!