Public Education

Although the ocean can provide an area for fun and recreational activities, it can be hazardous without background knowledge of the environment and conditions that are present. We have provided some information and resources that may be helpful in remaining safe while enjoying your time at the beach.

General Beach and Ocean Safety Advice

Talk to the lifeguards. Ask them about beach rules, safe swim areas and daily surf conditions.

  • Obey all posted warning signs and flags.
  • Always swim near a staffed lifeguard tower.
  • Don't overestimate your swimming ability. Play it safe.
  • Call and wave for help if you need it. Never fake or pretend to be in distress.
  • Keep a safe distance away from rock jetties and the pier.
  • Avoid stingrays by shuffling your feet along the bottom.
  • Educate yourself on rip currents. If you find yourself being pulled away from the beach, don't panic and swim parallel to the shore.
  • There is no smoking, alcohol, or glass allowed on the beach.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. Apply sunscreen and wear a hat.

Rip Currents

Rip currents move water away from shore, creating a channel that effectively flows back out to sea. These currents form as a result of water that has been pushed towards shore and must travel back out. Water will drift towards the nearest low-point on the beach, gradually creating a channel that flows away from shore.

Rip currents can be identified by the following characteristics:

  • A trail of discolored water - Channels of water that are brown or tan in color are usually signs of sand that is drifting with the flow of a rip current.
  • An area with choppy water - If water movement seems noticeably rougher than other areas, a rip current may be responsible. The deeper area and strong pull is moving water back out to sea.
  • Absence of breaking waves - If there is surf breaking on either side of the area, it may be a sign of a channel that has been dug out on the seafloor. Waves will not break as easily in a rip current as it is deeper than the surrounding area.
  • Objects that are drifting out to sea - If kelp or debris is moving away from shore despite the presence of some breaking waves, it may be a sign of a rip current in the area.

Note that there will always be rip currents near piers and jetties. Water moving against these objects carves channels on the seafloor, creating currents that pull right beside them. Imperial Beach lifeguards post red flags near these areas to indicate these permanent rip currents.

Imperial Beach lifeguards advise that if you are not a strong swimmer, stay shallow. If caught in a rip current, do not panic. Rip currents will not pull you underneath the water, contrary to popular belief. If you are strong swimmer, swim parallel with the shoreline until you reach breaking surf or escape the pull of the current. If assistance is needed, raise your hand or wave to gain the attention of lifeguards on the beach.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

For more information on rip currents, see the United States Lifesaving Association's Rip Current Survival Guide.

Longshore Currents

Longshore currents move water along the shoreline. These currents form as a result of the swell direction and the geography of the beach. Unlike a rip current, these currents will not pull you away from the beach. However, strong longshore currents can cause you to drift into objects such as piers or jetties, potentially becoming a dangerous situation.

At Imperial Beach, there tends to be strong south swells in the summer, creating strong longshore currents that pull from south to north. In addition, to rip current warnings, Imperial Beach lifeguards post red flags near the pier and jetties to advise swimmers of the strong longshore currents that can pull them towards these areas.

As with rip currents, Imperial Beach lifeguards advise that if you are not a strong swimmer, stay shallow. If caught in a strong current that is pulling you along the shoreline, make your way towards the beach. If assistance is needed, raise your hand or wave to gain the attention of lifeguards on the beach.

Inshore Holes

Inshore holes are large, dug-out areas in the sea floor that are noticeably deeper than the surrounding area. These holes are created through a combination of large surf, wave direction, and sand displacement. Inshore holes can be identified by the absence of breaking waves in a concentrated area, as well as rough, choppy water.

The danger that inshore holes can present depends on the current sea level. At low tides, they may not pose a great concern. At high tides, however, swimmers can find themselves in water over their heads after being able to touch only seconds before.

As with both rip and longshore currents, Imperial Beach lifeguards advise that if you are not a strong swimmer, stay shallow. Inshore holes can present unexpected dangers; you may be waist-deep heading out, but then find yourself not being able to touch after a few more steps. Often, rip currents also form around inshore holes due to the greater depth. If assistance is needed, raise your hand or wave to gain the attention of lifeguards on the beach.