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Swimming Safety Beyond the Pool: Oceans, Lakes, and Rivers

Swimming is a classic summer activity loved by young and old alike, so water safety is an essential part of growing up in Canada (a country with the longest coastline in the world and more lakes than all the other countries in the world combined). But sometimes, it can be easy to forget that parents, children, and everyone else need to be aware that certain swimming environments present specific risks.

A few things are relevant to any swimming environment, so let’s talk about them first:

  • Watercraft: Boats, sea-doos, and a wide variety of other watercraft are increasingly common in outdoor swimming situations. Make sure to keep a safe distance between any swimmers and water vehicles to avoid serious accidents.
  • Physical Underwater Hazards: Rocks, debris, and other physical obstructions under the water make diving and swimming activities more dangerous. If you insist on jumping into the water then make sure you thoroughly explore the area for obstacles first, and never jump into the water head first.
  • Electrical Storms: Like in any swimming situation, if you hear thunder or see lightning then leave the water immediately and refrain from swimming until the storm has passed.

With that in mind, here are summer swimming safety tips for a few of the most common places we swim beyond the pool.

Ocean Swimming

Swimming in the ocean is a wonderful way to spend time in the summer, but it also brings with it some very specific dangers. Here are some of the most important things to be aware of:

  • Tides: Unlike pools, lakes, and most rivers, the ocean has tides that can dramatically affect the depth and flow of the water throughout the day. Being aware of when the tide is high or low on a given day not only lets you know when the swimming is best (or worst) at the beach or when it may be problematic. Tides can have dramatic effects like the tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy, where the difference between high and low tide can be as much as 50 feet (16 meters). It’s especially important to know the tide direction if you’re swimming in a tidal river (i.e. a river that gets its water from the ocean), as the current reverses direction as the tide turns .
  • Waves & Currents: Tides certainly affect currents but they aren’t the only factor to consider. Rip currents are the main causing of drowning and rescue on beaches with surf and are caused by waves breaking in a particular way to create very strong currents that can pull you out into deeper water. The most important thing to know about rip currents is that they can pull you out faster than you can swim in, so don’t tire yourself out by trying to swim directly back in (and don’t panic – they won’t pull you under the water, just away from the shore). If you’re at a beach with a lifeguard (or others on shore) then try to alert them while treading water. If you feel you are being pulled out too quickly, swim at right angles to the current (i.e. swim parallel to the shore) until you feel yourself no longer being pulled outwards (and avoid the area with the rip current from then on).
  • Weather: Weather in coastal areas can be very changeable, with strong winds picking up quickly and weather fronts moving in with alarming speed, so it’s always a good idea to check out hourly forecasts before you head to the beach.
  • Marine Life: While not usually an issue, the ocean is teaming with all sorts of incredible creatures. It’s unlikely you’re going to meet anything dangerous swimming (and obviously get out of the water if you encounter anything that could pose a risk), but one particular thing you might want to keep an eye out for is jellyfish. While many species have no stingers or any way to hurt you, some have dangling tentacles hanging underneath them that do indeed sting if you come into contact with them (although this is generally harmless for most species – aside from the pain). If you are stung then get out of the water, consult a lifeguard if there is one, and ideally rinse off the stung area with vinegar and use tweezers to pull out any tentacles that you can see on your skin. Do not rub the area or put ice on it (though a hot shower may relieve some pain). If someone has been stung on the eye or has trouble breathing, swollen tongue or lips, or any other extreme symptoms, then medical attention should be sought immediately.

Lake Swimming

Swimming in freshwater lakes is a another great way to cool off in the summer. Some large lakes (like the Great Lakes) are so big that they can have waves and storms roll in over them much like the ocean, but most lakes have a slightly different set of swimming concerns.

  • Water Quality: The ocean refreshes itself in a way that most lakes do not, so it’s important to check the water quality of any lakes you’re swimming in. Near urban areas, many lakes will have quality reports posted regularly on the internet so you know when it’s not safe to swim.
  • Marine Life: The main difference between fresh and salt water swimming with respect to wildlife is simply a different set of creatures to contend with. While the ocean may have jellyfish, one of the most common wildlife annoyances in fresh water (especially in the still fresh water found in lakes and calm parts of rivers) is leeches. Even though these creatures attach to your body and literally suck your blood, leeches do not normally create a medical emergency. A leech will fall off you once it is full, but that can take a while (usually 30 to 45 minutes, although longer feedings are possible). Whatever you do, don’t grab a leech by the tail to pull it off (or try to burn it off or pour salt on it, although both will remove the leech), as that can cause the leech to vomit into the wound it has created, which increases chances of an infection. Instead use a fingernail, credit card, or similarly thin object to quickly pry the leech’s teeth from your skin at the point where it’s connected. Always make sure to thoroughly clean a leech wound after the leech is removed.

River Swimming

Basically, if you’re on a tidal river then you’ll also have ocean concerns, and if you’re on non-tidal river then you’ll have some lake concerns. For both types of river, though, a key concern is to pick a sheltered part of the river where you won’t be swept away by the current.

  • Currents: Because non-tidal rivers flow from one place to another in a given direction, currents are a factor in river swimming, and because rivers sometimes flow across rapids and larger falls, they can present a serious risk for swimmers. It’s essential to know which direction a river flows and to pick swimming locations where the current is not strong – otherwise you may find yourself having floated far downstream from where you entered (which can be a great adventure but requires some very specific planning).
  • Rapids & Waterfalls: We talked about physical hazards above, and rivers can often have particular dangers in this respect. When currents meet physical barriers, it can create rapids or even waterfalls, so knowing the location of rapids, dams, and other physical barriers that could pose a swimming risk is tremendously important if you’re river swimming.

Finally, don’t forget that drowning in one of the leading causes of accidental death for children ages one to four. Wherever you and your family are swimming, it’s extremely important to keep a constant eye on young children and ensure they are always supervised. Now get your swimsuit on and head off to enjoy some of the natural waters that Canada so bountifully provides!