A spate of Long Island shark attacks has drawn plenty of attention this summer, but experts say there is a bigger threat in local waters, one without fins but containing a different kind of bite — rip currents.
South Shore beachgoers Sunday were urged to stay out of the ocean because of a high risk of potentially deadly rip currents. Much like the shark sightings off ocean beaches since late June, a high risk of rip currents has kept swimmers at times clear of the water.
Rip currents, narrow channels of fast-moving seawater that run perpendicular to the shore, cause 100 deaths per year nationwide and are responsible for 80% of all lifeguard rescues, according to the United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit group. Most recently on Long Island, Benjamin Z. Kitburi, 31, of Montauk, drowned after being pulled into a rip current at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk on July 19.
It's always best to swim in front of lifeguards because "rips," as Ed Costigan, a lifeguard captain at Jones Beach State Park, calls the currents, can be any where from 15 to 50 yards wide and 10 to 80 yards long.
"Some days the rips are very strong, some days they're moderate or low and some days it's like low to almost none," Costigan said "Any day that you have rips, you are going to have rescues."
Rip currents are tough to predict, but are most likely to occur during times of large wave action or when the wind is blowing onshore, according to a fact sheet from New York Sea Grant, a statewide network of research and education services. Sometimes discoloration in the water, or debris moving away from the shore, are signs of a rip current. The dangerous currents also can look like calm water in between waves, according to the fact sheet.
Swimmers also can be pushed into a rip current by the ocean's natural east/west sweep, Costigan said.
Rip currents can move their location along the beach and can disappear shortly after forming, according to NY Sea Grant. Rip currents can appear near structures that run perpendicular to the coast like groins, jetties and piers, and are typically strongest in the surf, and dissipate only past the breakers.
If caught in one, the first thing experts advise is to stay calm. The strong rip current won’t pull a swimmer under, but it can be exhausting. The rip current’s channel is usually slim, which means there is often opportunity to move out of its path by swimming parallel to the shore. If pulled in deeper, try to float and tread water while waving and calling for help.
If someone else is struggling in a rip current, alert a lifeguard, call 911 or try to get them a flotation device, NY Sea Grant said.
To avoid rip currents, beachgoers should check with lifeguards or visit the National Weather Service’s surf forecast at weather.gov/beach/okx.
Scientists are working to better understand and predict rip currents to improve safety.
The Long Island chapter of the Surf Hazard Awareness and Research Coordination [SHARC], a professional network, was formed in 2020 and works to organize and coordinate on-the-ground data to strengthen the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s rip current model.
“Make sure you listen to the lifeguards and the forecast,” said Mary Ford, a co-founder of SHARC and director of engagement and external relations for Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, a regional data sharing organization. “There is a lot of time and effort dedicated making sure people can enjoy the water."
COPING WITH RIP CURRENTS
- Swim only in areas patrolled by life guards and be aware of rip current conditions.
- If caught in one, stay calm to avoid the exhaustion of fighting against these currents.
- Swin parallel to the shore to move out of the current's path until you can gradually move back to land.
- If you're pulled in deeper, tread water or float and wave or call for help.