All things Siesta Key. Stories, news, and event information about Sarasota, Florida's beautiful beach.
What Do the Different-Colored Beach Flags Mean?
Stay Safe on Your Beach Vacay
When you come to the beach for a vacation, you picture yourself lounging on the white sugary sand, swimming in the warm, sparkling water, and tropical breezes blowing through your hair. What most people don’t usually picture are the potential risks that come from swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re not familiar with our area, the unknown hazards of swimming in the Gulf could be the ruin of your dream vacation. The beach experts at Best Western Siesta Key want to help you prevent any potential accidents, so we’re providing you with some safety guidelines and knowledgeable tips to help you navigate the wilder side of our beautiful coastline.
How to Know If It’s Safe to Swim
Since we can’t always see what lies beneath the surface, it’s sometimes hard to tell how dangerous the water actually is. A calm, glassy surface might have dangerous sea life just below it. Beyond the fun, frothy waves, a rip current might be forming. Because we can’t tell just by looking how severe the water conditions might be, our trained lifeguards raise different colored flags to indicate each day’s conditions. Here are some of the most common flag colors and what they mean:
Calm conditions, good conditions for swimming
Moderate surf and/or currents, use caution when swimming
High surf and/or strong currents, dangerous swimming conditions
Double Red Flag:
Water or beach is closed to the public
Dangerous or hazardous marine life present
Know Before You Go:
Of course, to plan your day, you may want to check on the beach and swimming conditions before heading out. There are some great websites and apps that can help you know what to expect. One of our favorite sites is Mote Marine Laboratory’s Beach Conditions Reporting System. It’s accurate and comprehensive, so you’ll know if today will be a great day at the beach. If conditions aren’t ideal, considering stopping into Mote Marine’s aquarium to learn more about their beautiful beaches and play with the dolphins they rehabilitate.
Go prepared by checking the status to make sure it will be a good beach day. Then, even once you’re on the beach, keep an eye on your nearest lifeguard stand while near and in the water. Be mindful of the fact that currents and conditions can change throughout the day, and the lifeguards will change their flags to keep up with nature’s changing moods.
Why Tides and Currents Matter
High tide, low tide, moderate to high surf… what does it all mean? Here is a breakdown of tides, surf, and currents so you’ll have a working understanding of these ever-changing waters.
Moderate to high surf: Moderate surf refers to the presence of waves on the shoreline. Our coast is known for its serene, calm waters, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have waves once in a while. Moderate surf will be regular, normal-sized waves that simply call for basic caution. High surf, however, means waves that are taller than normal or may come more frequently than is safe. Best to stay out of the water once waves reach this level.
High/low tide: High tide is when the water is at its highest level; low tide is when it’s at its lowest point. This is why sometimes on your vacation, the spot where you were sitting on the sand yesterday is underwater today.
Rip currents: Rip currents, sometimes incorrectly referred to as a riptide, are strong currents that flow beneath the water’s surface through the surf line. If you get caught in a rip current, do not try to fight it or swim out of it. Instead, swim sideways along the beach until you eventually swim out of the suction current, then you can swim safely to shore.
What is Red Tide?
You’ve heard of this phenomenon, but if you’re not from a coastal area, you may not fully understand what it is and how it affects us. Here are some facts:
Red Tide Is the bloom of naturally-occurring algae that produce a toxin poisonous to many marine animals, especially certain types of fish. When the microscopic Karenia Brevis algae produce its red blooms, the nervous system of many fish get affected, killing them and resulting in piles of dead fish washed ashore. It’s not wise to swim in water containing red tide blooms- not only will there be dead fish everywhere, but you also might experience allergy-like symptoms like watery eyes, runny or stuffy nose, and difficulty breathing.
Red Tide Is Not something we can control. It’s not caused by humans, though some like to think pollution plays a role. It also is not usually red but instead leaves water looking dark and murky. Red tide is not a reason to pass on the coconut shrimp. The shellfish industry is heavily regulated, so dinner at your favorite seafood restaurant is still a “go.” Finally, the red tide is not a good reason to cancel your vacation. There is still plenty to do in and around the Siesta Key area, even when the Gulf waters aren’t in ideal swimming conditions.
Red tide, just like other plants that bloom, comes and goes. If red tide happens to be occurring during your vacation, don’t let it deter you. You can still enjoy a fabulous time on Siesta Key by being adventurous and exploring some of the other great offerings this area provides.
Play Nicely with Our Marine Life
While we love our warm, sandy beaches and salty Gulf breezes, it’s important to remember that our waters are home to some pretty dangerous creatures. Understanding what lives here will help you have a healthy respect for their habitat as you wade into the Gulf.
Warm, shallow waters are ideal for stingrays and there are plenty of them in this area. These flat, sand-colored creatures lay camouflaged on the ocean floor but will lift their stinger as they speed away if something steps on them. To avoid being cut by their stingers (which can lead to an ER visit and stitches), always shuffle your feet as you enter the water, stirring up the sand and alerting rays to your presence. They’ll move away before you ever knew they were there.
Sharks tend to avoid populated areas, so sticking close to lifeguard stations and busy beaches is a smart idea. Don’t stray too far into deeper waters, and keep an eye on the lifeguard station. They’ll call you out of the water if sharks are present.
Jellyfish tend to look a lot like a clear plastic bag floating in the water, but watch out! If you can see the body, the poisonous tentacles are nearby and could sting you. Finding jellyfish washed ashore is common, as well. Be careful not to step on one, as they can still sting you even out of the water.
Even though these gentle creatures don’t pose a threat to humans, we do have to be careful and take care of them. As an endangered species, sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand on our shores then swim back out to sea. The nests are protected by law and will be roped off to protect them. Once the eggs hatch, the baby turtles make their way to the water by following the moonlight on the waves. We dim or cut lights along the shoreline during these weeks to help the babies find the water (instead of moving in the wrong direction). If you visit during sea turtle season, look up local sea turtle watches- maybe you’ll get to help guide some of the little ones to their new home!
The unusual animals, fish, and plants that inhabit our area are fascinating, but it’s important to remember that this is their home. Part of Florida’s culture is to protect and respect the life around us, human, aquatic or otherwise.
At the Best Western Siesta Key, we want your stay with us to be enjoyable and safe. Being aware of the dangers that can come with the territory is a great way to stay safe while enjoying the best our Florida Gulf Coast has to offer.