Heal the Bay’s Guide to Staying Safe at the Beach

From minor annoyances to major dangers, we offer some tips on how to stay safe at the beach


The good news is that water quality at local beaches continues to improve, with 95% of L.A. County beaches receiving an A or B grade in the summer in our last annual report. But bacteria-polluted hot spots remain — especially enclosed “mothers” beaches near marinas and harbors. The best advice is to stay at least 100 yards from beach storm drains and creek/river mouths (think the size of a football field). And check the Beach Report Card on our website for the latest grades. They can help you make a decision about which spots are the best for you and your family.


Algal blooms that pop up in the Bay during warmer months sometimes turn the normal blue-gray color of the sea to rust or mossy green tints. The water isn’t polluted – it’s just filled with millions of phytoplankton. Some species can produce toxins like domoic acid that can harm local marine life or poison shellfish (thus the advice to avoid eating California mussels and clams during summer blooms!). While not toxic to humans, some people complain of eye and skin irritation from swimming in local waters with algal blooms. The water can also take on a fishy smell due to the dense phytoplankton.  Our advice if you see a bloom? Pick a different swim spot.


Summer brings south swells to Santa Monica Bay, which can trigger pounding surf and very dangerous rip currents at local beaches. If the surf looks dangerous to you or your family, it probably is. Play it safe, know your limits, and swim near a lifeguard stand close to shore. If someone in your party can’t swim, keep them safely away from the water’s’ edge – sneaker waves can grab them. Always talk to a lifeguard before going into the water if you have concerns. If you are a surfer, admit your limits and don’t put yourself needlessly in danger. One tip for swimming in surf (even on smaller days) is to dive underneath the waves instead of trying to swim through or jump over them.


If you are caught in a rip current, don’t fight it.  Swim parallel to shore for a few yards until you a free from its grip. Then you can safely swim into shore when you reach more calm water.  Many people exhaust themselves flailing in place as they try to swim directly to shore, necessitating a guard rescue. To identify rips, look for unusual gaps as waves break and create whitewater. The L.A. County lifeguard division has assembled a video that shows how to identify troubled waters. The water is usually discolored near the shore and the surface of the sea is unsettled and choppy.


Some species of jellyfish in the Bay can ruin a day at the beach. Jellies float through the ocean carried by currents, not intentionally seeking human contact. When swimmers do bump into them, venom stored in sacs on their wavy legs can cause significant irritation. Wearing a long-sleeve rashguard may offer protection. If you are stung, an application of basic white vinegar can help denature the toxins released by the animals. And don’t let your kids play with dead jellyfish on the shore – they can still sting!


Stingrays are members of the shark family, and are attracted to the warm, sandy shallows of the Bay during summer. If you step on or get hit by the barb of a stingray the animal will pump venom into the wound, much like a bee.  The sting is highly painful and the only relief comes from soaking your foot in very hot water to disperse the toxins. Doing the stingray shuffle – sliding your feet on the ocean floor as if on skis – is the best way to shoo away potential dangers.


Yes, there are white sharks in the Bay. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see one or be bothered by any type of shark. Most of the whites spotted in our waters in recent years have been smaller juveniles and pups swimming in the South Bay, feeding on sandy bottom fish, not mammals. In the past 100 years, there have only been 13 fatal white shark encounters in all California, so statistically, eating a hot dog is more dangerous than taking a swim in the ocean. One prudent idea is to avoid swimming in waters used by fishermen.


Don’t be fooled by hazy days at the beach. Some of the worst sunburns come on overcast days, when beachgoers may be lulled into a false sense of security. Harmful UV rays have no problem penetrating hazy cloud cover and wreaking havoc during the summer, when the sun’s rays are closest to earth. It’s also a good idea to put on sunblock at home – applying sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure helps it bind to your skin, plus you are less likely to forget with the distractions of the shoreline. And super-high SPF sunscreen isn’t a must. SPF 30 blocks 97% of harmful rays. Don’t forget to reapply every two hours, and after swimming, as the sunscreen’s effects don’t last all day.


We’ve all seen black sticky clumps of oil on the beach. These blobs are usually from natural oil seeps that wash onshore as a result of geological activity and shifts of the seafloor. On average, about 420 gallons of oil from local seeps reach the sea surface daily in Santa Monica Bay. While they are natural, they can be a pain when stepped on. The best way to remove beach tar from the bottoms of your feet is to rub a little olive oil on them. Skip the toxic gasoline or other solvents.


Thieves can prey on unsuspecting beachgoers who leave valuables unattended. Lifeguards suggest leaving belongings as close to the tower as possible. As a precaution, bring as few items as possible onto the sand. Conceal personal electronics and car keys in a sports bottle or old sock in your beach bag. Be particularly cautious about leaving valuables on remote stretches of PCH up north, where thieves (targeting cars or unattended beach belongings) can operate with little scrutiny. And never leave a bike unlocked on a path or boardwalk – not even for a minute!