Beach and Surf Safety

Lifeguarded Beach Flag Safety System. Flags indicated protected beach area, lifeguarded beach, and surf condition flags
The Lifeguard Beach Flag Safety System is used to indicate the protected beach area, lifeguard beach, and surf condition flags. Check for these flags when out on Assateague Island.

NPS Lifeguard Protected Beach
NPS Lifeguards supervise designated beach areas in Maryland and Virginia sections of Assateague. For a safe recreational experience, swim near an on duty lifeguard within the boundaries of the red over yellow flag. Hours of operation are from 10 am – 5pm seasonally. Take extra precaution when swimming outside the lifeguard area or during off duty hours; wear a life jacket.

  • When you hear the whistle
    Lifeguards will not signal swimmers simply because they are in deep water. The lifeguards will signal swimmers toward shore because they are approaching a hazardous area or they are moving too far out for adequate supervision.

  • First Aid and Rescue
    The Lifeguard operation is equipped with rescue equipment and first aid supplies. The lifeguards are trained in ocean rescue and are certified Emergency Medical Responders. If you need assistance, contact a lifeguard or call 911.

  • Visitors with physical disabilities
    Physically challenged individuals who require special consideration in aquatic recreation may want to use the protected beach. Beach wheelchairs are available in both Maryland and Virginia district beaches. Contact a Lifeguard or Ranger for direction and assistance.
 
Flotation Devices
Body Boards, Noodles, and other Flotation Aids can be considered a hazard in the ocean. Many drownings and rescue incidents are associated with the use of inappropriate flotation devices. Many people associate “safety” with flotation aids and feel safe going out much further than they should. Currents or wind can move an unsuspecting person into deep water or far off shore. This is an invitation to disaster; people may be separated from the device by waves, slipping off or choose to prematurely let go of the device to try and make better progress to shore.

Remember, flotation aids that move with waves travel with considerable speeds with the compound force of the wave behind you. The weight of a person on a speeding object may cause an injury if there is a collision with another person or the hard packed beach surface. Hard objects, such as surfboards, kayaks and skim boards can be especially hazardous. For these reasons, Coast Guard approved lifejackets are the only devices allowed on the lifeguard protected beach.
 

Strong Surf
Onshore winds cause waves. Because ocean winds vary, waves change from day to day. All waves deserve respect. Body surfing and swim fins are allowed in the lifeguard area – be careful! Do not try to ride waves that are too forceful for your level of skill. Sand abrasions, broken limbs, dislocated shoulders and spinal injuries are not uncommon as a result of being thrown to the hard packed beach bottom.

To escape a waves great force, you can duck under or retreat from breaking waves. If you are riding a wave in some fashion, and are thrown off, try and prevent direct head and neck contact with the ocean floor. Do not run and dive into the surf if you do not know the depth and topography.

 
Longshore currents run parallel to the beach and are present most days. Seaward or "rip" currents run perpendicular to the beach.
Littoral current is present on most days and occurs when waves crash at an angle on the beach. Visitors, especially young children, may be moved rapidly along the shore by this current.
Surf Zone Currents
There are two types of surf zone currents to be aware of; one that moves along the shore line called a longshore current and ones that move in a seaward direction called a seaward current.

Longshore Currents will form when waves approach the shoreline at an angle. This current is present on most days and may be strong. When lifeguards are on duty, they will post the speed and direction on beach information signs.

Seaward Currents will form as a result of wave action and wave energy. Seaward currents include back rush, fixed rip currents, permanent rip currents, traveling rip currents and flash rip currents. Do not panic if you get in one and do not wear yourself out trying to swim against it. Normally they are not wide. Swim parallel with the shore a short distance and then swim to shore out of the current. Save your strength for your own rescue. If you cannot get to shore, float on your back and control your breathing. Call for help and raise one arm up for attention.
 
Shore Topography demonstrating deep troughs before reaching a sandbar.
Shore topography illustration shows the deep trough one will often encounter before reaching a sandbar.
Shore Topography
The beach face and terrace change; a beach face may be steep or narrow. The trough between the terrace and sandbar may contain ridges and drop-offs. It is usually 8-10 feet deep at low tide. When the water is waist deep on a sandbar, it will often be over your head on the way out. For your protection, people are kept off the sandbar until it is reasonably safe for everyone to access the sandbar.
 

Hazards

Diving Injuries
Diving head first into the waves can be dangerous; check the water depth before you dive. Severe injuries may be caused if you dive or fall from a flotation device.

Thunder and Lightning
In 1986, four people were killed by a lightning strike as they huddled under a beach umbrella on a nearby beach. If you see lightning or hear thunder, seek immediate shelter inside your vehicle or an enclosed building. Do not huddle under an umbrella or underneath a lifeguard tower. During a storm, the entire protected beach will be closed to the public.

Unsecure umbrella
An umbrella blown across the beach by the wind has caused many injuries. When strong gusty winds blow, umbrella tops should be set facing into the wind. Make sure a good size hole is dug and pack in sand firmly around it.

Sun

Each year a number of visitors get sun burn from over exposure to UV radiation. Watch your children, use clothing, umbrellas and sunscreens. Umbrellas may be purchased at the Beach Hut in the MD district and in the town of Chincoteague in the VA District.

Shark
During the rare occasion of a shark sighting, the beach may be closed to entry. A closure may also occur if a school of bluefish are in a “feeding frenzy”. The risk of a shark attack is low however; there are ways to lower the risk even further. For instance, don’t swim at dawn, dusk and night, swim with a buddy, don’t go in the water if you are bleeding and stay clear of schooling bluefish and other schooling fish.

Jellyfish
Most jellyfish you encounter at Assateague will not sting but some do, particularly those with color. Be safe - do not touch any jellyfish. If you get stung, see a lifeguard. You can rinse the area with sea water or vinegar. A badly stung person should receive medical treatment. Check to see if lifeguards are flying a purple flag.

Last updated: July 16, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

7206 National Seashore Lane
Berlin, MD 21811

Phone:

(410) 641-1441

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