According to the Real Federación Española de Salvamento y Socorrismo, the Canaries registered one drowning at a beach every six days in 2015, the second highest rate in any Spanish area, and one of the main causes of death in otherwise healthy people. Sixty two people drowned at Canarian beaches in 2015 – far too many. My heart sinks every time I have to post about one, so I hope the following is useful, and would draw particular attention to two of the main risks involved with bathing in the sea here: cold water shock and undertow. Forewarned is forearmed.
These are the six flags that fly on the beaches here. The green means bathing is allowed, yellow means bathing is allowed but that conditions are difficult and so the utmost care should be taken, and red means that bathing is prohibited because of the sea or other conditions. On the bottom row, there is the blue flag for the best beaches, the “medusas” one warns of the presence of jellyfish, and the black means that the beach itself is closed to the public.
Cold Water Shock
People may not realize that cold water shock can affect people even with water temperature of up to 25ºC/77ºF. It’s not just freezing water that is dangerous. The danger is even more pronounced when people are already hot, as they often are in Tenerife after sunbathing, and they can get into difficulties within five minutes of going in the water. Some have a sensitivity anyway to “cold” water, and this increases with age, which might account for why so many of these fatalities or near fatalities are middle aged or older. Even those who have no particular sensitivity as such can induce one by drinking alcohol.
Even at the height of summer, the water temperature of the sea in the Canaries doesn’t get above 24°/75°, one degree below the “safe limit”. Technically, therefore, it’s always “cold”, and bathers can get into difficulties very quickly. To be specific about symptoms: normal body temperature is 37º/98.6º; shivering begins when the body temperature lowers to approximately 36º/96.8º; amnesia and coordination problems begin to set in at approximately 34.5º/94º, unconsciousness at 30º/86º, and death, normally from cardiac arrest, at approximately 26º/79º … and that is is 2º/4º above our normal high season water temperatures!
Please have a quick look at THIS site, which is typical of many such professional-level web pages giving advice on cold water shock. This is not to say “stay out of the water”! Just be aware of the risks, don’t leave safe zones, and don’t try to stay in for long after sunbathing or drinking, or try to swim in anything other than calm waters. Let’s try to cut the numbers down in Tenerife because there are far too many drownings specifically attributable to cold water shock every year.
Undertow and Rip Currents
Another factor in the numbers of drownings is that beaches here are often subject to strong undertow, and sometimes to rip currents. One particular example of strong undertow is Callao Salvaje, which has a steep shelf and a constant heavy drag as the waves break and return back out to sea, with the result that one can easily hear the suction as bathers try to get back onto the beach even when the water is only up to their knees. This is true even in calm seas, and is worse when there is any swell. Callao Salvaje is far from unique, and undertow is a serious risk, tripping up bathers and carrying them out to sea where they can be overwhelmed by the next wave coming into shore.
While undertow is generalised, rip currents are unpredictable, strong and narrow streams of water flowing against the direction of the waves which rapidly carry swimmers a considerable distance out to sea. Proteccion Civil in Baja California have released the above picture which perfectly illustrates what a rip current can look like. Note the gap between the white crests of the waves where the current is drawn down and back out to sea even as the wave itself is heading into the coast. They are not always visible, however, and then represent an even greater risk because anyone can be caught in one without warning.
The main danger of rip currents is that of drowning through exhaustion by swimming against the flow, because most regular swimmers will never overcome a rip current by swimming headlong at it. The currents are, however, usually no more than 10 metres wide, and so swimming at right angles to them, and along the coast rather than towards the coast, means that within minutes you will be out of the drag, albeit further out to sea. You will then be able to swim back towards the beach with the help of the normal waves.
Finally, I have written about “costeros” (rough seas) HERE, a phenomenon frequently but not always associated with stormy weather fronts. As an example of what they’re like, and how easily one can be swept away even without going into the water, here is a video from January 2016, taken in Brittany, where a retired couple are swept off their feet. No-one was injured and the person behind the camera himself became involved in the rescue, but it shows just how easy it is to get into trouble.
Keep aware, and stay safe in Tenerife waters!