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. That year, 62 people drowned at Canarian beaches, and at some points of 2016 the figures were doubling that rate. In the end, 2016’s tally was 72, 10 more than 2015’s far too high figure, with 21 of the fatalities in Tenerife’s waters.
I am sometimes asked why I focus on drowning rather than, say, road safety. Those who ask usually say that the water’s just fun and far more die in car accidents, and so it’s worth noting that 38 people died on Canarian roads last year, compared to the 72 who drowned in these islands. Drowning costs twice as many lives as traffic accidents, and the Canary Islands have the dubious honour of topping the leader board for deaths in Spanish regions. And in the Canaries, Tenerife has the most deaths in the sea.
My heart sinks every time I have to post another incident. Another addition to the statistics is someone’s life gone, a family without a loved one. 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. Please be aware of the dangers. It is visitors who are most at risk, principally because they are unaware of local currents and conditions, but also because they overheat, perhaps have a drink or two, or more, and have the “it can’t happen to me” outlook of so many who are relaxed and on holiday, and then try to cool off by swimming in seas that can be treacherous to the unwary. Of those who drown here, 70% are visitors.
The official advice is as follows, and even if you think the following basic rules are “just common sense”, the tragic fact is that people drown by not following them:
- Choose your beach carefully depending on whether you can swim or not, your age, whether you’ll be with children (who must be under parental control at all times)
- If you aren’t an expert swimmer, or are with family, choose a quiet beach with good access and where there is a lifeguard
- Check if there are any meteorological alerts from the authorities or media: holidaymakers can check in the reception of their accommodation. If there is an alert, go another day!
- Don’t dive into shallow water.
- Don’t go in the water if you’ve been drinking or taking drugs.
- If it’s windy, don’t use lilos or floats because you can be carried out to sea.
- If you see someone in difficulty in the water don’t go to try to help, but call 112 immediately and try to throw a floating object towards the person struggling.
In beaches without signs or lifeguards:
- don’t go swimming alone;
- ask locals or surfers where the dangerous parts of the beach are;
- get into the water slowly while checking its depth;
- swim parallel to the coast within your depth;
In beaches with lifeguards:
- be aware that there might be zones designated for water sports;
- remember that if the flag is green, you can swim; if yellow, you can swim with caution, but if red, you cannot on in the water;
- take notice of lifeguards and obey their instructions;
- if you are in difficulties or feeling ill, try to leave the water; if you cannot, wave your warms so that someone will see you, and try to stay calm.
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”, nor that the sea here cannot be enjoyed safely, but caution needs to be taken and swimmers need to be aware of the potential 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.
“Costeros” (rough seas around the coasts) are a phenomenon frequently associated with stormy weather, but they can occur during good weather too depending on conditions way out at sea in the Atlantic. As an example of what they’re like, and how easily one can be swept away even without going into the water, below 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.
When there are costeros in the Canaries, rock pools in particular become treacherous because the high swell washes in and takes any occupants with it when it sweeps back out to sea. Even on the gentlest beaches, though, costeros are treacherous, and the main advice when they are forecast is to stay well away from the water, and indeed well back from the coast itself. The official list of advice is as follows:
- Protect your home from any possible flooding by sea water
- Do not stand at the end of quays or breakwaters, nor take risks for photos or films of wild waves
- Avoid fishing in areas at risk
- Do not drive on roads near beaches
- Never bathe in beaches that are secluded or which you do not know well because there may be local whirlpools
- Do not bathe on beaches where red flags are flying, or in areas where there is a strong swell or undertow, or where there is no surveillance or lifeguard
- Avoid practising sports or nautical activities in areas with heavy swell, and do not camp on beaches while an alert is in place
- Move away from the sea if you notice unusual waves, and do not return just because the sea suddenly calms down
- If you have a boat secure it by mooring it in a sheltered place
- Warn anyone you see in the water of the danger
- If you fall into the water, move away from where the waves break, call for help and wait for rescue
- If you try to get out of the water but get swept away by the waves, try to keep calm; do not swim against the current and let yourself drift. Generally, coastal currents lose intensity at certain points and that is when you should swim to land
- If you see someone has fallen into the water, throw a rope with a float or any other object to which they can cling. Then ring 1-1-2 immediately
Keep aware, and stay safe in Tenerife waters!