Plunging is cool, but safety is cooler
Photo: Inês Lopes/Open Media

Plunging is cool, but safety is cooler

As we come towards the end of summer, it is important to note that after September the swimming season in Portugal is considered closed.

The sea temperatures may be somewhat colder as we head further into the year and although the beaches are still inviting, there are no lifeguards on duty and no safety flags will be displayed, regardless of conditions.

In the first seven months of this year, 88 people died of drowning in beaches, pools, dams, and more, a record high in the last five years. In reality, most drownings are caused by strong currents in the ocean and “excessive confidence from people” in rivers and dams. It is important, therefore, to keep an eye on children in particular, and put safety first, before plunging into the sea.

Sea temperatures

At present, sea temperatures are around 17/19ºC on the west coast and on the south coast 19/22ºC. This is not bad compared with average sea temperatures here. It can be colder than this and with temperatures in the sun over 30ºC, the difference between air and water temperature can be considerable.

In a recent incident in the Algarve, a person showed signs of hypothermia after getting out of the water, and even though he was wearing a wetsuit, a doctor who was on site for support found that the person’s body temperature was below what it should be.

In most of the world – anywhere where water is cooler than body temperature – swimmers can achieve hypothermia at any time of year, it’s just a matter of how long it will take. Mild hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to 35-32ºC. The effects of mild hypothermia are: it suppresses the functionality of the central nervous system; it impairs the decision-making capabilities; it reduces the feeling ability, making the movement slow and shivering of the body.

The only way to recognise your own limits is to get to know them, through experience.

Warm air doesn’t always mean warm water in lakes, streams or oceans. 15ºC water, which is the average in several parts of the mainland at the end of the year, may not sound very cold, but it can be deadly. Plunging into cold water of any temperature becomes dangerous if you aren’t prepared for what the sudden exposure can do to your body and brain.

Warm air temperatures can create a false sense of security for boaters and beachgoers, so if you are planning to be on or near the water, arrive knowing the conditions and how to protect yourself.

Rip currents

A rip current is a narrow, fast-moving channel of water that starts near the beach and extends offshore through the line of breaking waves.

Spotting a rip current can be difficult, and really needs some practice. But when you go to the beach, start off by staying back from the water. Rip currents are easier to see at an elevated position, like a dune line or beach access, and then look for places where waves aren’t breaking, so flat spots in the line of breaking waves. Also, where there’s maybe foam or sediment in the water being transported away from the beach offshore.

Rip currents can occur anywhere you have breaking waves, like large sandy beaches on the open ocean. But they can also occur where you have hard structures, like jetties, or piers, or even rocks jutting out into the ocean.

If you do get caught in a rip current, the best thing you can do is stay calm. It’s not going to pull you underwater; it’s just going to pull you away from shore. Call and wave for help. You want to float, and you don’t want to swim back to shore against the rip current because it will just tire you out. You want to swim out of the rip, parallel to shore, along the beach and then follow breaking waves back to shore at an angle.

Spider fish
Spider fish

Spider fish

These fish usually hide in the sand, a few centimetres down, waiting for prey. As they go unnoticed in the water, people end up stepping on them inadvertently.

When you are stung by the spider fish, you may initially think that you have stepped on a rock or a pointed shell. There is initially a mild pain, but it evolves almost immediately to an intense pain, difficult to bear, with changes in the surrounding skin which becomes red and swollen.

If you can identify the thorns stuck on the skin, try to remove them as soon as possible, with a tweezer or gloves. Don’t touch them with your fingers.

Place the foot or the stung area in some heat source, such as hot sand, or in water as warm as possible for at least 30 minutes, so the poison will decompose with the heat. Be careful not to burn yourself.

If you are stung on the face, have intense and permanent swelling and pain, persistent fever, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or headaches, excessive sweating or are unable to remove the spikes, you should seek an emergency service.

Never put ice in the sting area, do not touch the thorns with your hands, nor cover the wound of the sting.

You can prevent the spider fish bite by wearing plastic soled shoes when walking in the water.

Spider fish sting pain can last between two hours and 24 hours, and most people stung by spider fish do not need to be seen by a physician. Emergency medical services should be activated immediately, via telephone number 112, when a person stung by a spider fish has signs of shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, convulsions, intense skin rash (red spots on the skin), edema (swelling) with voice change or chest pain.

By David Thomas

David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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