With some great weather recently and more to come, there will be more people heading off to the beaches.
Portugal has an abundance of lovely beaches from the north to the south of the country. The Algarve, for instance, has a coastline of about 200 kilometres, which contains more than 150 beaches. From long sandy beaches on the islands and some parts of the mainland of eastern Algarve to a combination of beaches formed by sand and rock formations.
The beaches in the Algarve have a fine, golden or white sand, which determines the aesthetic outlook of the beaches. The sand is very comfortable for walking. The combination of sandy beaches, rock formations and one of the best climates in Europe have turned the Algarve primarily into a summer and sea destination for families.
The west coast tends to be more hazardous due to the powerful Atlantic Ocean. Surfers and wind-surfers like this coast for its conditions and near-perfect waves, but obviously the wilder water presents a greater risk. Extra caution should be used if you plan on swimming or participating in water sports on the west coast. It is important to monitor weather warnings in these areas.
Unfortunately each year there are a number of beach accidents resulting in injuries and occasionally deaths. These are nearly all preventable if safety advice is followed. This feature provides some tips on how to enjoy your visit to the beach in safety.
This year, Portugal has 431 beaches, marinas and vessels awarded with the Blue Flag, 32 more than in 2021, with an increase in river beaches distinguished with the award. The Blue Flag is awarded annually to the beaches and marinas that fulfil a set of criteria: (1) information and environmental education; (2) water quality; (3) environmental management and equipment; and (4) security and services.
Top tips for beach safety
In order to minimise the number of accidents and ensure beach safety during the current bathing season, the National Maritime Authority and the General Directorate of Health reinforce the importance of complying with the recommendations, so that we can have a safer bathing season.
Avoid swimming in areas where there are no lifeguards. You should also exercise caution when swimming at beaches that connect to rivers as the streams and currents can be more hazardous.
On the beaches where there are lifeguards, there are typically flags placed to indicate the level of danger to swimmers. It’s important to know what these warning flags mean and to adhere to them.
Green Flag – Safe to swim; Yellow Flag – You may remain at the water’s edge or paddle, but no swimming; Red Flag – Danger, no swimming; Chequered Flag – Beach is temporarily without a lifeguard. There are also yellow and red beach flags, placed in pairs at Portuguese beaches. These are used to mark areas that are patrolled by lifeguards and are considered the safest places to swim. These are now obligatory on Portuguese beaches and can easily be moved around by lifeguards to indicate the safest areas to swim on any particular day.
Keep in mind that if you ignore any of the warning flags, there are consequences (besides the obvious safety ones) – the Maritime Police frequently issue fines to those not adhering to a lifeguard’s warnings.
It’s also important to note that, after September and normally early June, the swimming season in Portugal is considered closed, so although the weather may still be mild and beaches inviting, there are no lifeguards on duty and no safety flags will be displayed, regardless of conditions. This year, the beach season with lifeguards started on some beaches in late April but the majority are without lifeguards for the next 2-3 weeks.
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. And then 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.
Beaches in the Algarve are generally safe although in some areas, due to sea erosion, cliffs can be unstable. Where this is the case, there are signs in place advising people not to walk too close to the cliff edge. They also indicate areas on beaches close to the foot of cliffs that are best to avoid.
Unfortunately, these signs are sometimes ignored by some who climb over fences near cliff edges to get that “perfect selfie”, others attempting to scale cliffs or ignoring signs where there could be rock falls.
Top Beach Safety Tips
- Avoid the hours of greatest exposure to the sun (11am-4pm); Apply sunscreen (SP>30) every two hours;
- Respect the beach/cliff safety signs;
- Follow the directions of the lifeguards and law enforcement officers;
- Always be on the lookout for children, especially in or near water;
- Protect yourself and avoid unstable cliffs and foot of cliffs;
- Take care when diving. Pay attention to the depth of the place/zone in which you dive;
- Choose light meals and allow digestion periods;
- Don’t leave trash especially glass bottles on the beach.
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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