Costa Rica's most popular attraction can also be its most dangerous safety hazard. It is of the utmost import that tourists follow basic safety precautions when enjoying the sun, sand and surf of Costa Rica's two coastlines. In addition, one should be aware of the risks that are specific to particular beaches throughout the country.
- Always swim within designated areas.
- Watch for rocks hidden just under the water surface during high tide.
- Respect the beach-inhabiting animals; some of them have painful methods of keeping humans away.
- Watch for broken glass.
Riptides or rip currents are responsible for about 80% of ocean drownings, so a basic knowledge of how ocean currents behave is your best defense against the perils of the ocean.
A rip current is a surplus of water brought ashore by waves. This excess water finds a channel to drain out from in order to reach an equilibrium. Rip currents have three parts: the feeder current, the neck, and the head. The feeder current is made up of water moving parallel to the beach. This current moves quickly and with significant force, though, from the beach, may not appear to be moving at all.
The water current reaches a depression in the ocean floor that turns out to sea, forming the neck of the rip current. This neck of water moves flows rapidly away from shore. It can carry a swimmer out to sea at a rate of three to six miles per hour. Within a single minute, the swimmer can be transported more than 500 feet out from shore. This experience can be extremely frightening to an unsuspecting swimmer, leading to panic and anxiety, physical and mental distress, and, ultimately, drowning.
The most ironic and tragic quality of this phenomenon, however, is that rip currents are generally very survivable. In fact, some seasoned beach-goers consider them fun and convenient. Surfers often use them to get a quick ride out to sea. This is not, however, an endorsement of such activity; only the most experienced swimmers should attempt to play with a rip current.
What to do if you get caught in a rip current:
Call for help the moment you notice a current moving you away from the shore. Rip currents move at a fast pace, and, therefore, allow only a small window of opportunity in which calls for help can be heard. With in a minute, you may be too far out for someone to hear you.
If you can find your footing in the sand, try to walk out of the current. If you find that to be too difficult, try walking sideways, leaping toward the beach with each wave and allowing the water to "push" you ashore.
When no solid footing is to be found, your best option is to tread water. DO NOT TRY TO FIGHT THE CURRENT! Swimming against the current costs you valuable energy, and there is only a marginal chance of swimming out of a riptide. The human body is naturally buoyant, especially in salt water. Therefore, tip you head back as if doing the back stroke, keep your bearings, tread water, and stay attentive to any possible rescue effort. The most important thing to remember is to remain calm and avoid panicking.
At the "head" of the riptide system, just beyond the breakers, the force of the current decreases significantly. If you have not seen signs of any rescue effort at this point, slowly and calmly swim parallel to the beach, moving toward shore at a 45-degree angle after several yards. Beware, however, as attempting to go straight to shore can inadvertently get you stuck back in the riptide neck.
There are four kinds of riptides: permanent, fixed, flash, and traveling.
The permanent rips occur at river mouths, estuaries, or small streams. They can be quite wide. They also occur at finger jetties, which were designed to prevent beach erosion. The water's lateral drift is forced to go seaward.
Fixed, flash, and traveling riptides are all wind-generated.
Fixed currents appear only on long sandy beaches and move up or down the beach depending on shifts in the ocean floor. They are generally stable, remaining in one place for hours, even whole days.
Flash, or temporary, rip currents occur when a large mass of water is brought to shore from sudden wave build-ups. These are usually the result of distant storms, producing waves that maintain momentum until they hit shore. This excess build-up of water is not allowed to drain out and reach equilibrium while the huge, fast-moving waves are coming in.
A traveling rip current moves along the beachfront. It will occur in one spot, then moments later, will have moved 15 yards up or down the beach. These traveling rips can move up to 30 yards in a single minute, and occur on long sandy beaches that have no fixed depressions on the floor of the ocean.
If you swim in the ocean, chances are you'll experience a rip current at some point. The best advice is simply to never go swimming in the ocean alone. Be prepared to signal for help at the earliest sign of trouble.
Novice swimmers should try to avoid surf-swept beaches, and your hotel will be able to recommend the safest swimming holes. Use others as a resource too. When you go to a beach, look around at where others are swimming - these are probably the calmest and safest spots.
You can also try to spot rip currents by looking for some usual indicators. A brownish color on the surface of the water (caused by dirt and debris) is common. Also, a flattening effect is common as the water of the rip current finds the depression in the ocean floor and rushes back out to sea. This gives the appearance of a deceptively smooth surface.
Try tossing a stick or coconut into the water and watch where it goes. This will tell you where the current is going, and which way you'll have to swim to get back to shore.
Beaches that are considered the safest in Costa Rica are:
- Playas Rajada and Jobo near La Cruz
- Bahía Junquillal Wildlife Refuge
- Play Hermosa in northern Guanacaste
- Plays del Coco
- Bahía Ballena/Tambor
- Beacheson the Golfo Dulce between Puerto Jimenez and Golfito
- The third beach at Manuel Antonio
- Little Dominicalito in Dominical
Beaches that are known for riptides:
- Espadilla at Manuel Antonio
- Dominical Beach