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Florida Geological Survey - Hazards - Rip Currents
Page heading: Rip Currents

Rip currents are rapidly moving currents that flow at right angles to the shoreline carrying water away from the shore. Although they may be referred to as rip-tides, they are not related to tides. From1989 to 2003, 265 fatalities attributed to rip currents, were reported in Florida.

Florida is considered a trouble-spot for rip currents: http://www.floridadisaster.org/HWA/rip_currents.htm. Extensive stretches of coastline are unprotected by lifeguards. Visitors to the beach are often inexperienced swimmers or nonswimmers who are not familiar with rip currents. Rip currents are strong and may even pull able swimmers away from the shore. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable as are those who can’t swim, are poor swimmers, or are unfamiliar with swimming in the ocean.

The formation of rip currents is often related to the weather and some offices of the National Weather Service issue Rip Current Forecasts: http://ripcurrents.noaa.gov/forecasts.shtml.

When strong winds blow toward the shore, waves are formed that move large amounts of water toward the shore. One common way that rip currents form is when water becomes trapped behind sand bars. Sand bars are low natural ridges of sand that are formed under the water. They lie parallel to the shore and close to it. At some point the pressure of the water against the sand bar may cut a narrow channel through it. The channel is usually no more than 20 yards wide http://www.floridadisaster.org/hwa03/rip_current.htm and water rushes back out to sea through it. That rapidly moving water is called a rip current. Rip currents may also form at groins, jetties, piers, or other man-made structures where water from waves or long shore currents can be deflected out to sea by the structure.

There are clues that can help you identify a rip current. Sometimes none of the clues are present. At other times one or more may be seen. Polarized sun glasses make it easier to spot the clues that indicate a rip current. Any of the following clues may help you spot a rip current: a channel that is characterized by water that is churning and choppy, an area of water that is notably different in color than water near it, a line marked by foam, seaweed or debris that is moving steadily out to sea or a break or interruption in the pattern of incoming waves. Avoid swimming near piers, groins, or jetties as they are often associated with rip currents. Pictures of rip currents may be found at: http://ripcurrents.noaa.gov/science.shtml.

If you are caught in a rip current it is important to stay calm and think clearly. Swimmers are advised not to fight the current but to try to swim out of it by swimming parallel to the shore. When you are out of the current it should be easy to swim back with the surf. If you can’t swim out of the current, float and tread water until you are out of the current. Then swim back to the shore. If you still can’t reach the shore, turn toward the shore and draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help. If you spot someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If there aren’t lifeguards available, have someone call 9-1-1. Throw the victim anything that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Always remember that many people drown as they try to rescue someone else caught in a rip current. Additional safety information may be found at: http://ripcurrents.noaa.gov/tips.shtml .

Last updated: November 10, 2014

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