SAFETY FIRST: Know the risks that lurk off Guam’s shores
published: October 09, 2018
The best thing about being on Guam is all the opportunities there are for fun in the sun on the beach and beyond. There is an endless array of water sports from swimming, scuba and snorkeling to waterskiing, windsurfing sailing, fishing and more.
While young and old alike should take full advantage of all this, annual water-related deaths and injuries should be a sober reminder that you can never be too cautious when it comes to safety.
There are various dangers to be aware of off Guam’s shores where aquatic activities take place. Some of the main ones include powerful rip currents, waves, wind, rain, strong sun and sharp coral reef.
For swimmers and snorkelers, the safest areas are beaches protected from the ocean by a barrier reef. Inside this reef, the water is calm, shallow and has only a slight to non-existent current. However, swimming near the reef can be extremely dangerous because of waves and currents.
Whether using a beach that is off or on base, you should always check the beach warning flags before deciding whether to get into the water. A red flag means it’s too dangerous to swim, a yellow flag warns to swim with caution, green indicates all is good, while a blue flag warns that dangerous marine life is present. Also, keep an eye out for signage with specific precautions for beaches.
Active duty military personnel are prohibited from reef walking anywhere on Guam. For these purposes, the reef is defined as the elevated ridge of coral or rock between the shore and the open sea. This ridge may be above or slightly below water level, depending on the tide. Keep well clear of the outer portion of the reef when the tide is going out. Rip tides are common on Guam and extremely dangerous.
Dangers of reef, current
The first danger to swimming near a reef is caused by the waves breaking on the reef. Even in the calmest conditions, it is difficult and dangerous to cross the reef in surf. The coral itself is extremely sharp and can cause deep and painful cuts. Gloves and foot protection are essential.
The second danger is the current caused by the waves. In almost all cases where the waves are consistently larger than one foot, a strong current runs along the reef. This current, known as a “long shore” current, is created when the water forced inside the reef by the waves is higher than the sea level outside the reef. When this happens, the water tries to flow back out to sea but the waves bringing more water into the reef prevent it. The water will flow along the reef or shoreline until it finds a place to flow back into the sea. This current can be very strong.
A person swimming too close to the reef’s edge can become caught in the current and be swept onto or over the reef. When they attempt to climb back over the reef, not only do they have to fight the current pushing them sideways, but they must also fight the waves smashing against the reef. After struggling to cross the reef, many people become exhausted and are washed out to sea or banged along the reef until they die.
Wrestling a rip current
Tips on what people should do when they are caught in a rip current. Stay calm. Don’t fight the current; you will lose all your strength.
• Escape the current by swimming in a direction that follows the coastline. When over the shallow reef flat, walk or swim to shore.
• If unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water. When the current weakens, swim toward the reef flat where the water is shallow.
• If at any time you feel you will be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, call or wave for help.
Hazardous marine life
Treat all seashells as poisonous. Do not handle shells with your bare hands as some contain live animals with a deadly venom. The beaches on Andersen AFB are designated as a marine preserve; as a result, shell collecting on base beaches is prohibited.
Another danger to keep in mind is hazardous marine life such as scorpion fish, sea urchins, moray eels, cone snails, crown of thorns starfish, stingrays, sea snakes, stone fish, turkey lion fish and sharks.
“There are several organisms living in Guam’s waters that can be dangerous,” says Brent Tibbatts, a fisheries biologist for the Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources. “Injuries from these organisms are almost always caused by human actions. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
Tibbatts points out that there are two common organisms that people should watch out for on Guam.
“Indo-Pacific man-o-war are jellyfish-like creatures,” he explains. “These are most abundant during times of strong onshore winds from the north and east, therefore are most often seen on north and east facing beaches. Man-o-wars are most commonly seen during the months of December through February. They look like little blue bubbles, usually about 1-2 inches across, with dark blue tentacles underneath.
“Man-o-wars should not be touched, even if on the beach,” Tibbatts says. “They can sting even after they are dead. If stung, remove any clinging tentacles with a branch or other solid object, then flush the affected area with large amounts of salt water. Medical care may be recommended.”
Another sea creature to steer clear of is the box jellyfish.
“Guam has at least two species of box jellyfish,” says Tibbatts. “They are not the deadly species known from Australia, but they can deliver a painful sting. If stung by a box jellyfish, any clinging tentacles should be removed with a stick or other hard object. The affected area should be flushed with large amounts of salt water. Vinegar may helpv ease the pain and markings caused by the sting. If conditions appear severe, seek immediate medical attention.”
– Courtesy of Andersen Air Force Base, Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources
Even fishing boats in the presumed safety of Apra Harbor are routinely carried out of the harbor by the outgoing tide. Experience has shown that boats drifting in this area travel in a generally westerly direction at a minimum of one nautical mile per hour. Few people can paddle against a one-knot current for any length of time. Winds in the area of 15 to 20 knots can increase the drift to two knots. That means a rate of drift anywhere from 24 to 48 miles per day. What starts out a simple frustration (i.e. dead battery within sight of land), can quickly lead to a large search covering hundreds of square miles of ocean.
Always observe a measure of caution and good judgment when boating around Guam. One of the most important measures is to stop and take a good look at the situation. Ask yourself all the “what if” questions you can think of and make sure you have planned for the unexpected. Take plenty of extra water and food. Take as much fuel as possible. Make sure that the proper safety equipment is onboard. Have extra flares, a mirror, a flashlight, and extra flashlight batteries. Let someone know where you’re going, when you’ll return, and what equipment you have onboard.
No one should ever go out in the ocean without a marine VHF radio.
Guam offers some of the best snorkeling in the world. However, people venture out into unfamiliar waters and find themselves in serious trouble. The waters around Guam need to be respected.
Always snorkel with another person and use proper equipment: a snorkel, mask, and brightly colored fins. If you are not an experienced Guam swimmer, wear a snorkel vest (this will enable you to stay afloat if you become tired or carried out to sea). If a current carries you away from shore, wave one of your brightly colored fins in the air to signal someone on the shore to seek help.
Before you venture out, contact a local dive shop for information on areas you intend to snorkel. The National Weather Service (dial 211 off base and 99-211 on base) has a recorded message on surf, winds, and tide conditions.
- Safest Snorkeling Areas:
• Tarague Beach (swim within buoyed area)
• Any beach in the Tumon Bay hotel row area (Hilton to the Guam Reef Hotel)
• Gab Gab Beach (Big Navy, no lifeguard)
• San Luis Beach (Big Navy, no lifeguard)
• Spanish Steps (Big Navy, no lifeguard)
• Outhouse Beach (No lifeguard)
• Piti Bomb Holes
• Dog Leg Reef (Family Beach)
- Hazardous Snorkeling Areas:
• Ritidian Beach
• Tanguisson Beach
• Asan Cut
• Gun Beach
• Haputo Beach
Guam’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean subjects it to many different ocean swells. Unfortunately, these swells hit on dangerously shallow and sharp reefs. Currents in these areas range from friendly to deadly causing surfing to be very deceptive and dangerous.
The best place to learn to surf or boogie board is Talafofo Bay. In addition, pay attention to surfing etiquette and perhaps talk to experienced local surfers before attempting to surf on Guam.
There have been a number of incidents where non-locals were harassed or even threatened by the “regulars” at the limited number of surfing sites.
Guam features many excellent dive sites and a robust scuba-training infrastructure with several large dive centers, boat operators, and guides. Do not scuba dive deeper than your certification level. Always use the buddy system and use a dive flag at the surface. Newly assigned military personnel (PCS and TDY) should plan their first few dives through Outdoor Recreation or at one of the local dive shops until you are familiar with the area. Many local dive shops offer free shore dives led by a dive master on weekends. This is a great opportunity to learn the local area and meet new dive buddies.
– 36th Wing Safety Officer