LIFESAVERS: Navigating the risks off Guam’s shores

by Tetsuo Nakahara
Stripes Guam

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, a recent spate of 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. Guam Visitors Bureau updated water safety signs in Tumon Bay area in November to highlight the importance of water safety for tourists and residents on Guam. The new sign is in six languages: English, Chamorro, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Chinese.

“It is important because we have people who don’t really know about rip currents or what beach safety flags mean,” says bureau spokesman Josh Tyquiengco. “We worked hand in hand with the Department of Parks and Recreation to provide right information regarding water safety.”  

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 help ease the pain and markings caused by the sting. If conditions appear severe, seek immediate medical attention.”

Fishermen also need to know and follow safety rules to prevent water-related injuries to swimmers, snorkelers and divers are in the same area. Spearfishing off the shores of Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base, for example, is prohibited.

“We banned spearfishing aboard all areas of Naval Base Guam because it is a regulation that simply protects people,” says Jeff Landis, a Navy base spokesman. “We recognize the need to provide safety precautions and awareness to our divers, swimmers and other water enthusiasts.

“Anything that can be used to hook or shoot into the water where there may be other recreational aquatic activities is a concern for us,” he says. “Also, reef walking, as well as walking on coral for cast net fishing, is prohibited.”

Safety is always essential for everyone. The key is to always be aware of the risks and on your guard.


Dual 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.

– Contents courtesy of Anderson Air Force Base, Guam Survival Secrets GuideDivision of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources

More safety sources

Water safety basics

  • Stay within the reef line.
  • Never enter the water unless you know about hazards, water depth, rocks and currents.
  • If you’re caught in a current, don’t waste energy fighting the current. Swim with it diagonally until you no longer feel the current pull, then swim to shore.
  • Swim parallel to the reef, and if you see a spot that looks safe, try to swim back in. If the water is rough or you don’t see a good spot, wait for rescuers.
  • When surf is 6 feet or higher, inexperienced swimmers should stay out of the water, and experienced swimmers should exercise extreme caution.
  • Never swim, dive or surf alone.
  • Wear gloves before putting your hands on anything. There are a few dangerous creatures such as stone fish, lion fish, crown of thorns and eels that you might want to watch out for.
  • If you are an inexperienced snorkeler, it is best recommended that you use a life vest in the water at all times.
  • Make sure you have some type of protection on your hands and feet if you
  • Check warning signs or flags indicating hazardous conditions. Don’t go out just before or after a typhoon, which usually brings along hazardous surf conditions.
  • Never go out after someone who is swept over the reef.
  • If unexpected situations occur, do not panic.
  • Never leave a child unobserved around water.
  • Keep a phone nearby so that you can call 911 in an emergency.
  • Know if a trained lifeguard is on duty.
  • Recognize and follow posted rules.
  • Learn basic water safety, first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
  • Don’t go in the water under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

– The Guam Guide

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