Spring break in Texas means many tourists will be hitting the sandy shores for vacation, but there are risks that come along with this reward.
Lifeguards, beach directors and informational programs are in place during spring break to prepare for the swarm of tourists and inform beachgoers of the risks associated with the water. Rip currents are one of the biggest dangers that can be avoided with the right knowledge, and land-based marine debris can stack up on the beachfront without responsible visitors.
Pamela Plotkin, director of Texas Sea Grant, said it is important to be aware of your surroundings when you are swimming, so you can be aware of present dangers such as rip currents. She said she recommends visitors know their limits when it comes to swimming in the ocean.
“Every year, it seems like we lose one or two spring breakers to rip currents and that’s one or two too many lives,” Plotkin said.
Christian Brannstrom, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Geosciences, has an expertise in rip currents. He defined rip currents as a volume of water in the surf zone of the beach that is moving away from shore, sometimes at fast speeds.
“It’s hard for normal people who don’t have experience as surfers to understand [rip currents] and to identify them,” Brannstrom said. “Surfers often use rip currents as a way to get out to the breaks so that they can surf, so they’ve been doing this for decades … but normal people that visit the beach maybe once or twice a year, they can have a difficult time identifying what it looks like.”
When beach visitors are caught in rip currents, Brannstrom said that is when they start to panic and could be in danger, possibly leading to drownings. Rip currents can occur for a variety of reasons, including man-made structures such as groins, which are stretches of granite out from the beach to protect against beachfront deterioration.
“The structures that we’ve made as a society along the coast can also encourage rip currents to form,” Brannstrom said.
Brannstrom said many of the Texas beaches do not have life guards, but those that do are an excellent source for information about the safety of the ocean.
“Lifeguards do a fantastic job of informing the public, but you have to talk to them,” Brannstrom said. “It’s always a really good idea to approach them and ask, ‘Are there any risks or dangers [you] should be aware of [like] rip currents?’”
Peter Davis, Chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and President of the United States Lifesaving Association, said beach safety is the same year round, but rip currents are especially focused on during spring break due to the stronger waters.
“In Texas, especially the upper Texas coast, more of our strongest and most prevalent rip currents are near some sort of structure,” Davis said. “That doesn’t mean they don’t exist other places but they’re mostly by the groins or a fishing pier or a walk out cropping of some sort. The nice part about that is that we know where they are and it is just a matter of keeping people away from them.”
Brandon Hill, Shoreline Director for the city of South Padre Island and Class of 2016, said the preparation for spring break on South Padre Island begins months in advance, with city staff collectively working together to make sure everything falls in place the way it should, including permits, data crunching, traffic plans and more.
“The city of South Padre Island has a beach that is about five miles long, we maintain that during the off season with about six, full-time beach management staff members, so we’ve got six crew members that are out there every day cleaning and emptying the trash cans and maintaining our beach and our beach access,” Hill said. “During spring break this year, we’re bringing on 12 part-timers in addition to our six full-timers … just to be able to keep up with the demand that we have placed on our island.”
To keep the beaches clean and be a responsible visitor, Hill recommends to following the slogan “Treasure it, don’t trash it” by bringing a trash bag and keeping it at your chair or tent and be prepared to take away the garbage.
“I encourage everyone to take ownership of your spring break,” Hill said. “Don’t come down to someone else’s island and just expect your mess to get cleaned up. We’re here to facilitate a great time, we’re here to keep the beaches clean, but we all share a responsibility to not trash the resources we’ve been given.”
Plotkin said the main goals are to focus on safety of the visitors for places such as South Padre Island, a popular Texas beach destination for spring break, which can limit the focus on cleaning the beaches.
“It was such a disappointment to see, because there are garbage cans out there, people drive their cars out there, so they could easily haul that garbage away,” Plotkin said. “That garbage sticks around it can entangle wildlife, wildlife can eat it and wildlife can be harmed by that debris.”
South Padre Island is home to a local population of 2,816 people, and the dramatic increase in population from visitors can often have impacts to the beach, which is an essential aspect to the island’s economy.
“In addition to the impacts it can have on wildlife, it also creates quite a cleanup cost for small towns and communities that are then stuck with then having to clear that garbage off the beaches because tourists don’t want to go to the beach when it’s covered in garbage,” Plotkin said.
Although Hill said he hopes for every visitor to have a good time when visiting South Padre Island, he also wants it to be a safe and responsible visit.
“I want people to know that when they come here to South Padre they can come here and have a good time, but they need to follow the Aggie values when they are having a blast out on the beach,” Hill said. “Too often, people get consumed with having a great time and making memories, and they forget to look out for their friends, they forget to value their health and value their life and they end up making decisions and mistakes they regret.”
Plotkin recommends that to help cut down on beach debris, people can bring less single use items that would become garbage and in turn leave less trash.
“I’d love to see Aggies clean up the beaches, and I’d like to see everybody do their part by packing out what they bring in and not leaving it on the beach and not leaving it for someone else to clean up their own mess,” Plotkin said. “Bring less disposable items, bring coolers, bring thermoses, bring reusable Yeti cups and then you won’t have any garbage that you need to leave behind.”
By Savannah Mehrtens @SJMehrtens