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SSouth Africa’s beautiful beaches are legendary and make for thoroughly enjoyable seaside holidays, as long as you’re well informed about any potential pitfalls. Thankfully, our seaside tourist meccas take beach safety seriously.
South Africa is renowned for the beautiful beaches along almost 3 000km of coastline from the Orange River mouth on the West Coast to Kosi Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal on the East Coast. The West Coast is adjacent to the cold Atlantic Ocean, while the East Coast is swept by the warm Indian Ocean. Southern shores, in places like East London, Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay, feature a mix of the two.
Clear water, beautiful weather conditions, ideal swells and long stretches of sandy beach (unlike the pebbles on many Mediterranean and European shores) attract thousands of sun-worshippers all year round, but particularly during the summer months – December to February – which largely coincide with school holidays.
In the interests of safety, major holiday spots like Durban, Umhlanga, Port Elizabeth, East London, Plettenberg Bay and Cape Town employ lifeguards at all recognised swimming beaches in and around these hubs. Lifeguards fall under the auspices of Lifesaving South Africa, a non-profit organisation that relies on the voluntary services of trained lifeguards to watch over the safety of beachgoers.
Every year the number of Blue Flag beaches in South Africa increases, a figure that in 2018 stood at 46. These are beaches that have been acknowledged internationally for excellence in maintaining the highest standards of environmental management, safety, services and amenities.
The ocean is irresistibly appealing to surfers, swimmers, snorkellers, bodyboarders, divers, windsurfers and kayakers, but there are a number of potential hazards that a first-time visitor to South African beaches should be cognisant of.
It is important to choose a beach that is patrolled by lifeguards. Their presence is usually shown by a daily information board with detailed, useful information about prevailing winds, temperature, rip currents and tides.
Larger centres have lifeguard clubhouses and elevated platforms from which bathers can be observed. Red-and-yellow flags close to the shoreline indicate the safest swimming area on any given day, so make sure you bathe between these beacons.
Always heed lifeguards’ instructions when using the sea. Blowing of a whistle and holding up a yellow ‘can’ to get bathers’ attention before a request to move closer to shore or away from a potentially dangerous current, are done with excellent knowledge of the spot and with swimmers’ safety in mind. The ‘can’ is a yellow flotation device with two handles and a strap that lifeguards use to keep a swimmer afloat during a rescue.
Ocean conditions are constantly changing due to tidal flow, wind, approaching ocean swells, rip currents that sweep out to sea, hidden rocks, side washes, bluebottles, sharks or jellyfish. Any of these may necessitate calling bathers out of the water or moving them to a safer location.
If you ever find yourself in trouble, try not to panic, tread water and hold one arm aloft to indicate that you need help, and a lifeguard will respond – either by means of an inflatable red ‘rubber duck boat or by swimming out to you with a ‘can’ that you can hold onto to keep afloat.
Marine species to be careful of are the shark, bluebottle and jellyfish.
Shark attacks are rare, but they do happen, so take care not to swim at dawn or dusk when attacks are more likely, or in dirty water caused by river flooding (muddy river mouths are notorious hotspots for shark attacks), or during the annual sardine run up the East Coast.
Although major beaches in KwaZulu-Natal are netted and patrolled daily by the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, there are no nets outside the province and major Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape beaches rely on shark spotters seated in elevated positions to alert bathers by means of a siren. Netting is a controversial practice, as it kills many sharks as well as turtles, dolphins, rays and other marine life that gets tangled in the nets – critics of the procedure call it an indiscriminate cull.
A black flag indicates that a beach is closed due to a shark sighting, while no-swimming beacons advise no swimming on the day, possibly due to dirty water, dangerous currents or even the annual sardine run, which attracts sharks and other predators that feed on the millions of migrating fish.
Another creature to be aware of is the bluebottle. This is a small jellyfish species – also called the Portuguese man ’o war – with an air-filled bladder and sail that is driven inshore by certain wind conditions. It trails long, thin tentacles that cause a very painful sting.
When bluebottles are sighted bathers are usually advised to exit the water, particularly those with children. A sting can be neutralised to a degree by pouring vinegar over it or using a spray that lifeguards keep in stock. Severe stings around the throat or chest may require hospitalisation if breathing is affected.
Jellyfish generally bob along under the water’s surface, which makes them harder to spot. They vary in size, from tiny to the size of a large round platter, trailing a tangle of stingers, which inflict an extremely painful sting on contact. Bathers are usually advised to leave the water when jellyfish are sighted.
Make your beach-going experience as enjoyable as possible by never swimming alone, after a large meal, or if you have been drinking alcohol. Always follow lifeguards’ instructions, regularly apply sunblock to avoid sunburn, hydrate regularly with water and, on very hot summer days, limit time on the beach to avoid sunstroke.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Lifesaving South Africa Head Office
Tel: +27 (0)31 312 9251
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lifesaving-South-Africa/130584774222
Best time to visit
The summer months are most popular because December and January coincide with school holidays, but swimming and surfing carries on throughout the year, with wetsuits allowing sports lovers to spend hours in the ocean, especially on the colder south-west and West Coast. KwaZulu-Natal’s Indian Ocean gets a little cooler in winter, but swimming is still popular. The icy waters off Western Cape and Northern Cape necessitate a wetsuit all year round.
Tours to do
If you really enjoy South Africa’s beaches, why not take the opportunity of learning more about our amazing marine life? Durban’s uShaka Sea World aquarium is the largest in the southern hemisphere and Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium is right on the waterfront, as is Port Elizabeth’s Bayworld complex.
Length of stay
At the peak of summer temperatures rise above 30⁰C, so it’s wise to limit beach time to avoid sunburn. Doctors generally advise those with children to stay out of the sun between 10am and 2pm, when it is at its hottest. Nothing spoils a holiday quicker than a bad case of sunburn.
What to pack
Always pack sandals or flip-flops to protect your feet from the burning sand in summer, water bottles, sun protection cream with a high SPF (at least 30), sun shades and a hat or cap. When going in to swim, ask someone nearby to keep an eye on your possessions, because petty thieves take advantage of crowded beach conditions. Rather leave phones and cameras at home unless they are on your person at all times.
Where to stay
Most popular beaches have accommodation in close proximity, such as the Golden Mile – hotels and apartment blocks – in Durban, Cape Town’s apartment blocks and hotels along many beaches, hotels along the East London and Port Elizabeth beachfronts, holiday flats at Margate, or hotels and B&Bs in Umhlanga.
During the summer months (November to January), there are many beach festivals on the go, with fun activities, music, competitions, food stalls, volleyball and beach soccer.
A good sunscreen and hat, South African curios sold by hawkers, a tuk-tuk ride, a Segway tour along the beachfront in Durban, a surfing lesson, a cheap bodyboard to enjoy the waves, goggles and a snorkel to explore rock pools and a tide timetable.