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During my last few visits to the beach, I noticed different flags waving in the wind. One day, a blue flag was waving and hardly anyone was in the water but the beach was crowded. It turns out that the flags are a warning system.
Beaches often use warning flags to indicate potential hazards such as strong currents or rough water conditions.
So, what do beach flags mean? There are five colors that are commonly used to warn swimmers about specific threats. However, you need to know what the colors mean to understand the warning. For example, the blue flag typically warns swimmers that jellyfish or sharks may be present.
Blue Flags Signal Dangerous Marine Life
Along with jellyfish or sharks, the blue flag can be used for any type of dangerous marine life. It simply lets swimmers know that there are potential threats in the water.
While blue flags are more common, you may see a purple flag on some beaches to provide the same warning. When you see a purple or blue flag, you should use caution when swimming or surfing. Pay attention to your surroundings and consider staying closer to the shore.
Green Flags Mean Go Ahead and Swim
One of the most common flags is the green flag. Green flags let you know that there are no additional dangers in the water. This does not mean that there are no potential threats.
Even when the water is calm, you should follow the basic swimming safety rules. You should swim where a lifeguard is present, always monitor children, and pay attention to changes in the water conditions.
Yellow Flags Are a Caution Sign
When you see a yellow flag, you should exercise caution. The yellow flag is a warning sign that the waters are rough. There may be a high surf or other conditions that require additional caution for swimmers and surfers.
With a yellow flag on the beach, I ensure that a lifeguard is on duty. Statistics show that drowning is much less likely to occur when a lifeguard is present.
A typical recommendation for yellow flags is to wear a life jacket when swimming. Children should also wear proper flotation devices. In fact, you may want to stick near the shore if there is a yellow flag and you have children with you.
In some areas, the yellow flags are permanently posted. The flags may be posted near dangerous areas, such as an area with a steep drop-off or a lot of rocks.
Red Flags May Indicate That the Water Is Closed
A red flag is the most critical warning sign. If you see one or two red flags, you may want to avoid swimming that day.
One red flag lets you know that the water is dangerous. There is a severe hazard such as extreme weather, dangerous tides, or strong currents. While you may still choose to go swimming when a red flag is posted, I typically avoid it.
When there are two red flags posted, the water is off limits. If the water conditions are too severe for even the most experienced swimmers, no one should go in the water.
Do All Beaches Use the Same Flags?
The beach warning flag system was developed by the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and the International Lifesaving Federation (ILF).
While most beaches have adopted this system, it is not used in all regions. Some communities develop their own systems or use a slightly modified version of the system described.
For example, instead of two red flags, some communities use a red flag featuring the white outline of a swimmer with a white line going through him. This flag means that the water is off limits.
When you see different variations, the colors often remain the same for the three basic warning flags. Green always signals that the water is safe for swimming while yellow always lets you know that you should exercise caution.
You can typically find a description of the flags near the lifeguard stand or posted near the bathroom facilities.
Where Are the Beach Flags Posted?
The locations of the flags vary depending on the community or beach. The flags are often posted near the shore where they are easily visible to anyone entering the water. They also are flown from the lifeguard stand or shack.
On most beaches, the lifeguards are the ones who are responsible for flying the flags. As part of their job responsibilities, lifeguards pay attention to the weather and water conditions. They also listen to reports from other beachgoers. For example, a swimmer may spot a shark or dangerous marine life.
When these threats are detected, the lifeguard posts the appropriate flag to warn beachgoers about the potential danger.
Along with the beach warning flags, you may see additional warning signs when you reach the beach. Some communities place a large board near the entrance to the beach where they post important details about the current conditions.
For example, you may see a sign warning of dangerous geographical features or displaying the hours when a lifeguard is on duty. I suggest that you look for these signs along with the flags every time you reach the beach.
What Do Beach Flags Mean? Memorize the Most Common Flag Colors
Remembering these color-coded warning flags is not hard. Green means go, yellow means caution, and red means stop. When you see a blue or purple flag, dangerous marine life may be in the area.
If you have any questions about the warning flags that you see on the beach, talk to the lifeguards. They can explain the warning and provide any other information that you may need.
Even if you do not see a flag, you can always ask a lifeguard about the current water conditions. I make it a habit to stop by the lifeguard shack when arriving at the beach.
The flags are a simple reminder that you should use caution when swimming. They are easy to remember and used in most communities. If you want to stay safe, pay attention to these warning signs.
Megan Jones is the lead author of Seaside Planet. She is an avid surfer, scuba diver, and travel enthusiast who takes any opportunity she can to spend time in the ocean. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.