Car In The Water

“Beach Patrol, car in the water 8 mile road bayside. Occupants possibly trapped inside”.

A call we dread, particularly at night. Supervisor Mary Stewart was on call for Beach Patrol last Tuesday. Supervisor/Officer Austin Kirwin happened to be near the radio and asked if she wanted assistance, which she wisely accepted. Water call at night can be pretty scary at night no matter how well trained you are. Each of our year round staff members has been there and is quick to help each other out.

The 911 dispatcher followed protocol and dispatched the lifeguards first, then all the other emergency responders. In a water emergency it doesn’t make sense to have a police officer or paramedic arriving first and waiting a long time until a lifeguard gets there to enter the water. Life threatening events typically develop much faster in water than on land.

Once Beach Patrol was on the way the dispatcher called the rest of the “Galveston Marine Response” group which for this call included police, fire, EMS, and Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue. While on the way they all switched to the shared “Marine Response” channel and coordinated their resources. When the Fire Department arrived they set up lights and located the vehicle. Police blocked off the area and EMS staged for a potential medical emergency.

Austin arrived to find the car still floating after blasting off the end of the road. It was about 70 yards from the shore and a man in a white shirt was sitting cross legged on the roof. He grabbed his rescue board and a tube and got there quickly. Upon arrival he first asked if there was anyone else in the car. The man said there wasn’t. After a short conversation to assess the mental status of the man and a quick look inside the car, Austin was able to get him onto the rescue board and paddled him to safety, where he was checked out by EMS and Fire. He was later transported by EMS to the emergency room.  While being rescued the man asked how he ended up on top of the now barely floating car. Once he had completed the rescue, Austin went back out to the car to recheck for other victims.

The Police Dive team was assembling and Sergeant John Courtney and Mary Stewart went in the Jamaica Beach Boat to join Austin in checking the vehicle. They found nothing and towed the bobbing vehicle close enough for a wrecker to hook up to it. The headlights were still on as divers double checked for victims.

So while the rest of the island slept the Galveston Marine Response worked seamlessly to rescue yet another person from a near catastrophe. Each of these groups has budgets that are pinched tighter and tighter each year but they still find a way to make rescues like this happen. Austin didn’t have to respond to that call but he and the men and women of each of the GMR participating agencies know that their efforts make a huge difference.

Early Run

The air had just a tinge of pre-dawn chill and the sun peeked over the water as I started my early morning run. The rays were touching the tops of buildings and were moments from hitting us as I jogged past the woman sitting hunched over and alone on the seawall bench.

She must have heard my footsteps. She suddenly turned to me with a big smile and said, “Wow!”, then looked back over the tranquil water.

As I continued to run, my lungs expanded and the blood flowed more easily. My attention turned away from little aches and pains as I settled into a pace. As I drew inward I reflected on the woman. Sometimes someone who is not from here has to remind us how beautiful it can be and how lucky we are to live so close to the ocean. I thought about how she must be feeling while the early rays touched her face and she felt and smelled the salty breeze.

For Galveston locals the early morning beach time often involves an early commute to work or morning exercise. Our minds are cluttered as we run through what the day will bring or dwell on our latest issues. But to travel and remove yourself from your routine enables you to live a little more in the moment. To focus on things more clearly. Beaches are a vehicle to get closer to the natural environment if we’re open.

Living in one of the places that people go to get away from their life and renew themselves can be a challenge. We’re just getting used to driving down the seawall without someone pulling some crazy, no-signal-making lane change or abrupt speed alteration. Living in a west end beach house  is getting quieter without the summer parties in all the neighborhood rental houses and it’s a welcome change to walk out the door without having to clean someone’s beer cans off my yard. But all the little annoyances are a small price to pay for the time of year we just entered. And tourists are the reason that many of the nice things we enjoy in Galveston exist, so it’s not a bad trade off.

Beautiful empty beaches and a perfect air and water temperature don’t last long in the fall and spring but they are sure wonderful if we can take the time to get the same joy from them as the tourists do when they visit. These are the times that make it worth living here.

On my way back I saw the woman on the bench staring out to the ocean, a smile on her lips. She didn’t acknowledge me this time and appeared to be deep in thought. Looking closely I noticed her head was wrapped in a bandana and she had deep, dark bags under her eyes. I realized how much she must have been going through and felt grateful she found some solace on the beach this beautiful morning.

Sharkbite Reflections

If you somehow missed all the media coverage this week, a 13 year old boy from Odessa was bitten by a shark last Monday. He and his brother were swimming around 37th street and noticed fish swimming all around them. One fish even hit him which caused them to start towards shore. When they were in about chest deep the boy was bit on the back of the leg near the ankle. He reached down and was bit again on the hand.

We believe this shark was feeding on mullet and bit the boy by accident. These bites are very different than a shark attack, where the person is the intended prey.

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 6 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty good… for the swimmers. If we assume 5 million people swim a year in the beach, there have been 125 million swimmers in Galveston’s water that would give us a 1 in just under 14 million chance of getting bit when we swim.

I’m sure that number wouldn’t make this young man feel better, but sounds like his bites could have been way worse. It also helped him that his brother reportedly beat back the shark and applied pressure with a towel until Beach Patrol and EMS responded- and that the response times were both under a minute from receiving the 911 call.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.

2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them they won’t try to fight back.

3. Don’t swim while bleeding- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the young man as he, hopefully, works towards a full recovery. We are also thankful to work and play at a beach that has so few of these types of incidents compared to others around the country and around the world.

Pre-Labor Day

The week leading up to Labor Day Weekend has been an interesting one. School started and the beaches are suddenly pretty empty on the weekdays with the exception of some of the seawall areas and Stewart Beach. Last weekend, however, was really busy. We had pretty normal days with good crowds but the nights got wild.

Last weekend our on call unit responded to a total of 7 after hour calls between the time our last guards left around 9pm and before the first patrol unit hits the beach at 7:30. Most were boating emergencies that we worked in conjunction with the Coast Guard, Galveston Police Department, Galveston Fire Department, and Galveston EMS. Everyone ended up OK but the calm water and good fishing had everyone out in their boats in the middle of the night.

Another unusual thing that happened this week involved the water. We had a gentle current from the east for a few days, which was a change from most of the summer. A current from the west brings silt from the Brazos and Colorado rivers so we get that chocolaty rich colored water that we all know and love. But this easterly current cleared it up. Normally when we have these conditions we get a greenish colored water with a 4-5 foot visibility near the shoreline. But in this case the water looked like it does offshore. Saturday you could see all three sandbars from shore. Standing on a groin you could see all the submerged rocks and the sand on the bottom. And the water was a emerald blue green color. It was breathtaking and was even a little cooler than it’s been with no jellyfish, sea lice, or any other critters that would put a damper on things.

As we head into the last major weekend of the summer the conditions look really good. The rain isn’t supposed to be an issue, temperature should be mild, and we’re not expecting any unusually rough water or strong rip currents. Let’s hope this continues and we have one more really great weekend before everyone settles into their fall routine. The guards and equipment are ready on our end.

So remember to be that first and most important layer of protection for you and your family, but swim near a lifeguard so you have that extra layer if something goes wrong. Don’t swim alone and be sure to enter the water with children. Don’t forget to obey warning signs and flags, shuffle your feet to scare away marine critters, and that alcohol and water don’t mix. Also be sure to wear a lifejacket if you’re a non-swimmer or if you’re boating and make your children wear them when in or around the water.

Above all, stay away from the rock groins where there are always rip currents and don’t swim at the ends of the island where there may be strong tidal currents.

And have a great time, you deserve it! We’ll see you out there.

Monofilament

A network of agencies, including the Beach Patrol, deal with a number of environmental hazards including underwater obstructions, petroleum products, bacteria, and containers full of toxic material. But one of the most critical to wildlife is monofilament- a single-strand, strong, flexible plastic that is clear or tinted blue, pink or green.

John O’Connel runs the recovery and recycle program for A&M/Sea Grant and maintains a website full of useful information about monofilament at https://mrrp.tamu.edu/. According to the website most monofilament is non-biodegradable — it lasts about 600 years. Because it is thin and often clear, it is difficult for birds and other animals to see and they can easily brush up against it and become entangled. Once entangled, they may become injured, drown, or starve to death. Many animals also ingest fishing line.

Monofilament is recycled when it is collected from recycling bins and cleaned of hooks, leaders, weights and trash by volunteers. It is then shipped to a place that melts it down and made into other plastic products, including tackle boxes, spools for line, fish habitats and toys. It is not made into more monofilament line. You can recycle the line by depositing it in to cardboard recycling boxes that can be found in some tackle shops, or deposit it in an outdoor monofilament recycling container. If you choose to throw it in the trash make sure you cut the line into short lengths (less than six inches), because once it goes to the landfill it can be scavenged there by animals trying to use it to build nests or eat it.

If you see a marine mammal or turtle entangled, contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-800-9-MAMMAL. All marine mammals and sea turtles should only be handled by qualified personnel. For other entangled wildlife, go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/rehab/list to locate a wildlife rehabilitator. If you see a bird entangled, you may be able to free it yourself by first throwing a blanket or towel over the bird’s head to limit their eyesight, being careful not to entangle it in the fabric.

You can’t really talk about efforts to increase the amount of monofilament line that’s collected locally without mentioning Joanie Steinhaus, Associate Campaign Director, Gulf Coast Turtle Island Restoration Network. She’s involved with many projects, one of which involves educating local fishermen and placing collection tubes on Boddeker Road, Sea Wolf Park, both fishing piers and some sites on the west end. Surfrider Galveston also maintains tubes on four of the jetties and Joanie is always trying to recruit more volunteers for placement and maintenance of the tubes.

She is working with John O’Connel to raise funds for addition signs and stickers for the tubes, and with multiple agencies and other NGOs to raise awareness and recruit volunteers.

If you are interested in helping by maintaining a collection tube, putting up a collection box, or helping with outreach give her a call at 409-795-8426 or e-mail her at joanie@tirn.net.

We all appreciate all the good work being done by Joanie, John, and all the volunteers!

 

 

SHARKMANIA

Ahhhhhh….. SHARKMANIA!

With the sensationalism of the shark attacks on the Carolina coast it seems like everyone is on the lookout. Social media adds to the drama and we often get calls from reporters about sightings that they hear about. There was a good one floating around recently about a huge Great White that was caught swimming about a mile from Galveston’s shoreline. Turns out it was a Mako caught off of Nova Scotia during a fishing tournament several years ago. But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 6 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty good… for the swimmers.

There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal from below.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

  1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
  2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them they won’t try to fight back.
  3. Don’t swim while bleeding- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.

The 4th

Summer is flying by. There have been so many people on the beach that even weekdays feel like weekends. As busy as it’s been even all of our rookie lifeguards have gotten a good amount experience under their belts which helps things run smoothly. We’re already to the 4th of July weekend!

The beach has shifted into its summer pattern. Tides have dropped from spring to summer levels. We requested that the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board move our towers closer to the shoreline. Winds and waves have started dropping and we’re bouncing between green (calm condition) flags and yellow (caution).

The water is full of all kinds of critters now so we’ve been seeing a few jellyfish stings and an occasional stingray hit. This is still pretty minimal when you compare it to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, but more than we were seeing a month ago. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or salt water if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short time event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

We would really like to thank all of you that attended our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser or sent in donations. Well over a thousand people came to support, swap stories, eat food, and hang out. It ended up being a perfect night and a really good time. We really appreciate all the support and it was good to have all the friends, supporters, and beach people in one place!

If you or yours are headed to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard and don’t check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway. Stay far away from groins and piers.  Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child or on boats.  One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, food, and beer that brings this on? But it’s an easy thing to prevent if you remember to stay hydrated (no my fellow Texans, beer doesn’t count!), wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses.

Have a great holiday!

Sandbars

I got an interesting call from a local woman who told me to write about what it means to “step off a sandbar” and why that can cause someone to drown. The woman, now in her 90’s, said when she was young she had to hand her 3 year old to someone else and trust him to bring her child to shore when she “stepped off a sandbar” herself.

Most of what we focus on in beach safety involves rip currents. Rip currents, responsible for 80% of rescues in the ocean (and presumably drownings) run roughly perpendicular to shore and are formed when water brought in by waves has to find a way back out past the surf zone. In Texas our strongest and most predominant rip currents are formed near a structure like a jetty. This is why we recommend people stay away from the rocks and why we post our towers on the seawall near the groins. If you’re caught in one, float with it and you’ll likely return to shore on your own. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore, but never try to swim directly into a rip current (directly to shore).

The phrase “stepping off a sandbar” refers to times when someone is standing in relatively shallow water and currents or waves push them from the shallow sandbar into a trough where the water is deeper. Just as is the case with rip currents, if you simply relax and float you’ll be fine, but bad things happen when people panic or choke on water.

At our beaches we have a sandbar and trough system, both of which run parallel to the shoreline. As you walk into the water from shore you’ll step into deeper water, then shallower water, than deeper, shallower, and so on. Gradually it gets deeper and deeper but we have 4-5 sandbars and troughs before it gets deep enough for the bottom to level off. The sandbars farther from shore need bigger waves to break on them but the first couple are easy to spot by the breaking waves even from shore. Waves break in water about 1.3 times their height, so an experienced guard or person can tell water depth by looking at the waves. The waves don’t break in the deeper water so the troughs are calm looking areas between the sandbars.

The difference in depth between the sandbars and troughs is exacerbated by long shore current, which runs parallel to shore. The longer and harder it runs, the deeper the troughs. Generally when the current lets up the bottom levels off to normal in a couple of days, but this past week it was so calm that the normal “jiggling” of the bottom sand didn’t happen and there was a neck deep trough very near the shoreline all week.

Generally the most important way to be safe is to swim near a lifeguard, but it’s also a good idea to stay in shallower water than you would in an artificial environment.

What If

In this line of work saying “What If?” can be dangerous. Would this bad thing had happened if we had or hadn’t……? It’s better to use all the data and statistics you have coupled with what your team’s cumulative experience is. Sprinkle in what your gut tells you and shake it up- then decide a course of action. Once you’ve made the call its best to not torment yourself with second guesses.

This past weekend could have been full of those moments if any of us had time for introspection. At one point we had three calls working almost simultaneously on Monday. A jet ski floating around in the bay with no owner, an unconscious man at Stewart Beach that had been in the water, and a possible drowning at East Beach stretched our resources to the limit. Fortunately all ended well for those situations but it really made us appreciate our partner agencies who were there with us for these three events and for many others throughout the weekend. We really can’t say thank you enough for the CERT Team (Strike Team #1) whose public safety volunteers helped to move several hundred people out of the waters of the San Luis Pass, Galveston Fire/EMS/Police and Park Board Security and Park Staff who were there at every major event, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network who offered free counseling to lifeguards who gave CPR to a submerged man, and to our amazing National Weather Service Houston/Galveston office who kept us up on the latest weather all the way through the weekend. It’s good to have partners and friends who are there when you need them most.

Mostly though I’d like to thank my staff who did an unbelievable job protecting hundreds of thousands of tourists in unbelievably rough water, blasting wind, and the most adverse conditions imaginable. Many worked longer hours and extra shifts when it became obvious that this was an exceptionally challenging and dangerous situation. By the end of the weekend they’d moved over 3,000 people away from rip currents and closer to shore, made rescues, reunited lost kids, treated medical emergencies, enforced rules, and offered water safety and tourist information to hundreds.

I’d like to finish by doing what I said I shouldn’t and asking two big “What ifs?”

The first is what if Supervisor Kris Pompa and several others on our staff hadn’t taken my early spring challenge to provide water safety talks to at least 8,000 kids in the Houston/Galveston area? Kris was on the road for over two months sometimes hitting as many as three schools a day. By May 1st he’d exceeded all expectations by providing beach water safety instruction to 16, 761 students! Each of them spread that info to families and friends. We’ll never know how many accidents will never happen as a result.

Finally, what if Galveston and the Galveston Park Board didn’t provide us the resources to staff those towers, trucks, and boats?

What if?

Ready for Memorial

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! With all the strange weather this spring it seems like summer just pounced on us.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the Emergency Operation Center for extra patrols at the San Luis Pass and hopefully some flashing signs on the side of the highway coming on to the island. We have a new crew of lifeguards that complete their over 100 hours of training today that will be out working with the more experienced guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also had two major events this week.

Last Tuesday we had representatives from the Fire and Police departments, EMS, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and others participate in a mass casualty exercise at Stewart Beach to practice our skills, communication, and ability to work together during a crisis. We simulated a water accident with 15 victims. They were rescued, triaged, treated, searched for, and counseled. This is a great event for our lifeguard candidates to see how what they do is a small part of a whole system of emergency response. It also sharpens all of our skills right before the big weekend and summer season.

The final physical exercise was the next day where our entire staff (minus the ones that guarded and facilitated) competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and ended in a long slip and slide at the finish line. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you.