SPRING BREAK: How to spot + escape a rip current on Alabama’s Gulf Coast

Alabama Tourism Orange Beach
Knowing how to spot a rip current will keep your beach vacay fun + safe. (The Bama Buzz)

Beach vacations are supposed to be full of fun, adventure + new experiences. Despite how relaxing your beach vacation should be, things can take a turn for the tragic if you or a loved one gets sucked into a rip tide. That’s why we called up the experts at the Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF) to get some advice on how to spot a rip current and what to do if you get caught in one.

What is a rip current?

Aerial footage shows a rip current pulling out to sea. (Liv George / The Bama Buzz)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says rip currents are fast-moving channels of water that get sucked away from shore faster than the water immediately surrounding it. Moving at a rate of 8 feet per second (about 5 miles per hour), rip currents can pull you or a loved one away from the group quickly.

You might also hear rip currents called:

  • Undertow
  • Rip tides

But the NOAA does point out that the only ‘correct’ name, scientifically speaking, is a rip current.

“The current is not on the top. That’s why it looks calm but it is pulling you under you know the water is pushing out towards the Gulf of Mexico from the shoreline.”

Mark Berte, Alabama Coastal Foundation

How to spot a rip current?

The unfortunate thing about a rip current is that it usually looks like the safest place to play in the water. You’ll find a calm patch of shoreline where the waves are kind of ‘folding’ over themselves + think it looks like a calm patch to play in. But that’s where the rip currents tend to lurk.

“It looks like an inviting place to go into…basically it looks calm, and then it drags you out.”

Mark Berte, Alabama Coastal Foundation

You can spot a rip current by:

  • Churning water close to the shoreline
  • Changes in water color
  • A line of seafoam, seaweed or other debris moving straight out from shore to the breakers
  • Break in the wave pattern close to shore

It’s important to note that not every rip current will have all of these markers. In fact, some rip currents are completely invisible to the naked eye. The best way to monitor rip current conditions is by using a weather app or the ACF’s rip current map.

What to do if caught in a rip current?

Beach Safety Tips Alabama, Beach Safety, Beaches, Rip Currents
This sign shows how to escape a rip current. (ACF)

If you’re caught in a rip current, the foremost advice is to stay calm. This sounds difficult, but you’ll need your energy to swim back to shore after the rip current spits you out. Since it’s hard to stay calm while caught in a rip current, preparation is key so your “muscle memory” kicks in.

“If you are ever caught in one of those, try to stay calm and call for the help towards the shoreline just so that somebody is notified. But then once the current is dissipates outside of the area, then you basically swim in parallel to the shoreline.”

Mark Berte, Alabama Coastal Foundation

Do:

  • Relax + try to float
  • Swim parallel to the shore
  • Throw a floatation device to someone stuck in a rip current
  • Call 911 or lifeguards

Don’t:

  • Try to rescue someone stuck in a rip current
  • Try to swim back the way you came
  • Panic (we know this one is hard, that’s why mental preparation is key. The more you can tap into “muscle memory”, the better)

About Alabama Coastal Foundation

The Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF) helped us put together this rip current guide. The ACF has been working to restore Alabama’s waterways through community outreach and participation programs like the oyster recycling program. They have their own guide to rip currents + other visitor information, you can find it here.

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Liv George
Liv George

A Georgia native soaking up the sun on the Gulf Coast. Lover of Mardi Gras, beach days, and historical sites.

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