Not So Crystal Clear

By Catherine Scheder

Noah was a freshly minted lifeguard who was starting his first summer job at the local park district. When he arrived at the beachfront, it looked nothing like the clear pool setting he had seen in his American Red Cross lifeguard training earlier that spring. Even though he had completed the waterfront module, the big, open span of water marked with buoys and float lines looked quite foreign.

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / Voyagerix

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / Voyagerix

Waterfronts and beaches are among the most popular areas in recreation settings—especially on hot summer days. Many park and recreation areas and camp programs employ certified lifeguards to provide a layer of safety for the public in activities such as swimming, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, Stand-Up Paddleboarding, and many more. While lifeguards are trained to perform rescues in water the majority of lifeguards are trained in pool settings and may lack an understanding of the nuances of a different aquatic environment. Park and recreation professionals must provide staff members with additional training for this situation.

Nuances Of Open-Water Environments
There are several considerations that lifeguards and supervisors need to be aware of in open-water environments, including:

  • Climate and temperature

  • Assessment of danger areas

  • Slope and condition of the lake or river bed

  • Vegetation and aquatic plant life

  • Marine and animal life

  • Visibility, surface disturbance, and sun glare.

Climate And Temperature
Climate and temperature can play a significant role in a waterfront, depending on the geographic location. For example, the water temperature in Florida in June is significantly different than the water temperature in Minnesota in June. Cold water can affect people differently, and entering cold water—even if the air temperature is warm or hot—can have a physiological effect. Be aware of water temperature and even air temperature as they may impact patron abilities when swimming.

Photo: Cathy Scheder

Photo: Cathy Scheder

Assessing Danger Areas
Open-water environments often present unique physical factors that should be assessed prior to any patron entering the water. For example, natural bodies of water can have significant drop-offs that are sometimes steep and unexpected. In addition to drop-offs, vegetation, currents, public use (and the amount of boat traffic on a lake, river, or beachfront), dams or spillways, holes or depressions, bottom conditions, submerged structures such as dead tree limbs or large rocks not visible from the surface, and surface structures such as docks, rafts, and inflatable toys, must be considered. Lifeguards should first check the area for hazards before opening the beach to the public; these areas must be diligently monitored, and users should be informed of hazards.

As defined by the United States Lifesaving Association, “Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore.” Riptides can occur both on the ocean and in large bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes. Riptides are fast and swift and can carry swimmers far from shore before they know they’re in trouble. Lifeguards should understand how to escape a rip current, and signage should inform patrons of the same.

Vegetation And Aquatic Plant Life
Vegetation and aquatic plant life are not new in open-water environments; in fact, they are a common part of a healthy aquatic ecosystem, but they can also lead to challenges in your program. Vegetation that is too thick may prevent patrons from using a facility. Swimmers in this environment may panic when they touch something unfamiliar. If vegetation is an issue, discuss options internally, but also involve the local department of natural resources. Some states may even have programs or assistance available to help with this situation. Working with local officials may also help avoid possible fines before removing natural vegetation without an authorization to do so.

Marine And Animal Life
At one camp in the northern U.S., a staff member had just returned from a ski run when she and the boat staff noticed a large object moving in the water about 200 yards off shore—directly in the path from where the boat had just passed. Using binoculars, the staff focused on the object only to discover it was a bear. At another local program, two deer were spotted crossing the open water. While these are not typical situations, they do provide examples of how animals can sometimes impact a program or facilities. Specific marine life—like zebra mussels that have sharp shells and can cause deep cuts—can be found in river systems, so oftentimes footwear is required, even when swimming. Understanding these potential hazards makes lifeguards more aware in minimizing risk.

Visibility, Surface Disturbance, And Sun Glare
Most open bodies of water are rarely crystal clear. Murkiness may impact a lifeguard’s ability to see into or under the water’s surface. Turbidity can be caused by many factors, including rainfall, run-off, algae, sediment on the bottom, and even human action in the area.

The action of wind and waves in a natural environment makes it more difficult to guard anywhere on a waterfront, but especially in swimming areas. Even a small ripple on the surface can reduce visibility below the waterline. In his 2006 article “From the Bottom Up,” Tom Griffiths, remarking on research related to surface disturbance, states that, “even under the best conditions with crystal clear water, bodies beneath the surface are difficult to detect.”

Glare from the sun also can be a significant factor when guarding a waterfront environment because the glare can impair a lifeguard’s ability to effectively see below the surface of the water, making detection of a swimmer in trouble almost impossible. Providing guards with visors and polarized sunglasses can help minimize glare.

Combine murky conditions that many lakes and natural bodies of water present, along with surface disturbance and glare on the water from the sun, and risk factors increase. It’s not impossible to guard in an effective manner, but organizations should consider various scanning and accountability techniques for different situations. Griffiths states that “the bottom … not the surface, must be prioritized during visual scanning.”

Being aware of these conditions for a natural body of water raises lifeguards’ safety IQ. Putting small practices in place in pre-season training allows guards to not only learn but discover these differences themselves. The need to adjust scanning and other rescue techniques can be the difference between a successful summer and a stressful one.

Cathy Scheder is an aquatics-risk manager with Second Nature Partners, LLC., an educational and consultation firm specializing in camp and recreation programs. She is also a faculty member with Expert Online Training. She spent over 20 years in the camp and youth-development field as a waterfront director, program director, and camp director, and is the author of Camp Waterfront Management. Reach her at

Griffiths, T. (2006). “From the Bottom Up.” Aquatics International, October 2006, p.22.
United States Lifesaving Association Retrieved January 10, 2019.