Beaches Are In Great Shape, But Beware Of Riptides

June 7, 2018
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Environmentalists urged beachgoers to beware of rip currents after a record-setting number of
deaths in 2017. Photo by Jay Cook

By Jay Cook |

ASBURY PARK – New Jersey’s beaches may be in the best shape since Super Storm Sandy ravaged the coast in 2012, but a virtually invisible threat continues to kill unsuspecting and inexperienced swimmers.

Last summer, a record eight people across New Jersey drowned after being swept up in rip currents – the powerful water currents pulling away from the shorelines and out into the oceans – since the National Weather Service began tracking the related deaths in 1998. About 20 more fatalities last summer were also attributed to people swimming at beaches either after hours or when lifeguards weren’t present.

It’s a menacing trend one local Sandy Hook-based organization is looking to halt.

“It’s a shame,” said Claire Antonucci, executive director of New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium (NJSGC). “The water quality is great, the beaches are in great shape and then you have something like that happen, and it’s tough.”

After last summer’s high number of beach-related deaths, Antonucci and her team decided to broaden their awareness and education campaigns. For the past 20 years, NJSGC has used grants to supply every municipality along the coast from Sandy Hook to Cape May with rip current awareness signs, posted at all open beaches. This year, for the first time, those signs have been translated to Spanish, said Amy Williams, a post-doctoral associate and coastal ecologist at Davidson Laboratory at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Williams has also traveled the state, visiting classrooms and libraries to educate elementary aged beachgoers about the dangers associated with rip currents.

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“I think a lot of it is common sense,” said Williams, who works with NJSGC. “Be aware that rip currents exist, be aware that they’re out there. Swim with the lifeguard because they’re going to save you.”

Williams said organizations are also trying to tackle the stigma that only out-of-state swimmers get caught in rip currents. With the high volume of beach replenishments since Sandy, beaches that locals are historically familiar with may have drastically changed.

“It takes these beaches a while to get to equilibrium,” said Williams. “Some areas are faster and some take a longer time. Always be vigilant, even if it’s not a place that you’ve ever seen rip currents at.”

THE ‘FOUR’EASTER’

Remember that stretch of March where the Shore was seemingly beaten weekly with storms one after another?

That weather event has since been titled the March 2018 “Four’easter,” said Jon K. Miller, Ph.D., a NJSGC processes specialist and research associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. The biggest of those storms was rated as the 27th biggest storm in the last 35 years, but the cumulative four storms ranked as the fifth-highest storm in that same time frame, Miller said.

“We were fortunate that the wave heights during these nor’easters were not terribly large,” added Miller. “It had to do with the nature of the storms coming more over the land than over the sea.”

Other than that month of blustery winds and constant rain, New Jersey beaches fared rather well, Miller said. The Four’easter caused some late beach erosion, meaning the sandbars which typically form off the shore will stay intact until July when that sand is pushed back to the beaches.

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WATER QUALITY GETS AN ‘A’

Testing the water quality at New Jersey beaches has been a common practice since 1974, and if last year’s results are any indicator, the Garden State has been a standout student, said Catherine R. McCabe, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

At the 16th annual State of the Shore event last week in Asbury Park, executive director of New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium Claire Antonucci, left, and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection acting commissioner Catherine R. McCabe answered questions about the state of the beaches. Photo by Jay Cook

Of the 221 beaches tested last year from mid-May through mid-September, 97 percent of the results came back within the acceptable threshold of 104 colonies of Enterococci bacteria per 100 milliliters. That’s the same bacteria found in fecal matter.

“I am proud to say and very happy to say once again, one more time, that the quality of our coastal waters is excellent,” said McCabe. “You can all feel safe going to the beach.”

Locally, beaches in Highlands – Miller Street and Robert D. Wilson Community Center – and Middletown – Ideal Beach – experienced a handful of shutdowns last year. At one point, Highlands officials voluntarily closed the beaches as they investigated, and found, sources of pollution.

“We don’t expect right now nor are aware of any situations of any infrastructure issues, but that’s why we do the testing every Monday,” Bruce Friedman, director of water monitoring and standards with the DEP, said of Highlands’ situation.


This article was first published in the May 31-June 7, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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