Natural Waters: Five Risks to Check for Before You Dive In

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Written By: Nicole Fielding and Lori Khaouli, Summer Student

Natural Waters: Five Risks to Check for Before You Dive In

Summertime in Ontario means spending more time in the water – lakes, rivers, and ponds. Unfortunately, the summer season also correlates with an increase in water-related injuries and fatalities, including drownings. In efforts to focus community attention on downing prevention, the Lifesaving Society has designated the third week of July as National Drowning Prevention Week.

In the 2019 Ontario Edition of the Drowning Report by the Lifesaving Society, 130-178 water-related fatalities were reported in Ontario over a five-year period from 2012-2016, with 64% percent of drownings occurring between May and September. Of these fatalities, 43% occurred in a lake or pond, and 22% occurred in a river. While spending time in natural bodies of water is a popular way to cool off in the hot summer months, many people don’t realize the potential dangers that accompany jumping into Ontario’s lakes and rivers.

Staying safe on the water means being prepared. Before you dive into a lake or river, look out for these risks which can occur in natural swimming settings:

  1. Water Quality Issues

Ontario’s lakes and rivers are monitored for harmful bacteria or other issues with the quality of the water. One major concern is the presence of elevated E.coli bacteria in natural waters, which can put you and your family at risk for infection. If water appears discolored, has an odor, or is cloudy, it may also be unfit for swimming.

Before you go for a swim, check online for health and safety updates about the natural waters you plan to swim in. Some resources for confirming water quality of Ontario’s lakes and rivers are linked below:

  • Ontario Parks: Beach Sampling alerts
  • Swim Guide: An App which tracks water quality information for over 8,000 bodies of water
  • Also, check the websites for various regions in Ontario. For example, the City of Toronto provides updates on Toronto’s beach water quality online on a daily basis.
  1. Posted Warning Signs

Many natural swimming sites, including lakes, beaches, and rivers, are regularly monitored for swimming conditions. Signs will often alert the public of hazards (such as rocks or shallow areas) that are difficult to see. If there are any posted warning signs concerning swimming, diving, or other unsafe water conditions, it is best to heed the warning and find somewhere else to swim.

  1. Fast-Moving Currents

Never underestimate the power of a current in the water. In particular, rivers and spots where two rivers meet will have fast currents. Fast-moving currents have the ability to overpower you without warning, even in shallow water. Get an idea of how fast the water is moving by throwing a stick into the current – if you could not catch the stick if you swam after it, then you will be at risk of the current overpowering you. Make sure to also look downstream and take note of any hazards such as rocks, dams, or waterfalls.

If you get caught in a river current or fast-moving water, the Canadian Red Cross recommends to roll onto your back and go downstream feet first to avoid hitting obstacles headfirst. When you are out of the strongest part of the current, swim straight towards the shore.

  1. No Lifeguard On Duty

Before heading out for a swim, take note of whether there is a lifeguard on duty at your chosen body of water. According to the Drowning Report by the Lifesaving Society, only 1% of all drownings occurred in a lifeguard-supervised setting. If there is no lifeguard on duty, it is recommended that you swim with a buddy. Be sure to maintain extra supervision of friends and family while swimming.

  1. Harsh Weather Conditions

Always keep yourself up to date on weather conditions before heading out for a swim. If a storm is on the horizon, this can present risks to you as a swimmer. As a general rule of thumb, if you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning. If you see lightning, evacuate the water and seek shelter. It is best to wait at least 30 minutes from the last clap of thunder before swimming again.

Strong winds can send debris into the water, and cause large waves and strong currents. Keeping tabs on the wind conditions using a weather app can help you avoid getting into a dangerous situation.

CONCLUSION

There is always a level of risk when swimming in a natural body of water. The conditions and quality of the water are subject to change at a moment’s notice – it is up to you to stay informed and be prepared for changing conditions if you make the decision to enjoy some of Ontario’s natural watering holes.

Check out National Drowning Prevention Week, which runs from July 19th to the 25th, 2020.

One way to protect yourself from water danger is by wearing a properly-fitted lifejacket Personal Floatation Device (PFD). For information on lifejackets and other safety tips, check out our blog posts here and here.

Be alert, and stay safe!

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