Rip currents can be deadly for beachgoers. Here’s how to identify them and stay safe over the July 4 holiday.

Beachfront from above shows green dye in water.
In this image provided by NOAA, a harmless green dye is used to show a rip current. (NOAA via AP)

As Independence Day approaches and beach season is in full swing, one of the biggest dangers to beachgoers are rip currents.

About 100 Americans die from rip currents every year, according to the United States Lifesaving Association.

So far in 2024, there have been an estimated 19 known deaths in U.S. waters due to rip currents, according to the National Weather Service. Last month alone, rip currents in Florida killed eight people within four days.

As beachgoers look to cool down over the July 4 holiday, here’s how to spot rip currents and how to protect yourself and others.

A rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of water that flows away from the shore at surf beaches, including Great Lakes beaches, the United States Lifesaving Association says. They typically form at breaks in sandbars and near structures like piers and jetties.

Rip currents are also different from riptides. As the NOAA website explains, “A rip tide is a specific type of current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments, and harbors.”

Rip currents have been measured at speeds of more than 5 miles per hour, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer. They can quickly sweep away even the strongest of swimmers.

Generally, over 80% of rescues by surf beach lifeguards in the U.S. are in response to rip currents, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

While rip currents don’t pull people underwater, they can pull a swimmer away from the beach beyond the breaking waves, according to the NOAA.

Spotting a rip current can be tricky. According to NOAA, they can emerge whether it’s raining or sunny, and even when waves are only two or three feet high.

Here are some signs that a rip current might be nearby:

  • A narrow gap of darker water that’s seemingly calm between areas of breaking waves and whitewater

  • An area of water noticeably different in color

  • A break in the incoming waves

  • A line of foam or debris moving offshore

See some examples from NOAA of what rip currents look like.

You can check beach conditions for rip current risks at the National Weather Service’s beach forecast page before you head out.

While at the beach, the U.S. Lifesaving Association advises to never swim alone and to always swim in an area that’s monitored by lifeguards, and consult them before entering the water.

Make sure that you and other members of your family can swim in the surf at the beach — pool swimming isn’t the same as beach swimming.

Rip currents can occur in any weather, so assume that they’re present at a surf beach and take the time to identify any of the indicators.

If you’re caught in a rip current, stay calm and don’t swim against the current, says the NOAA. Swim out of the rip current, parallel to shore, then follow breaking waves at an angle toward the beach.

If you feel like you won't be able to reach the shoreline, draw attention to yourself by yelling or waving for help.

Immediately call a lifeguard or 911 for help.

If help isn’t immediately available, throw something that floats to the person in trouble.

If you must enter the water, do so with a flotation device and always keep it between you and the person in trouble.

In attempting to counter rip currents, human chains can be a dangerous rescue technique because they have the potential to create a multi-victim scenario if the rip current pulls additional people out into the water.