DELMARVA ALMANAC

Delmarva’s Summer Water Fun & Safety

by Jim Rapp

If you want endless opportunities for summer fun on the water, then Delmarva is the place to be.

On the east side of the Peninsula, the mighty Atlantic meets the chain of barrier islands between Cape Henlopen and Cape Charles. Along the Atlantic Coast, we're famous worldwide for offshore fishing, surfing, bodyboarding, and skimboarding. Millions of tourists migrate to our beach resorts each summer to jump the little waves with the kids, swim in the ocean, or relax in a comfy beach chair with a good book.

Barrier islands protected by state and national parks in Delaware and Maryland provide a different, more natural experience for those who want to avoid the bars and boardwalks. For a true wilderness experience, you can explore the waters around the islands protected by the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve.

Behind our Atlantic barrier islands, we have bountiful coastal bays filled with submerged aquatic seagrass beds that provide habitat for crabs, clams and fish. You can spend hours on a lazy day drifting and fishing on the bays, or clamming in the shallow water. The coastal bays also provide calmer waters protected by the barrier islands for kayaking and paddleboarding.

Our more famous bays border the western and northeast shores of Delmarva. The Chesapeake may be the place for blue crabs, striped bass, and sailing, but it is also becoming known for experiencing American history on the water, thanks to the Nation's first official water trail. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail provides a unique context for exploring the Chesapeake and it's rivers. Captain Smith's journals provide some of the earliest European descriptions of North America.

The Delaware Bay is known as THE place on the East Coast to witness the ancient rhythms of nature through the annual horseshoe crab spawn. These prehistoric animals crawl from the water in late spring to lay their green eggs on the sand. The spawning is linked to the annual migration of millions of shorebirds tat stop along the Delaware bayshore to fuel up on the tiny, energy-rich horseshoe crab eggs before flying north to lay their own eggs.

Water is the common theme for each of these experiences. If you move from the safety of the shore to float on it or swim in it, you must respect the water and be aware of its dangers. If you can't swim or are unprepared or uninformed, water can be dangerous.

When folks think about dangers in the ocean, they often dwell on the toothy creatures that prowl behind the waves in search of prey. Yes, we have sharks swimming off the Delmarva coast, and these ocean predators have certainly been in the news this summer. The risk of being attacked, however, is statistically very slim. You are much more likely to be struck by lightning or be injured in your own home than attacked by a shark.

Other marine animals do pose a risk when swimming in the ocean and bay, but they rarely cause serious injury. One of the more common human-animal conflicts involves sea nettles, known to most as jellyfish. These milky-white relatives of corals and anemones thrive when Delmarva's coastal waters are warm and salty, which coincides with our busy summer beach season.

Sea nettle tentacles can grow up to six feet long, and they contain thousands of microscopic, barbed stingers that inject venom into their prey or predator, or an unsuspecting human swimmer. Each stinger has a tiny bulb that contains venom, which is released through a coiled, needle-shaped tube.

Sea nettle stings result in immediate, burning pain and can leave reddish-brown, whip-like streaks on the skin. The pain will usually peak in the first five minutes after contact, and will lessen over the next several hours.

Rinsing with salt water can treat most sea nettle stings. Do not use fresh water to rinse a sting! Fresh water dilutes the salts outside of the stinger, which can cause more venom to be released. If you get home and the sting persists, apply vinegar or a baking soda paste, and take a pain reliever. Someone having a severe reaction to a sting may require emergency care.

Another animal that may cause a mild fright while exploring Delmarva's fresh and brackish water rivers and bays is the water snake. Like most of our sharks, our water snakes are inappropriately labeled as dangerous risks to human safety. We have two species of aquatic snake on Delmarva, and both are non-venomous.

The Northern water snake is our most common species. It can grow up to four feet long, and often has wide, dark bands separated by lighter-colored bands that can range from tan to orange-red. Older snakes are darker and often lack a clear pattern. The less common Red-bellied water snake can grow to five feet long, and can have a chocolate to black back and a bright, reddish-orange belly.

As mentioned, neither of these water snakes is venomous, but they are often mistakenly identified as Water Moccasins or Cottonmouths. Both names refer to the venomous water snake that lives in similar habitat in the southern states, but does not range further north than Virginia's Appomattox River, across the Chesapeake Bay.

The most common life-threatening dangers in our waters are not animals, but powerful currents known as riptides. These channeled currents of water flow away from the shore, and typically rip through the surf zone along our beaches, past the breaking waves. Riptide speeds are typically 1to 2 feet per second, but speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured. This is faster than an Olympic swimmer.

To avoid riptides, never swim alone, and only swim at beaches with lifeguards. If caught in a rip current, remain calm. Panic will waste your energy and cause you to not think clearly. Don't fight the current. If you're able, swim out of the current in a direction parallel to the shoreline. If you are unable to swim out of the riptide, float or calmly tread water. When the current ends, swim towards shore. If you become tired and unable to swim back, draw attention to yourself by facing the shore, waving your arms, and yelling for help.

After heavy summer rainstorms, another silent, invisible danger may appear in Delmarva's coastal waters. During heavy rainfall, bacteria can be found in the runoff that flows into our bays and rivers. Many factors contribute to high bacteria levels, including animal manure applied to Delmarva farm fields, failing septic systems, and sewer leaks. Bacteria can thrive in these warm, nutrient-enriched waters, and they may cause minor illness for a healthy adult, or more serious infections for people with impaired immune systems.

Local health departments and Delmarva waterkeepers test the water for high bacteria levels often between Memorial Day and Labor Day. We've provided links to this information on the Delmarva Almanac website.

To protect yourself from infection, do not swim in our bays and rivers after a heavy rainstorm, and pay attention to posted beach closings. If you make contact with water that may contain high bacteria levels, wash off with warm soapy water as soon as possible.

If you learn just a little about the real risks of water safety, there is no end to the fun you can have this summer in the Atlantic Ocean and Delmarva's bays and rivers.

Captian John Smith Trail
Cheapeake Bay Guide - Jelly Fish
OC Beach Patrol - Beach Safety - Rip Tides
Maryland Healthy beaches
Natural Resources Defense Council - Delaware Sumary
Assateague Coastal Trust - Water Quality
Waterkeepers Interactive Safe Water Map
Virginia Health Department Beach Advisroy Map