FAQ: Ocean Safety on the Crystal Coast

frequently asked questions about ocean safety

FAQ: Ocean Safety on the Crystal Coast

If you’ve spent any time at the beach, you’ve probably wondered about ocean safety and might have a few questions.  Here are the most frequently asked questions and answers about beach and ocean safety on the Crystal Coast. 

Beach Safety FAQ:

Watch this short video on beach and ocean safety relating to our coast. The towns of Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, and Atlantic Beach have joined together to explain the meanings of the beach safety flag system and also to discuss rip current advice.

Frequently Asked Questions: Ocean Safety on the Crystal Coast


1. How do I know what beach conditions are for Emerald Isle?

  • First, you should know that Emerald Isle is ALWAYS at a minimum level of yellow flags. Emerald Isle NEVER flies green flags because we believe there are always inherent dangers when entering the ocean, and you should always use caution. You can check the current ocean conditions on Emerald Isle, daily on the Town’s website.

2. What do the different colored flags mean?

  • GREEN flags indicate that conditions are safe. The Town of Emerald Isle does not fly green flags, as we believe there are always inherent dangers when swimming in the ocean. Therefore, it is never completely safe, and you should always use caution.
  • YELLOW flags indicate moderate hazards, and the public should use caution in the ocean. In Emerald Isle, even the calmest of days on the beach can pose an inherent risk when entering the ocean, and the public is always advised to use caution.
  • RED flags indicate a high risk of strong currents or other hazards, and the public is advised to stay out of the water.
  • DOUBLE RED flags indicate an extremely high risk of strong currents or other hazards. The Town Manager has enacted a prohibition on swimming on our beaches under the authority granted by Town Ordinance Chapter 5 Section 5-25. You can be fined or arrested if you go in the water.
  • PURPLE flags indicate an abundance of potentially hazardous marine life in the vicinity, including Portuguese man-o-war, jellyfish, and other creatures. The town will fly these flags as needed in specific locations. However, the use of PURPLE FLAGS is relatively rare.


3. What if I don’t see a flag from where I am on the beach?

  • Flags are only posted on the beach strand from Memorial Day to Labor Day (when we have lifeguards). If you don’t see a flag from where you are on the beach, you should know that the Town of Emerald Isle is NEVER under green flag conditions. So, if you don’t see a flag on the beach, you should check with the Emerald Isle Fire Department or the town website to determine our current beach conditions.

4. Why doesn’t the town post flags along the beach all year round? 

  • The only time you will see flags posted along the beach is during the months we have lifeguards patrolling the beach (Memorial Day to Labor Day), and then only when we are under the red flag or double red flag conditions.

5. Why is the town reporting conditions different from the National Weather Service reports?

  • NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) gathers information for their reports from weather buoys positioned 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina. Emerald Isle town staff evaluate our beach conditions daily and communicate this data to NOAA to get the best forecast information possible to provide to the public. Most of the time, the conditions we are reporting in Emerald Isle are consistent with the forecast advisories posted by NOAA for all the beaches in our area. However, there are times when the conditions we are experiencing in Emerald Isle may be more severe than what is reported by NOAA equipment or experienced by other beaches in our area. In that situation, our flag conditions may differ from the NOAA forecast or the flags flown in Atlantic Beach. Please know when that happens, it is because we are reporting the most accurate information possible for Emerald Isle to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors.

6. Can’t you get rental companies to put information in their rental packets for people warning them about the dangers?

  • The town works closely with all major rental companies to get information out to visitors and guests to promote safety in the Town. The rental companies are very proactive in supplying safety information produced by the Town for their guests by putting them in their rental packets and posting information in all of their rental units. This information explains the flags system, rip current information, beach rules and regulations, and even has information about nesting sea turtles.

7. Why doesn’t the town position Jet Skis’ on the beach strand?

  • Town staff is constantly working to improve and perfect our response to all concerns in the town. Over many years of testing different approaches, we have found that the quickest response in these situations is achieved by traveling over the roadways to the closest access rather than trying to work our way through hundreds or thousands of people along a crowded beach. We aim to get there as quickly as possible to have the greatest chance of conducting a successful rescue.

8. Why doesn’t the town buy speed boats along the coastline to perform rescues?

  • The surf, geographical, and even weather conditions have molded our rescue practices over the years. We believe that we are currently using the most effective methods for the conditions along our shoreline. Waves and surf conditions along our shoreline make using a boat a dangerous option for rescue situations.

9. What steps is the town taking to educate people on the dangers posed by these conditions?

  • Each department in the town works very hard to get information out to our residents and guests and educate them on the dangers and hazards present in the ocean. Town staff hosts educational programs on beach safety, rip current dangers, and other hazards multiple times per month to educate beachgoers. The Fire Department conducts public education classes for schools, locals and visitors specifically focused on water safety. These events are publicized on the Town’s website and other social media platforms. Police and lifeguards patrolling the beach hand out flyers with flag warnings, rip current information, and beach rules and regulations. Beach Patrol units stop and have conversations with hundreds of beachgoers every day when they see someone doing something that may be dangerous, hazardous, or illegal to try and keep our beaches and the public safe. The Fire Department presents multiple annual educational classes to the public. It administers the lifeguard program for the town, which includes over 70 hours of training, certifications, and testing for each lifeguard. They also monitor beach conditions and administer our town’s flag warning program. Town staff constantly evaluate local conditions and communicate and coordinate with NOAA and other agencies to provide the most current information on conditions and warnings for our residents and guests. We are constantly updating these conditions and posting warnings or information on our digital media platforms (Facebook, town website, text message alerts, etc…) to give residents the information they need to make good decisions. In emergencies, we frequently put information out to the public through PSAs, Code Red notifications, PA broadcasts along the beach strand, text messages, alerts, and other methods of communication. The town produces thousands of flyers, signs, magnets, newsletters, and other informational sources annually to provide to residents and posts around town to ensure that the information is available to our residents and guests. Our Parks and Recreation department hands out drink koozies with flag and rip current information to every person that pays to park at one of our public beach accesses. They also provide and upkeep 100 rescue buoys along the beach strand for the public to assist swimmers in trouble if they choose to. Our lifeguards at the East and West Regional Ocean Accesses also have life jackets available for toddlers and children who want to borrow them for the day. These are just some of the ways the town employees work with local businesses and the public to ensure the safety and security of all our residents and visitors.

10. What can I do if I see someone in trouble?

  • Call 911 before you do anything else! Getting rescue personnel on the way should be the priority.
  • If you believe you are an excellent swimmer and are willing to assist, you can grab a flotation device and go in to help if you choose to. NEVER ENTER THE WATER TO CONDUCT A RESCUE WITHOUT A FLOTATION DEVICE! There are 100 rescue buoys stationed on poles along the beach strand that the town has provided to assist those that choose to help in these situations.
  • Swim close enough to the person so that you can toss them the flotation device, but not so close that they can grab you or you will become their flotation device. Talk to them and try to keep them calm until help arrives.

11. When do the lifeguards start patrolling the beach?

  • Lifeguards must be certified by United States Lifeguard Association (USLA) to serve on our beaches. Most lifeguards that apply are full-time college students who must complete a 74-hour training before they can begin working. They cannot begin that process until the spring semester has ended. The earliest that we have been able to complete this process and the lifeguards working is the week before Memorial Day each year. Our lifeguard program runs annually from May 20th through September (Labor Day). Stationary lifeguards are located at the East and West Regional Ocean Accesses, and up to 4 roving lifeguards patrol the beach strand daily.

12. Why doesn’t the town have lifeguards year-round?

  • In order to have a program that would meet USLA standards, the town would have to post as many as 57 lifeguards on the beach strand daily. This endeavor would be cost-prohibitive to the Town and is not practical or prudent even if we could get the requisite number of lifeguards, especially outside our busy tourist season. The vast majority of our water rescue calls take place during May through September (tourist season) when people who are not necessarily familiar with the hazards associated with the ocean currents are visiting our beaches. This is the time when our program is active, and while we have experienced tragic situations, the program has successfully completed hundreds of water rescues annually. For example, in 2018, Emerald Isle Lifeguards successfully rescued over 105 people in just 11 days.

13. What other methods has the Town tried to improve rescue operations?

  • Over the years, we have tried many different methods to improve our rescue capabilities. We have tested motorized surfboards, used zodiac boats, tested devices that shoot ropes or flotation devices, and even tested drones to drop flotation devices. The current methods that we use are the ones that are consistently successful, reliable, and effective for the conditions that we have along our beach. Still, we are also constantly on the lookout for the latest and greatest rescue aids, equipment, or methods that will help us provide the best assistance we can to those visiting our beaches.

14. Why doesn’t the Town include warnings on the big signs at the bridge? 

  • The digital signs you see when you cross the bridge belong to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, not the Town. We have had many conversations with the NCDOT about using the signs when we have dangerous surf conditions along our beaches to warn beachgoers. NCDOT has denied our requests due to regulations that restrict those signs’ use to only traffic-related messages. To ensure that we are doing all we can to get the word out, the town uses our own portable message signs to inform people coming across the bridge when we have unusually rough beach conditions, especially when the beach is under double red flag conditions.

15. What can I do to be safe?

  • Use common sense and take personal responsibility. Check beach conditions before you go out and know what the warning flags mean. If the water looks rough, don’t go in.
  • Obey the warning flags, even if you are an Olympic-class swimmer! When we have to stop to address the dangers you put yourself in, you take our attention away from others who may need our help.
  • NEVER ALLOW ANY CHILD TO GO UNATTENDED IN THE WATER! If you are more than a foot away, you are too far away from a child. Ocean currents can be extremely strong and sweep adults off their feet in knee-deep water. Children should always be in a Coast Guard Approved flotation device when in the ocean.
  • Don’t assume that the calmest water is the safest place to swim. The area where you don’t see waves breaking is usually where a rip current is located. If you are unsure about the conditions, ask someone!
  • NEVER SWIM ALONE! Always swim with a flotation device.
  • Marine Life Typical feeding times are at sunrise and sunset, it is not recommended to be in the water at these times. While certain marine life feeds at different times of the day, a marine predator may be nearby if you notice a school of fish jumping in the water.
  • On calm days when the water appears flat, attempt to shuffle your feet while entering the water. We experience an increase in stingray incidents when the ocean becomes flat. Calm waters allow stingrays to settle close to shore, by shuffling your feet when entering the water this disturbs the stingrays, and they move away.
  • Emerald Isle, on many occasions, experiences Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish along our beach strand. This is partly due to our southern-facing beach and our prevailing SW winds. Portuguese Man-O-War looks like blue/purple balloons floating on the surface of the water, their tentacles can reach up to 50′ long. They are wind-driven and can sting both in and out of the water.

16. What if I do get caught in a rip current?

  • REMAIN CALM! This is the most important thing you can do. Many drownings attributed to rip currents are caused by a person exhausting themselves fighting against the current and going into cardiac arrest.
  • Let the current take you to the release point. Most rip currents will only take you out a few hundred yards. Relax and float until it releases you, and then swim parallel to the shoreline. The waves will bring you back in.
  • Wave your arms above your head and yell for help. Someone will see you and call for help. If you can swim back towards the shore, do it without exhausting yourself.

You can learn more about beach and ocean safety directly on the Emerald Isle website at: Emerald Isle Beach Safety Information