Water Safety in Ireland

Don't Become a Drowning Victim

RNLI Inshore Lifeboat at Enniskillen
© Bernd Biege 2014

Being an island, Ireland has miles and miles of fascinating and inviting coastline. Add the inland waterways, rivers and lakes and you have more opportunities to spend quality time on or near water than you can shake a lifebuoy at.

But statistics show that year after year time off on the seaside has a fatal ending for too many people. Locals and visitors alike. Most of these deaths are avoidable - here are a few safety hints:

Beaches Supervised by Lifeguards

Many Irish beaches are under lifeguard supervision - but only during the main summer season and during "business hours". This means that you will have to check for yourself whether a lifeguard is on duty.

Apart from providing a rescue service in emergencies, lifeguards usually are a great source of insider knowledge. They can identify the spots to avoid with kids, the safest areas and whatever currents might be prevalent off-shore. Feel free to ask for advice.

On the other hand, never assume is "safe" just because there are lifeguards on duty - roads don’t get safer because of ambulances, only the survival rate improves.

Beaches Not Supervised by Lifeguards

There are far more beaches without any supervision at all - many quite popular and crowded. Again, your own safety is your own concern. With the added risk that there are no "pros" to pull you out in the case of emergency.

Rivers and Lakes

There are a number of mostly unsupervised swimming areas in rivers and lakes. In addition, there are strong currents, sudden deep plunges of the riverbed and vegetation - all conspiring to get you into difficulties. The advice is simple: don't risk it. Fatalities at "popular bathing spots" are increasingly common.

Danger: Using Floatation Devices in Ireland

Never, ever use an air mattress or inflatable toy to relax on the water - chances are that winds and currents will blow you out to sea in no time.

Danger: Underestimating the Irish Tides

Several bathing beaches are near the mouth of rivers - come ebb tide, you might be surprised just how fast the water flows into the open sea. Dragging you into that general direction as well. In this case, never try to swim against the stream, try to reach shore by swimming with the stream, edging towards the side of it (obviously the side nearest to dry land).

Another danger is to walkers on the beach. The incoming tide may cut you off without warning, leaving you first stranded and then swimming. And even if you become "safely" stranded above the watermark, there is a strong risk from exposure. In 2014 this calamity befell the Irish entertainment duo Jedward ... who immediately called their mother for help, who then called emergency services.

Danger: Morons with Motors

There are almost no checks and restrictions in place (or enforced) regarding smaller water craft. Which has lead to a financially affluent minority without any training or knowledge endangering the public through downright moronic behavior. Whenever you see people using motorized craft recklessly near beaches ... get out of the water immediately. Being run over by a jet-ski doing 30 mph can easily end in the morgue.

Danger: Rockclimbing on the Irish Coast

Apart from the risk of being stranded (see above), you may be running into trouble with loose rocks and long falls. There are regular fatal falls from innocent-looking cliffs. Note that most fatalities at the popular Cliffs of Moher might well be self-inflicted.

Even when climbing on none-too-steep rocks, there are dangers, - every year sees fatalities when people get swept into the sea by "freak waves". Though the frequency of such incidents makes one wonder how "freak" they actually are.

Dolphins, Seals, Sharks, Whales and Other Marine Wildlife in Ireland

Some wildlife on the Irish coast should be approached with care, as there can be dangerous animals in Ireland too:

  • Dolphins - wild dolphins (Dingle's "Fungi" does not really count) are generally indifferent to human swimmers. But when feeling pestered or threatened, they become underwater martial arts specialists. An over-enthusiastic German tourist head-butted in the groin a few years ago could tell a tale of woe on this theme. In a falsetto voice.
  • Seals - again mostly indifferent to swimmers, seals may bite. Especially when you are reaching into the water from the shore or a boat. You put in a hand, the seal sees a handy snack. Keep hands and feet out of the water when near seals. Unless you are swimming yourself, then you are apparently perceived as a disabled seal.
  • Sharks - don't panic, all sharks in Irish waters are harmless to humans. But encountering the massive basking shark while swimming off the Western shore can induce a heart attack.
  • Whales - all sorts of whales have been spotted near the Irish coast, there have been no dangerous encounters reported. Swimmers and surfers might, however, refrain from entering the water when a rare pod of orcas is sighted. Apart from being very protective of their young they have been known to prey on seals.
  • Jellyfish - every summer poisonous jellyfish are reported along the Irish coast, contact can lead to severe (even fatal) allergic reactions. Heed warnings and avoid contact.

Who You Gonna Call?

In an emergency, alert local lifeguards or dial the emergency number 112 (or 999), asking for the Coast Guard. Both the Irish Garda Costa and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency in Northern Ireland are the coordinating force for marine accidents. They will alert lifeboats, SAR helicopters or cliff rescue teams as the situation demands.

It will help if you know where you actually are and if you stay on the scene until dismissed. At the same time try not to lose visual contact with a person in difficulty. Searches at sea are notoriously long-winded.

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