No matter which public access beach in Florida you go to, the beach warning flag system will be the same.
In 2005, an amendment to Section 380.276, F.S., required all public beaches to display only the flag system that was developed by the Florida Coastal Management Program, the Florida Beach Patrol Chiefs Association, the United States Lifesaving Association, and the International Life Saving Federation.
Prior to this change, beaches had their own color or pattern system to signal ocean conditions to beach goers, which led to confusion and misinterpretation if another beach used a similar color to denote a different condition.
If you learn what each flag means prior to your beach trip, you will be able to assess the conditions of the water and any hazards there may be.
These flags will usually fly at the entrances to the beach access, or they may be flown on the actual lifeguard stand. Each beach is different in their presentation, but the meaning of the flags remains the same.
Double Red Flag- Water Closed to Public
This will be flown if there is impending weather or extreme rip currents. Lifeguards will also put this in areas near jetties or piers that are “no swim zones.”
Solid Single Red Flag- High Hazard
If there are big waves, a storm coming, or strong currents, this flag will be flown. It is usually best to exercise extreme caution when this flag is flown, and if you are a weak swimmer or not experienced in the ocean, it is probably best just spend your beach trip on the sand.
Solid Yellow Flag- Medium Hazard
This flag means there is moderate surf and/or currents. The water may be choppy, with larger than average waves. It is best to exercise caution, especially if you have an elderly person or a child with you.
Solid Green Flag- Low Hazard
Green means go! The green flag flying is the most ideal flag to fly over your beach trip. The ocean conditions are favorable and calm. It’s time to relax, but still be cautious!
Solid Purple Flag- Dangerous Marine Life
Often times, this flag will be flown with one of the other flags. For example, you will see a green flag flying, which means water conditions are favorable, but the purple flag is also flying just beneath it, because the lifeguard has spotted man-o-war. You can still enter the water, but be aware of what is swimming around you. Be particularly wary of clumps of seaweed, where jellyfish may be. The lifeguard will usually write on the lifeguard communications board what specific dangerous marine life is in the water.
Dangerous marine life does not necessarily mean that a Great White Shark is lurking in the waters. The absence of a purple flag does not mean you are “alone” either. It is always best to be aware of what is around you. The magic of the ocean is that you may be underwater, looking out into the clear water, and there is nothing in front of you. You continue to look out longer, and suddenly things will appear before you that you wonder how you could not have seen. It’s awe-inspiring.
Sharks have a bad rep, because they will usually leave you alone. It is common to run into a nurse shark, especially if you are near a reef, but they will not bother you.
The one time I did run into a shark that could have posed a potential threat, a lifeguard on a four-wheeler followed it down the coast. When he approached our beach camp, he calmly said, “Hey, there is a shark cruising this way, very, very close to shore. You should probably stay out of the water, and let them know what is going on.” I signaled to my companions, and they returned to shore, and the three of us watched as the large, dark shadow passed through where they had just been swimming.
We returned to the water when it was further down the coastline, treated to an amazing close encounter with a truly majestic creature.
Always pay attention to the warning flags. Ask a lifeguard for more information about why they are flying a certain flag that day if you have questions.