Most Central America beaches don't have lifeguards watching over them. That means keeping you and your family safe in the ocean is up to you. Millions of people swim in Central America's oceans every year without incident, but there are definitely a number of hazards to know about before you snorkel or swim. Here are our tips for ocean safety in Central America.
Don't snorkel or swim alone
This is our top tip for snorkel and swimming safety (well, other than "know how to swim") -- and probably the one the most people will ignore. The majority of ocean accidents happen when people are swimming or snorkeling alone.
Stay close to shore
When you're mesmerized by marine life, it's easy to keep swimming – and lose track of the shoreline, especially if there's a current. Don't swim too far out. Stop frequently and check.
Avoid rip currents
Rip currents, or undertows, are rivers of ocean water that flow away from the shore, creating hazardous and even deadly conditions for swimmers – in fact, they account for 80 percent of lifeguard rescues. Storms exacerbate them, but certain Central America beaches are areas are notorious for them even in non-stormy weather. Sometimes these are marked with red flags, but not always. Do your research before swimming at any Central America beach.
Watch out for marine life
While man-eating marine life isn't an issue in Central America, there are several species that can be a danger to swimmers and snorkelers.
Most stingrays in Central America are non-aggressive and will flee if they encounter a swimmer or snorkeler. In places like Shark Ray Alley off the coast of Ambergris Caye, Belize, they're actually quite docile and will hang around snorkeler's feet. Be cautious around them, of course; their stings are venomous.
The sharks you'll most likely encounter while swimming or snorkeling in Central America are nurse sharks, which only attack humans if directly threatened (I've swam with many nurse sharks in Central America). Other Central America shark species are whitetip reef sharks and bull sharks. There are also hammerhead sharks off the coast of Isla de Cocos, a Costa Rica island.
There are numerous varieties of jellyfish in Central America. Some are tiny, with equally tiny stings – I swam through a swarm of hundreds once (they were so beautiful! It was worth it). However, other species are more dangerous. In particular, a sting from the man o' war can be deadly.
- Sea urchins
Sea urchins are spiky animals that dwell on the ocean floor. When stepped on or picked up, their spines can puncture or break off in your skin, causing pain and/or infection.
Lionfish are some of the most striking (invasive, not endemic) Central America fish. They also pack a nasty sting if you brush against them – or worse, step on them. Their venom can cause fever, nausea, vomiting, and in extremely rare cases, paralysis or death.
Full-grown barracuda are quite intimidating-looking, and though bites are rare, they're not unheard of.
Don't overexert yourself
Swimming is tiring. Don't push yourself too hard. If you're not a strong swimmer, snorkel with a flotation device.
Watch out for coral
There are several reasons not to step on coral. First, because coral is alive. Many species of coral in Central America are endangered, and they're the backbone of the isthmus's entire aquatic life system. Second, because ouch! Stepping on or scraping against coral hurts, and coral wounds can easily become infected. The worst Central America "coral" to bump against is fire coral, which isn't actually a coral – it's part of the anemone family. Pain from a fire coral sting can last up to two weeks. Third, you never know when a lionfish is hiding in that patch of coral you're resting on.
The most common injury Central America travelers suffer is definitely sunburn. Central America is located in the tropics, and the sun can be fierce. Even on overcast days, it can burn your skin. People often think staying mostly underwater helps prevent sunburn, but some of the worst burns I've seen have been on snorkelers who've spent hours floating on their stomachs. Wear waterproof sunscreen with a high SPF anytime you go to the beach or in the water, and reapply often. Nothing ruins a vacation like hot pink skin! (Maybe a fire coral sting. That would be worse.)