What Do OBX Beach Flags Mean?

Summer at OBX officially kicks off on Memorial Day weekend, when lifeguards take to the beaches and summer swimming can commence.

While the water may still be a bit cool in the first few weeks of the season, it won’t deter excited vacationers from dipping a toe in or even diving head-first into the Atlantic.

In the past few years, OBX beaches instituted a beach flag system to help alert swimmers to water conditions and keep beachgoers safe. Knowing what these flags indicate is essential to staying safe on the beach and enjoying your vacation at OBX.

Reading OBX Beach Flags

Understanding when it’s safe to swim and when it’s wise to plan an off-beach day means you need to know what the beach conditions are. You may be able to find beach and ocean conditions online from local OBX sources. But you will always see beach flags on lifeguard stations when entering public beaches.

Lifeguards and ocean rescue services provide daily labels for ocean conditions in green, yellow, red, and purple flags. Here’s what each one means:

Green Flag: indicates a low hazard and calm conditions, suitable for experienced and inexperienced swimmers alike.

Yellow Flag: indicates a medium hazard with moderate surf conditions. Swimmers, especially inexperienced ones, should exercise caution.

Purple Flag: indicates marine life is present in the water or on the beach, and swimmers should exercise caution.

Red Flag: indicates a high hazard with rough conditions, likely including rip currents.    Swimming is NOT permitted.

The newest to the OBX beach flag is a purple flag, raised by lifeguards when dangerous marine life is spotted in the water or on the shore. Dangerous marine life could mean anything from jellyfish and stingrays to sharks; swimmers should use extreme caution and keep a close watch on their surroundings.

Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean is prohibited during red flag conditions until lifeguards lower the flag. Swimming includes any entry into the Atlantic Ocean, whether assisted by a raft, an inflatable device, or anything similar in nature. However, some surfboard and bodyboard users are permitted to access the ocean during red flags, depending on the type of board they use.

OBX Swimming Safety

The colored OBX beach flags system is intended to keep beachgoers safe and protect marine life. But there are other ways to help lifeguards keep OBX beaches fun and safe places to vacation.

Swim Near a Lifeguard

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, trained ocean rescue lifeguards are stationed at designated beach access points from Corolla to Nags Head every day. These lifeguards are a great resource and are happy to answer any questions or concerns you have regarding the ocean environment, the beach, or the nearby community.

For more information on specific ocean rescue services by beach, check out these links:

Corolla Beach Rescue

Duck Surf Rescue

Southern Shores Surf Rescue

Kitty Hawk Ocean Rescue

Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue

Nags Head Ocean Rescue

Look Out for Rip Currents

Rip currents, sometimes incorrectly called rip tides, are channeled currents of water that flow away from shore and can quickly pull swimmers out to sea.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), indicators of rip currents include a channel of churning, choppy water; notable differences in watercolor; lines of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward; and a break in the incoming wave pattern.

If you get caught in a rip current, the best practice is to swim parallel to the beach until you are out of the current. Don’t try to fight the current by swimming against the water directly towards the beach–you’re likely to fatigue while trying to return to the beach. If you need additional help, call or wave your arm to alert a lifeguard or another beachgoer.

Take Care of the Beach

Beachgoers can help protect the beach and marine life that calls OBX home. Signs near beach accesses prohibit climbing on dunes, and for a good reason. Dunes provide erosion protection to the beaches and wave surge protection to the nearby town. Climbing on, or degrading the integrity, weakens the dune’s ability to protect the beach.

Likewise, when you’re packing up your day at the beach, leave it a little better than you found it. Take all your trash to keep the beach clean and marine life healthy. Even something as small as the torn top of a candy wrapper can become a life-threatening hazard to marine life.

Spending your day at the beach is part of what makes vacationing in OBX so relaxing. Following beach flag restrictions and consulting lifeguards for additional help are two of the best ways to keep your family and friends safe when at the beach.

There’s no shortage of fun found on OBX beaches–however you spend your day, don’t forget to…

Stay Nauti!

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