As New Jersey residents and visitors head to the beaches this summer at the Jersey Shore, it is important to know what to do when encountering a rip current.

What causes a rip current?

A rip current is caused by two things: wave action and winds pushing water down the beach, said Asbury Park Beach Safety Supervisor Joe Bongiovanni.

In the afternoon when winds are coming off the water, they sweep water down the beach from south to north, he said. When the water hits an object like a pier or a jetty, that water has to go out to sea. That’s where most rip currents form.

With wave action, a surf wave comes in sets of five to seven waves. Bongiovanni said when the waves come in, they push a lot of water into a shallow area.

Rip currents occur in low areas. Depending on the topography of the beach, there could be sandbars or cuts and levels on them. Water finds its way into those low-lying spots, causing rip currents.

Rip current off the Jersey Shore
Rip current off the Jersey Shore "Nothing good happens in a rip like this," the Ocean County Sheriff;s Office said in its caption (Ocean County Sheriff's Office)

How to spot a rip current

Bongiovanni said it’s easy to spot a rip current based on its discoloration. The ocean is typically a blue or greenish color. But with a rip current, along with the water going out to sea, it will take with it, sand or debris.

“So, you’ll see a darker spot in the water. It will look a little brown when it’s taking sand out or sometimes it’s white. But you can actually see the current moving out. It’s a different color water,” Bongiovanni said.

When a lifeguard blows a whistle at someone in the ocean, it may not necessarily mean that person is doing something wrong. Bongiovanni said sometimes they can see a rip current forming from high up in the lifeguard chair and they want to get the swimmer out of the area before he or she is pulled out to sea.

Rip current danger
Rip current danger (National Weather Service)

How to pull yourself out of a rip current safely?

If a beachgoer is standing and can feel the water pushing against them and pulling them out to sea, Bongiovanni said to keep your toes in the sand and walk against the current. If the swimmer is in chest-high water, it’s very difficult to walk. That’s when people make the mistake of swimming against the current, Bongiovanni said.

A rip current is not the same as an undertow, Bongiovanni said. An undertow will pull someone underwater. But no ocean rip current will pull a person underwater. They pull you out to sea.

What many people may not realize is that they are typically buoyant in water, especially salt water, so it’s easy to float.

“So, if it does pull you out and your feet do lose contact with the bottom, don’t panic and start screaming and thrashing around. Wave your arms, call for help, and just go with the current,” Bongiovanni said.

Also, if you’re a good swimmer, don’t fight the current. Swim parallel to the beach. Relax and go to the current. When the current subsides, you can swim in, but he says in the meantime, swim parallel to the beach. Swim sideways and most likely, you’ll swim out of the current because they are usually only a few yards wide.

Bongiovanni said keeping composure is key to survival. Swimmers can float for a long time. But when they struggle against the current, panic, and lose their breath, it’s very difficult to keep their head above water.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at

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