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Surviving a Florida summer

A professional outdoorsman, I spend a lot of time in the sun. So I always find it amusing when summer comes around and some sweat-soaked colleague feels compelled to ask, "Is it hot enough outside for you?"

I usually smile and answer: "Hot? I didn't notice."

That's because after two decades on the outdoors beat I've learned to adapt to my environment.

Summers here can be trying, but remember, long before ceiling fans, air conditioning and iced caramel macchiatos made life bearable on this subtropical peninsula, Floridians got along just fine sipping spring water beneath the shade of a live oak tree.

But that is not to say that the summer season is not without its hazards. And the greatest is the sun. When I worked as a lifeguard on Clearwater Beach, we didn't do many open-water rescues, but we did treat our share of tourists who had a little too much sun.

Heat-related emergencies, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, can occur on any summer day, especially after strenuous activity. The elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are particularly at risk.

Signs and symptoms include altered mental status, muscle cramps, weakness or exhaustion, dizziness or fainting, rapid pulse and skin that's moist, pale, cool in temperature or hot and dry. Treatment includes calling for help, shading the victim and cooling the victim with cold packs or cool sheets or towels.

And don't forget the sunscreen. Even on overcast days, as much as 70 to 80 percent of the sun's damaging rays can find their way through clouds or water. You may not feel burned while playing in the surf, but you will feel it at the end of the day.

After heat-related emergencies, stingray strikes were probably our most common medical emergencies. As a beach lifeguard, the first critter you learn to identify is the cownose ray. These are the batoid fish that school along the beaches and often send swimmers running for dry land. But they are harmless.

The ones you have to fear are the ones you can't see. The primary villain, the Atlantic stingray, is one of the smaller species in local waters, and it is responsible for most of the "stings" or "hits" on beachgoers. So do the "stingray shuffle" when wading in shallow waters to prevent stepping on them.

As a beach lifeguard, I also developed a healthy respect for summer storms. Remember, lightning kills, plain and simple.

An average of 100 people are killed by lightning strikes each year in the United States; about 10 of these deaths occur in Florida. If you see lightning in the distance and wonder if you are in danger, don't bother counting. Just get off the beach and find a safe area.

After the coast is clear, wait 30 minutes before leaving your safe area. More than half of all lightning deaths occur after a storm has passed. Some of the most powerful lightning often occurs at the front and rear of storms, hence the phrase "a bolt out of the blue."

And of course, Florida does have its share of dangerous mega fauna. Summer is the time when alligators are in top form. Remember, most alligator attacks occur in residential areas: canals, lakes, golf course ponds.

Attacks in wilderness areas are rare. If you do get attacked, the best advice is to fight back. These reptiles are looking for an easy meal. So if you struggle — kick, punch, scratch, yell, scream, gouge an eye — you might just get away.

Florida also has its share of shark "attacks." I put that in quotes because most human-shark interactions are accidents, except when it comes to bull sharks.

Your chance of being attacked by a bull shark is slim. But if you are, chances are it will result in serious blood and tissue loss. People do survive bull shark attacks, usually because they tried to fight off the beast.

Your best bet is to avoid an attack in the first place. Don't swim at dawn or dusk. Stay away from river mouths and passes.

But sharks, like alligators, are everywhere in Florida. While bull sharks are more commonly found in the bay this time of year, they do swim along local beaches in search of tarpon.

In fact, an old lifeguard buddy once showed me photographs of a large bull shark biting a tarpon in half inside the buoy line of the swim area at Clearwater Beach. The funny thing: The swimmers in the water never noticed a thing. The shark just finished its lunch and went on its way.

Surviving a Florida summer 06/20/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 9:28pm]
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