Black sand and burnt feet: be careful on Auckland's West Coast

Just a short drive from central Auckland hail some beautiful black sand beaches. Here are some tips to enjoy this area safely.

Black iron-rich sands are found along much of the Western Coast of the North Island. Because of the high percentage of iron oxide (titanomagnetite), the sand tends to heat up to very high temperatures which have been known to give unsuspecting beach goers 3rd degree burns!

Something else to consider is the unpredictable and often rough water. Even the most seasoned swimmers can have a hard time when the West Coast decides to pull a mood swing. Rips are the most common and dangerous phenomenon; having claimed the lives of many unsuspecting paddlers. Enough to warrant its own TV series: Piha Rescue!

A rip current is a narrow, powerful current of water running perpendicular to the beach, out into the ocean. These currents may extend 200 to 2,500 feet (61 to 762 m) lengthwise, but they are typically less than 30 feet (9 m) wide and move at up to 5 miles per hour (8 kph) or faster.

Rip currents move along the surface of the water, pulling you straight out into the ocean. Although it is a surface current, it may still knock you off your feet in shallow water and if you thrash around and get disoriented, you may end up being pulled along the ocean bottom. But if you relax your body, the current should keep you near the surface.

When you’re at the beach, keep an eye out for narrow, muddy streaks in the ocean where there aren’t any wavesbreaking. This is an indication that a rip is present.

If you get caught up in a rip, do not swim against the current. Either try to swim sideways, parallel to the beach or let the rip take you our past the sandbar where it will be much calmer. You can then head back in.

The most important thing to do is not panic. You need to conserve your energy and as soon as you can, raise your hand high so that the life guards can see you. They will soon be out to get you but not if they can’t see you so make sure you SWIM.

Another thing about the West Coast waters are the big waves. Depending on the tide, you can be standing in knee deep water one minute and over your head the next, as huge waves push vast amounts of water towards the shoreline. If you happen to stand in a little ditch that a wave has made, then you can be in over your head in seconds. This is especially dangerous for little children and the pull of the current can be incredibly strong and no fun if you have little legs!

On the upside though, the big waves and strong current enable many to partake in a favourite West Coast pastime: boogie boarding! Never tried it? Then you are definitely missing out! This is the final must bring item to a West Coast beach. It’s easy, great exercise and can be done at any age. Just grab a board and jump on an incoming wave. Oh…take a top to swim in though as a boogie board rash can be extremely uncomfortable (as will be losing your swimsuit in the waves)!

Here’s some basic safety tips in a nutshell:

  • Swim only at lifeguard patrolled beaches
  • Always swim between the red and yellow flags
  • Listen to advice from lifeguards and heed safety signs
  • Never swim alone and don’t leave children unattended
  • Never run and dive into the water. Check water depth first.
  • Avoid alcohol – it affects your judgment and the ability to hold your breath
  • Don’t depend on flotation devices, such as boogie boards, as you can lose them in large waves
  • Be aware of rips. Regularly check your position against a landmark, such as lifeguard flags, to help maintain a fixed position and alert you to dangerous currents
  • Don’t wear street clothes in the water
  • If you get into trouble, raise your arm for assistance, float and wait for help
  • Stay out if you are not sure about the surf conditions or your own ability

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