A search for Glee star Naya Rivera started taking place last Wednesday, after her son, aged 4, was found alone, sleeping in a boat she had rented for the two of them at Lake Piru, California. Her body was found days later in the lake, with Ventura County police stating that there was no indication of foul-play or that she had taken her own life.
With temperatures rising and increasingly more people opting to go wild swimming, this tragic accident can serve as an unwelcome reminder of the true, and often hidden, dangers of swimming in lowland rivers and lakes, and the necessary precautions to take whilst enjoying the sun.
Firstly, remember that swimming in some lakes without a formal arrangement is considered trespassing, and subject to prosecution, so seek out legal areas to swim in. Look out for signs specifically warning against swimming or diving – these are there for your safety.
Buoyancy aids are vital for non-swimmers, and just as important for stronger ones
Although the water might appear to be shallow, possibly even shallow enough for non-swimmers, it can often deepen suddenly. This means buoyancy aids are vital for non-swimmers, and just as important for stronger ones.
Lakes are unpredictable and safety is always of the utmost importance. Even shallow sections of fast-flowing water can cause a person to trip, worsened by the slipperiness of wet rocks.
Falling and hurting yourself, or hitting your head on wet rocks, is one of the most common dangers of outdoor swimming. This means being extra careful and avoiding running. Whilst going barefoot is suggested in order to get a better grip of the rocks, it would be better to wear plimsolls with a rubber sole to avoid cutting your feet.
The shallow, fast flowing water of rivers can also sometimes be strong enough to take you downstream in an uncontrolled way. This means it is important to identify your emergency exits beforehand, as well as any downstream objects that may harm you if you do get swept away. Once again, a life jacket or buoyancy aid would be beneficial to even the strongest of swimmers if this situation occurs.
Currents can be especially powerful under large waterfalls or weirs
It is also important to remember that ‘still waters run deep’. This means the more shallow or narrow the river bed becomes, the faster the water must flow to pass through, and vice versa. Also note that currents can be especially powerful under large waterfalls or weirs, so take this all into consideration when deciding where to take your soak.
In deep rivers and gorges, the surface river may also be flowing much slower than the water beneath it. This can be disorientating, sometimes taking you into the path of a hazard or deeper, so pay attention to the difference in flow you feel on your legs, and take caution.
Outdoor swimming in cold water is perfect on paper to relieve the sweltering heat of the sun, however it can quickly sap body heat, meaning it may be wise to wear a wetsuit if swimming for longer than a quick dip.
The first stages of mild hypothermia include shivering and teeth-chattering. This can be combated by doing blood-pumping activities such as press ups or star jumps, as well as getting dry and into warm clothes.
Cold shock can also take place when the body reacts to the cold temperatures of outdoor swimming, causing a rise in heart rate. This means holding off on jumping straight into the water until you have tested the temperature and waded in slowly, allowing your body to acclimatise to the conditions.
Jumping or diving must also not be done before checking both the depth of the water and if there are any dangerous obstructions, such as rocks or weeds, that may be hiding beneath the surface. This must be done every time, even if the spot is one you visit regularly, as rivers and lakes are ever changing.
Kicking and thrashing will only worsen the problem
Weeds, most common in slow, warm lowland rivers and lakes, are easy to see, and just as easy to deal with when there are only a few. Many, however, can tangle themselves in a swimmer’s legs so should be avoided. If you do get caught in some, swim slowly and remain calm, using your arms to paddle and turn out of them. Kicking and thrashing will only worsen the problem.
Wild swimming can, of course, also result in dermatological problems including ‘swimmer’s itch’ which can be caught from contact with little snails that live in surrounding areas of stagnant ponds. This itching is temporary, sometimes lasting up to two days, and requires no treatment, however it is still best to avoid lying about in these marshy lakes.
In the late summer it is also particularly important to look out for blue-green algae that has multiplied, collecting a green scum on lakes. Equally as unpleasant as it looks, it can cause irritation to the skin and eyes, as well as making you sick if you swallow it, so it is best to find a part of the lake without its blooms. This is usually away from the downwind side of the lake.
Urban rivers may also carry the bacterial infection Leptospirosis, as they are connected to sewers harbouring colonies of rats (and their urine), meaning these are best to be avoided. This includes canals.
When wild swimming, it is always best to cover any open wounds with a waterproof plaster and keep your head above the water as much as possible if concerns about the water quality do arise. If you do develop flu-like symptoms within two weeks of swimming, it is best to get tested for Leptospirosis, which can easily be treated with antibiotics. It is important to act fast however as this can lead to the much more serious Weil’s disease.
Swimming cramps can also often occur in the calf or foot, most notably caused by overexertion, over-stretching and tiredness, and are worsened by dehydration and a poor diet. This makes it even more essential to stay hydrated in the heat, and to take regular breaks. If you do get a leg cramp, lie on your back and use your arms to paddle back to shore.
If temperatures do rise again and you choose to go wild swimming, try to avoid doing so alone
It is undeniable that the dangers of wild swimming are numerous. If temperatures do rise again and you choose to go wild swimming, try to avoid doing so alone. It is always a good idea to wear a life jacket, and it is a necessity if you either cannot swim, or have chosen to swim solo.
Pay attention to signs warning you against swimming or diving, and in general avoid algae-coated areas and currents faster than you can swim in. Always notify others of where you will be swimming. Had there been no knowledge of Rivera’s boat trip, her son may not have been found safe. Never be overconfident in your swimming abilities. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
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