Destin’s snowy white sugar sands attract beachgoers from all across the country and all over the world, for darn good reason. These are some of the most striking beaches anywhere on the planet, and those emerald-green Gulf of Mexico waters lapping up against them make for inviting swimming much of the year. However, knowing what these Destin beach flags mean can save your life.
While beelining to the beach is the first order of business (and often a daily priority) for vacationers visiting the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, it’s very important to keep safety foremost in mind. Using common sense, knowing your abilities as a swimmer, and always erring on the side of caution are fundamentals. So is heeding any and all guidance and warnings from the authorities.
Those authorities include area lifeguards, of course, but it’s also essential to key into the color-coded beach flags used to indicate relative danger levels on any given day. In this article, we’ll break down the nuts and bolts of these warning flags and also cover some basic swimming safety for the area.
Here’s the Essentials of Beach Flag Meanings in Destin, FL:
The color-coded beach warning flags are a conspicuous and easy-to-understand indicator of how safe (or unsafe) Destin’s waters are. That said, they aren’t the be-all, an end-all sign of whether or not you should go swimming on a particular day. Changing conditions—such as a rapidly intensifying thunderstorm—can make for hazardous waters even on a “green-flag” day (see below). And, of course, a weak swimmer who pushes his or her abilities beyond their limits can quickly enter a life-threatening situation in the most placid of seas.
We hope you’ll take some time to look over our guide to family water safety, which covers a lot of practical advice for both pool and beach swimming. As we noted in that article, water safety is absolutely no joke: Drowning’s the third most common cause of death by accidental injury in the U.S. An average of 10 people drown each day in this country.
We want to give a big fat shout-out to Okaloosa County’s lifeguards, who bring the highest standards of lifesaving and first-responder training to the table. While it’s definitely safer to swim at those Destin beaches lifeguarded between March and October, the presence of lifeguards doesn’t get you off the hook when it comes to making smart decisions and practicing responsible open-water behavior.
Destin’s Beach Flag Meanings
The color-coded warning flags used in Destin are those employed throughout the Sunshine State: They were established by the Florida Coastal Management Program in consultation with the U.S. Lifesaving Association, the International Life Saving Federation, and the Florida Beach Patrol Chiefs Association to enhance the safety of beachgoers and define a standardized, statewide color-coding system of flags to minimize confusion.
There are four colors used to relay information about current conditions along Destin’s beachfront:
Green = Low Hazard
While green flags signify calm waters, you still need to be cautious while swimming, cognizant of your physical abilities, and aware of any changing conditions.
Yellow = Medium Hazard
If you’re wondering, “Well, what does a yellow flag mean at the beach?” — A yellow flag warns you of moderate currents and/or surf. As the official Destin-Fort Walton Beach site notes, you should avoid waters knee-deep or deeper on yellow-flag days.
Red = High Hazard
High surf and/or strong currents warrant red flags, which means you should avoid going in the water. Two red flags posted? That means waters are officially off-limits, with potential legal consequences for disobeying.
Purple = Dangerous Marine Life
While, technically, a purple flag on a beach warns of “stinging marine life” such as jellyfish, Portuguese man ‘o wars, or stingrays, purple flags may also be posted to alert beachgoers to other potentially dangerous organisms such as sharks. (See our discussion below.)
You’ll also see permanent warning signs about rip currents when visiting Destin-area beaches. Rip currents describe strong flows of water muscling away from shore. They’re sometimes mistakenly called “riptides,” though they aren’t a tidal current, as well as “undertows,” though an undertow technically refers to the deeper, outgoing current of water below incoming surface currents and is thus a misnomer.
Rip currents are often invisible to the untrained eye, but you can sometimes identify them as channels of flatter, less-roiled water in between sections of waves.
Although they’re a significant cause of drowning, rip currents are also one of the marine dangers for which you can very effectively take life-saving measures on your own. If you find yourself caught in a rip current—being pulled away from shore—the important thing is to avoid panicking and resist the urge to fight the flow. A rip current won’t suck you underwater; it drowns people when they put all their energy into attempting to swim against it, thus exhausting themselves.
Towed by a rip current, you should stay calm and try swimming laterally out of its influence—that is, swimming parallel to the shore. Very often by doing so, you’ll work your way out of the rip current and then be able to swim back to the beach either straight or at an angle. If you’re too far out to get back by your own power, wave your arms and call for help.
If you can’t get out of a rip current, meanwhile, floating or gently treading water will help you maintain your strength and buoyancy. Face the shore, wave, and yell for assistance.
Potentially Dangerous Marine Life
As we’ve mentioned, the sorts of creatures that can prompt officials to post purple flags include jellyfish, stingrays, and sharks. A number of jellyfish species are common along the Emerald Coast, though not all of them actually sting. Some of the kinds to watch out for on account of painful (though usually not life-threatening) stings include Atlantic sea nettles and pink meanies, the latter only discovered in 2000. Cannonball (or cabbage head) jellyfish and moon jellies can also sting but do so rarely and only mildly.
A dangerous jellyfish lookalike you’ll definitely want to steer clear of (both in the water and when it’s stranded among the beach wrack) is the impressively tentacled Portuguese man ‘o war. This is actually not a true jellyfish but a siphonophore, a colonial aggregate of many organisms (individually known as zooids). A man ‘o war can deliver a very potent sting, though it’s not typically a deadly one.
Southern stingrays off our coastline are not aggressive, but they will sting when—as sometimes happens—an unaware wader steps on them while they’re lying on the seafloor.
Sharks are probably the foremost sea creatures haunting beachgoers’ nightmares, but their danger is greatly overrated and their presence in Emerald Coast waters is vital to the ecosystem’s proper, balanced function. A number of local shark species are harmless, including sharp-nose and bonnethead sharks. Commonly seen blacktip and spinner sharks also have no interest in eating you, but they occasionally mistakenly nip people swimming in schools of baitfish being actively “attended to” by these medium-sized predators. Bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great hammerheads are much larger and more powerful sharks on the top of the marine and estuarine food chain, but—while more dangerous than other common shark species here—they rarely bother people.
You can find a more thorough treatment of shark safety in Destin waters in this blog post.
Staying on Top of Current Conditions
You can find out the current flag color on Destin beaches at the website of the Okaloosa County Department of Public Safety. The City of Destin, meanwhile, maintains a map showing a given day’s relative risk of rip currents (categorized as “Low,” “Moderate,” or “High”) right here.
Stay safe while enjoying Destin’s world-class white-sand beaches!