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Pensacola Beach Readies for Spring Break '19

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Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
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Spring break along the Florida Panhandle’s sugar-white beaches is just around the corner, and the Santa Rosa Island Authority is out with some advice on how to make the visit a safe one.

Figures from Escambia County show 30,000 more visitors to Pensacola and Perdido Beaches last March than in March 2017, and the numbers are expected to be larger this time around. Paolo Ghio is Director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, and says they’re ready after a busy off-season. 

“Nourishment of the sand dunes that need to be ‘stitched up’ where they’ve been eroded,” said Ghio. “Dilapidated sand fences, stabilization of shoulders around the core area, and also going out towards Park East and Park West, taking care of buildings and general housekeeping,”

Spring breakers can expect what Ghio calls a “marked increase” in law enforcement on Santa Rosa Island to cut down on an already small number of distractions and distractors, focusing on rental housing in residential areas.

“And it’s among this crowd that we have found people coming here and somehow leave their senses at home,” says Ghio, a native of South Africa. “I’m going to use a term I learned over here in the South: they ‘act a fool.’ Don’t come here and act a fool. Because you’re going to find out that it isn’t going to be tolerated this year, and years going forward.”

Bottom line, says Ghio, is to know the rules when you come to the beach. Chairs, coolers, umbrellas, buckets and shovels are welcome; and be sure to bring sunscreen. Just be sure to take everything back with you upon leaving. Plus, be considerate of your fellow beachgoers when firing up your tunes.

“If everybody confined the level of their music to their own ears, we’d have less antagonism,” says Ghio. “Especially when people start partaking of adult beverages; there’s a certain amount of courage that comes with that kind of inebriation.

“It’s unnecessary; behave like you would at your mother’s house.”

On Friday, the lifeguard towers will return to the beaches, along with the lifeguards who will occupy them until October. They were picked from three lifeguard tryouts in the off-season. Open-water lifeguarding, says Alex Johnson, the island’s Water Safety Deputy Chief, brings its own set of challenges.

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Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
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Paolo Ghio, Director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority.

“A lot of people come here with limited open-water experience; sometime they think to themselves, ‘I’ll just do it like I do in the pool; stay in the shallow end,’” says Johnson. “Oftentimes there is no shallow end, especially on our beach where the sand is so soft, it shifts around so easily we get all kinds of holes and channels.”

Initially, one to three towers at Casino Beach will be manned from nine to five seven days a week, shifting to 10-6 beginning Sunday, March 10. In the summer season, up to ten towers will be staffed, including the towers at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Visitors wishing to swim in the Gulf are urged to swim near a lifeguard tower, regardless of swimming ability.

“If you swim near a lifeguard, we can tell you where the rip currents are, where the holes are, where the sandbars are,” Johnson says. “We can tell you when it’s more dangerous to swim than at other times, where you should go, when you should consider just staying on the sand building sand castles.”

Rip currents can occur at almost any time in the Gulf, and can be – and have been -- fatal. For anyone finding themselves in a rip current, Johnson says rule number one is: don’t panic.

“What happens when you panic, you stop thinking clearly; you start struggling and fighting something,” said Johnson. “If you would just relax and just float on your back, you can let the current take you out – it won’t take you very far – and then you could just start swimming sideways or parallel to the shore until you’re out of that current. And then leisurely make your way back in.”

Before you hit the beach, be sure to check the flags posted in numerous places all over the island, to get an idea of surf conditions – green is relatively calm, yellow is caution, red is leave the water, double-red bans swimming, and purple is marine wildlife in the area that can provide a painful souvenir.

“Typically we fly the purple flag when there’s a large amount of jellyfish in the water,” said Johnson. “And just because a purple flag may not be flying, doesn’t mean there’s not marine life in the water.”

Visitors are urged to take their swimming abilities into consideration when getting ready to take the plunge into the Gulf. If that skill is not up to par for open water, Johnson says it’s a simple matter of walking across the street.

“Oftentimes where the waves and currents are too big or too strong, that’s when we advise people to go,” said Johnson. “We have a lifeguard beach over there at Quietwater Beach on the sound side; you’ll be free from the waves and rip currents and we recommend people to go there if they have limited swimming ability or the {Gulf] wave and currents are too strong.”

SRIA’s Paolo Ghio says a number of events are on tap for the summer season, including their biggest draw the weekend of July 13.

“The Blue Angels have been the ‘Mac Daddy’ of all our events,” Ghio says. “We’ve got Bands on the Beach starting up come April; Jet Ski races, Memorial Day is really the start of summer for us. Fourth of July is one of our busiest weekends; it’s on a par – if not busier – times than the Blue Angels weekend.”

The University of West Florida kicks off the local spring breaks on March 11, followed by Okaloosa County on the 15th. Escambia County, Santa Rosa County and Pensacola State College begin their breaks on March 18.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.