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What Is An Undertow?

   May 2nd, 2022   Posted In: Articles  

What Is An Undertow?

My goal is to help you better understand what an undertow is.

Undertows… What Are They?

People often use the terms “undertow” and “rip current” interchangeably, and while they may have some similarities, they are NOT the same thing!

What Is An Undertow?

An undertow is just an underwater current. (Think of water UNDER waves being TOWED back to sea.) They start out with waves moving towards, and breaking on, the shore. The water must find a way to return back to the ocean somehow, right?! Well in this case, the water finds its way back to sea by traveling underneath the water’s surface. They’re strongest in water less than one meter deep, and they weaken where the water gets deep enough to form new waves. Undertows happen very often, and occur everywhere underneath shore approaching waves.

Image courtesy of sciencedirect.com

Are They Dangerous?

In most cases, no. They are not typically considered dangerous. If you’ve ever been in the ocean and felt the sand shifting under your feet, that was an undertow! They pose a bigger threat to children due to their inability to regain their footing and walk back up to shore against the flow. But of course, anything can become dangerous under the right condition or circumstance.

If you’ve ever seen Finding Dory, you’ll remember the quote Dory’s parents say to her… “We see the undertow, and we say heck no!” We should still always play it safe when heading out into the water. Use the tips and tricks listed below to help you do just that.

Tips/Tricks to Help You Prevent Danger:

  • Identify the nearest lifeguard before heading out into the water
  • Swim with a buddy
  • Check surf zone forecasts and rip current statements ahead of time
  • Bring a flotation device

***Rip currents are responsible for the majority of drownings close to beaches. They are not the same thing as undertows. For more information on them, check out my post on what to do in a riptide.

Your two cents is always welcome. Feel free to add any additional facts or comments down below!

Crysta is a valuable member of Wetsuit Wearhouse, currently working as a customer service lead. She has a passion for writing, and considers herself a bookworm. She’s lived on the Eastern Shore in Maryland, down in southwest Florida, and now resides in a small town in Pennsylvania. She loves all things related to nature, and can always be found outside when the weather is warm. (When she isn't helping customers find the perfect wetsuit, that is.)

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