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Great Lakes water safety
Great Lakes water safety
Great Lakes can be dangerous. Keep water and pier safety in mind.
The Great Lakes are large, powerful water systems prone to dangerous currents that can threaten even the most experienced swimmer. Rip and structural currents, high waves and other dangerous currents and wave conditions can occur along beaches, near the outlets of rivers and near structures such as piers and breakwalls.
According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project data, which tracks drownings across Michigan, there have been 1,170 Great Lakes drownings since 2010, with 108 of those drownings in 2022 alone.
Great Lakes flag warning system at state-designated swim beaches
If you see double red flags, you are not allowed to enter the water from the beach. Unless otherwise directed, visitors can still enjoy spending time on the beach. Risks can include, but are not limited to:
- Severe weather events identified by the National Weather Service.
- Hazardous waves and/or dangerous water conditions present.
- Active rescue or recovery efforts.
- Water contamination.
- Unsafe debris washing ashore.
Closures/limits can also be identified by park signage and/or by verbal communication from DNR parks or law enforcement staff.
An exception is made for surfers using wind-powered or self-propelled wave-riding boards when they enter at their own risk and follow safety rules. Read Land Use Order 5.1.6 for full details.
State-designated swim beaches offer safety features
Whether located on the Great Lakes or inland, state-designated swim beaches in state parks offer additional safety measures and visual cautions. It's important to note that not all state parks have designated swim areas. These areas are identified by:
- Markers and/or buoys.
- Water depth less than 5 feet at the time of installation (and inspected approximately every 14 days).
- A beach flag warning system (only in state-designated swim beaches along the Great Lakes in nearly 30 state parks).
- Access to lifesaving flotation device and equipment.
- Other site-specific safety measures, such as electronic messaging boards, signage and public address systems.
*Buoys and markers are typically installed prior to the Memorial Day holiday weekend and removed at the end of the season.
There are no beach guards (or life guards) at state parks, so never swim alone and always keep a close watch over children. It's especially important to bring U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, especially for young, new and inexperienced swimmers.
Find state parks with designated swim areas(* = located on a Great Lake)
- Aloha State Park
- Bald Mountain Recreation Area
- Bay City State Park *
- Bewabic State Park
- Belle Isle Park
- Brighton Recreation Area
- Brimley State Park *
- Burt Lake State Park
- Cheboygan State Park *
- Clear Lake State Park
- Dodge No. 4 State Park
- Fayette Historic State Park *
- Fort Custer Recreation Area
- Grand Haven State Park *
- Harrisville State Park *
- Hayes State Park
- Highland Recreation Area
- Hoeft State Park *
- Hoffmaster State Park *
- Holland State Park *
- Holly Recreation Area
- Indian Lake State Park
- Interlochen State Park *
- Ionia Recreation Area
- Island Lake Recreation Area
- Lake Gogebic State Park
- Lake Hudson Recreation Area
- Lakeport State Park *
- Ludington State Park *
- Mears State Park *
- Metamora-Hadley Recreation Area
- Mitchell State Park
- Muskegon State Park *
- North Higgins Lake State Park
- Newaygo State Park
- Onaway State Park
- Ortonville Recreation Area
- Otsego State Park
- Petoskey State Park *
- Pinckney Recreation Area
- Pontiac Lake Recreation Area
- Port Crescent State Park *
- Proud Lake State Park
- Rifle River Recreation Area
- South Higgins Lake State Park
- Seven Lakes State Park
- Silver Lake State Park *
- Sleeper State Park *
- Sleepy Hollow State Park
- Sterling State Park
- Tawas Point State Park *
- Traverse City State Park *
- Twin Lakes State Park
- Van Buren State Park *
- Van Riper State Park
- Warren Dunes State Park *
- Waterloo Recreation Area
- Wells State Park *
- Wilderness State Park *
- Wilson State Park
- Yankee Springs Recreation Area
- Young State Park
About dangerous currents
Types of currents
In the Great Lakes, swimmers are most likely to encounter one of five common currents:
- Rip currents.
- Structural currents.
- Channel currents.
- Longshore currents.
- Outlet currents (river channel).
How to escape a current
FLIP OVER ONTO YOUR BACK AND FLOAT
- Keep head above water.
- Calm yourself down from fear and panic; don't panic.
- Conserve your energy.
FOLLOW: Follow the safest path to safety / out of the water.
- Do not fight the current.
- Follow the current to assess which way it's flowing. Swim perpendicular to the flow.
- Too tired to swim, continue floating and try to signal for help.
Pier safety / structural currents
Piers create furiously strong underwater currents. The currents are called structural currents and can be found alongside structures, such as piers and breakwalls. When paired with others longshore or rip currents, the combination can create a washing machine effect, moving swimmers from one dangerous current area to another with no clear path to safety.
- Never jump off or swim near piers and breakwalls.
- If you end up swimming near pier and are trapped, call for help. Call for someone to throw life ring or anything that floats. Get to ladder, if possible.
Additional safety tips
- Never swim alone, always keep close watch over children and bring U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, especially for new and inexperienced swimmers.
- Keep close watch of children: Stay within arm's reach and have them wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
- If you see someone in trouble, call for help and throw the lifesaving device or anything else that floats. Avoid entering the water if possible and, if you must go, wear a life jacket.
- Use caution or avoid the use of recreational flotation devices when strong offshore winds are present.
- In an emergency, immediately call 911. At Holland and Grand Haven state parks, use the nearest red zone number boards (located on the beach) to help relay your location as accurately as possible.
- During certain weather conditions, the force of water and waves crashing over the surface can easily wash someone off a structure.
- Some state parks along the Great Lakes have life jacket loaner stations available.
- Check local weather reports and lake conditions before and during your beach trip. Visit the National Weather Service at weather.gov/greatlakes/beachhazards.