Water and Beach Safety

One of the main reasons for visiting Portugal, is the quality of it beaches and sea. This page provides some tips on how to enjoy your visit in safety.

Beach and Sea quality

Portugal has an abundance of beaches from the north to the south of the country. The Algarve has a coastline of about 200 kilometres, which contains more than 150 beaches. From long sandy beaches on the islands and some parts of the mainland of eastern Algarve to a combination of beaches formed by sand and rock formations.

The beaches in the Algarve have a fine, golden or white sand, which determines the aesthetic outlook of the beaches. The sand is very comfortable for walking alongside the beaches. The combination of sandy beaches, rock formations and one of the best climates in Europe have turned the Algarve primarily into a summer and sea destination for families.

Swim safely

Avoid swimming in areas where there are no lifeguards. You should also exercise caution when swimming at beaches that connect to rivers as the streams and currents can be more hazardous.

On the beaches where there are lifeguards, there are typically flags placed to indicate the level of danger to swimmers. It’s important to know what these warning flags mean and to adhere to them.

Green Flag – Safe to swim
Yellow Flag – You may remain at the water’s edge or paddle, but no swimming
Red Flag – Danger, no swimming
Checkered Flag – Beach is temporarily unmanned
Blue & Purple Flags – Dangerous marine life has been spotted e.g jellyfish, stingrays, sea snakes, sharks

Keep in mind that if you ignore any of the warning flags there are consequences (besides the obvious safety ones) – the Maritime Police frequently issue fines to those not adhering to a lifeguard’s warnings.

It’s also important to note that after September, the swimming season in Portugal is considered closed, so although the weather may still be mild and beaches inviting, there are no lifeguards on duty and no safety flags will be displayed, regardless of conditions.

Check with the locals about when and where it is safe to swim or surf, and be extra vigilant when in the water.
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New yellow and red beach flags, placed in pairs at Portuguese beaches, are being used to mark areas that are patrolled by lifeguards and are considered the safest places to swim. The flags are now obligatory on Portuguese beaches and can easily be moved around by lifeguards to indicate the safest areas to swim on any particular day.

They can also be used to avoid some common dangers on Portuguese beaches like rocky areas, breakwaters, sunken ships and rip currents. This new system had already been implemented at some Algarve beaches in 2017 but became mandatory in summer 2018.

Rip currents

A rip current is a narrow, fast-moving channel of water that starts near the beach and extends offshore through the line of breaking waves.

Spotting a rip current can be difficult, and really needs some practice. But when you go to the beach, start off by staying back from the water. Rip currents are easier to see at an elevated position, like a dune line or beach access, and then look for places where waves aren’t breaking, so flat spots in the line of breaking waves. And then also where there’s maybe foam or sediment in the water being transported away from the beach offshore.

Rip currents can occur anywhere you have breaking waves, like large sandy beaches on the open ocean. But they can also occur where you have hard structures, like jetties, or piers, or even rocks jutting out into the ocean.

If you do get caught in a rip current, the best thing you can do is stay calm. It’s not going to pull you underwater, it’s just going to pull you away from shore. Call and wave for help. You want to float, and you don’t want to swim back to shore against the rip current because it will just tire you out. You want to swim out of the rip, parallel to shore, along the beach and then follow breaking waves back to shore at an angle.
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The Algarve’s west coast tends to be more hazardous due to the powerful Atlantic Ocean. Surfers and wind-surfers like this coast for its conditions and near-perfect waves, but obviously the wilder water presents a greater risk. Extra caution should be used if you plan on swimming or participating in water sports on the west coast. It is important to monitor weather warnings in these areas.

Cliff erosion

Beaches in the Algarve are generally safe although in some areas due to sea erosion cliffs can be unstable. Where this is the case there are signs in place advising people not to walk too close to the cliff edge. They also indicate areas on beaches close to the foot of cliffs that are best to avoid.

First aid

During July and August the Regional Health Administration (ARS) of the Algarve and the Portuguese Red Cross operate Postas de Saude (Beach Health Clinics) along the Algarve coast to treat minor injuries, and offer health care advice to beach goers.