Diggin’ For Trouble
Last summer, David Frasier and his family were vacationing at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore when Frasier decided to partake in a common beach activity: digging in the sand. He was attempting to tunnel between two holes about six feet deep when the sand collapsed, burying him. By the time rescue personnel arrived, family and bystanders were pulling Frasier from the sand. He had been buried for about 10 to 15 minutes and was unresponsive. A nearby registered nurse attempted to revive him, but he died at the scene…
When people are at the beach, their biggest concern is the ocean. They’ve heard of rip currents and deep water, sharks and jellyfish, but most of them have never heard of the dangers of digging in the sand.
The most obvious concern is that people and animals can fall into holes. This often happens to nighttime beachgoers who are stargazing or searching for ghost crabs with flashlights. Deep holes can remain in the sand long after beachgoers have gone home, especially if they are above the high tide line with no way for nature to fill them in.
Another group largely affected by holes on the beach are the lifeguards. Any vehicle on the beach is in danger of getting stuck in a hole, but the ocean rescue guards are on the beach every day and sometimes at night making sure that everyone is safe. Their four-wheeler and truck wheels can get wedged into holes, sometimes damaging the vehicles and equipment to the point where the lifeguard can no longer respond to a call. Nags Head Ocean Rescue Director Chad Motz says that lifeguards have also been injured after crashing into these hidden obstacles.
“Holes can swallow up ATVs or pickup trucks,” Motz said. “When they’ve been there for a while the contours aren’t as noticeable. They blend into the beach a lot of the time.”
Lastly, the wildlife does not appreciate holes. The wild Spanish Mustangs in Corolla are in danger of tripping in holes and injuring themselves, while loggerhead sea turtles could face death. According to South Walton Turtle Watch, turtles coming onto the beach to lay eggs sometimes fall into holes and cannot return to the ocean or lay their eggs in a safe place. These turtles are only able to move forward, so they end up digging themselves further into the sand.
The greater danger of digging is that the sand will collapse on someone. Unlike dirt and clay, sand is unstable and is known for collapsing without warning. It also tends to replace itself as soon as it is scooped away. When a hole collapses on someone, it usually leaves no trace of the buried victim, which can make rescue efforts difficult because rescuers do not always know where to dig and cannot use any heavy equipment.
Director of Duck Ocean Rescue Mirek Dabrowski worries about children in particular, because even a small hole can swallow up a child. He said, “Our biggest concern is cave-ins, especially with kids. Adults sometimes dig a hole for them, and then the kids are playing in it and it is over their heads.”
In a study conducted by Bradley A. Maron, M.D. of the Harvard Medical School, there were 52 documented cases in the United States over a 10-year period of people being submerged while digging holes in the sand. These incidents most commonly happened on the beach. Of the 52 cases, 31 resulted in death. Not included in the study was the death of David Frasier.
Luckily, accidents like this can be avoided by following some simple rules: Never dig a hole deeper than the knees of the smallest person in the group. No tunneling whatsoever. Always fill in holes when you leave the beach; lifeguards do it all the time.
Several towns on the Outer Banks have passed ordinances against digging holes on the beach, stating that only small holes are permitted. They cannot be left unattended for more than an hour during the day or for any length of time at night. In addition, they may not pose any hazard to people, animals, or vehicles.
While considering the setup of your beach space, notice where marked ocean rescue vehicles are driving and try to leave a clear path for them. Kites, volleyball nets, and other beach gear should be taken into account in addition to holes.
David Elder, Director of Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue, asks, “Your hole, your sporting equipment, your stuff on the beach… is it creating an obstacle for people who are there to assist you?”
Those who were really set on sinking their hands into the sand to dig might consider building a sand castle or creating sand art rather than a deep hole. If you ever have a question about whether or not your possessions or activities are potentially hazardous to others, ask a lifeguard what he or she thinks.
In such a weather-driven community, it is no surprise that many of our experts’ tips focus on high winds and the strength of the sun. Following are a few tips to keep you and your family safe no matter which of our waterfronts you visit:
Know your location. It is easy to walk endlessly on our beautiful beaches, but do you know how to make it back to where you started? The dune-top decks and boardwalks can all start to look the same after a few hours in the sun, so make sure everybody in your party knows the address of where you are staying and the point at which you came onto the beach. The public accesses are usually named after the corresponding street.
Swimming at night, or anytime when there are not other people nearby on the beach, is something local lifeguards strongly advise against. It is very difficult to know what the conditions are in the dark even if you are an experienced ocean swimmer. Similarly, it is helpful to know the ability of the people you are swimming with because it may not be the same as your own.
Rafts, kayaks, stand up paddleboards, and other flotation devices can be blown offshore by the wind. Swimmers tend to venture away from shore, not realizing that the conditions on the water could be much different from those on the beach. Before you enter the water, ask a lifeguard about the wind’s direction and see what he or she thinks about going into deeper waters.
We have all experienced hot sand, but did you know sand can actually burn the bottoms of your feet and even cause blisters? It’s not as unusual as you would think. Visitors are often surprised by the heat of the sand, and children are especially at risk because their feet are not as conditioned as those of adults. Make sure to pack a pair of flip flops for the beach, even if you don’t think you are going to wear them.
The risk of sunburn includes your eyes. The sensitive tissues of your eyes are very susceptible to damage by the sun when not properly protected. Look for sunglasses that have UV protection.
The sound’s generally calm waters sometimes make it seem as though nothing could go wrong. But similar to the ocean, the wind can be much stronger on the water and can blow you away from the sound beach. Although there is a shoreline on the other side of this body of water, you can get stuck out in the middle. All but experienced watermen should remain in sight of shore in case the conditions change quickly.
Partaking in a watersport is the reason many visit the sound on their Outer Banks vacation. While some watercraft like kayaks and stand up paddleboards can be difficult to injure yourself on, motorized vehicles including boats and jetskis, can be very dangerous when not handled properly. They can move at the speed of cars without the luxury of brakes. Pay attention to the guidelines given by the watersports operator, and remember the power of the vehicle you command while you are having fun.
And no matter where you are: Respect the wildlife. Chances are if an animal has left the water, it has done so for a reason, and this goes for both ocean and sound. It is best not to touch wild animals or try to put them back into the water because it may not always be clear what they are doing. If you think an animal may need help, ask a lifeguard what the best course of action is.
Lexi Holian is a freelance writer and lifelong resident of the Outer Banks. When not writing, she can be found at the beach with a book in hand.
Photography by Shutterstock.
Born between the ocean and sound on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Alexi Holian can’t remember a time when she wasn’t writing. Along with contributing to island publications like My Outer Banks Home, The Outer Banks Wedding Guide, and Outer Banks This Week, she has covered everything from Miami food festivals to St. Barth sailing for travel and hospitality brands around the world.