Starting this summer, fun in the sun will be a little safer for visitors to Cortez Beach on Anna Maria Island.
Manatee County Marine Rescue is expanding its coverage to include the popular beach on the Gulf of Mexico side of the island.
The beach will have three new lookout towers staffed by six lifeguards.
“We have always wanted to expand in that direction because we have always been drawn to emergencies in that area,” said Joe Westerman, Chief of Manatee County Marine Rescue.
The beach has three long, pier-like structures called groins that reach out into the Gulf. The groins control beach erosion and make for scenic ocean viewing spots.
Unfortunately, they are sometimes the scene of accidents.
Westerman says people have been injured on, under and around the structures.
Potentially deadly rip currents are also more likely to occur near coastal structures such as jetties, groins and piers, according to the National Weather Service. NWS Tampa Bay frequently issues warnings and advisories for the currents in Manatee County waters, and Westerman confirmed that they sometimes occur off of Cortez Beach.
“Rip currents are a problem in that area, and you also get currents that form around the piers themselves in big waves and strong tides,” Westerman said. “They pull people into those piers and those areas.”
One lookout tower will be built near each groin on Cortez Beach.
Another common emergency on Cortez Beach is lost children — a situation that a lifeguard in a lookout tower could help prevent.
Westerman has tried to get funding for lifeguards and towers at the beach for years.
The towers and personnel increases were approved as part of Manatee County Government’s 2018-19 budget, and tower construction will be funded by the county’s half-cent sales tax. Funds will also be used to rebuild existing towers in poor repair on Coquina Beach and Manatee Public Beach.
Like the other two beaches, Cortez Beach will have lifeguards on duty 365 days a year and in any kind of weather.
In addition to performing rescues, lifeguards act as a valuable public information resource.
“People can feel free to come and ask whatever questions they like about conditions in the area,” Westerman said. “Public education is a big part of our job.”
If beachgoers want to know if there are jellyfish or stingrays in the water, what weather conditions are like or how cold the water is, a lifeguard should have an answer.
“All those things that make someone have a pleasant day instead of a bad one,” Westerman said.
Marine rescue will continue to respond to water emergencies up and down the coastline of Anna Maria Island, but having lifeguards on beaches helps prevents them from ever happening.
“In our profession, we like to stop the issue before it starts,” Westerman said. “If we can do that, it’s a successful day.”
The lookout towers will go up in the coming months, and lifeguard service is scheduled to begin in early summer.
Hours of coverage will be the same as Coquina Beach and Manatee Public Beach: 9 a.m.-5 p.m Labor Day through Memorial Day and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day.