MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Myrtle Beach draws thousands of visitors to its beaches each year, but many of them are left asking, “Is Myrtle Beach safe to swim at?” We spoke to local and state officials who say a lot of factors are considered when deciding if the water is safe. 

The short answer is yes, Myrtle Beach waters are safe for visitors to swim and wade in unless they are marked otherwise. But how do officials know and how often do they check?

A lot of work goes into keeping beachgoers safe. 

The Department of Health and Environmental Control has worked with the City of Myrtle Beach for many years, collecting and testing water samples twice weekly from 123 sites along the coast from May 1 through Oct. 1. The samples are tested once by Coastal Carolina University and once by DHEC. CCU continues the testing year-round.

These samples, which are taken during prime tourist season at the beach, are tested for levels of Enterococcus bacteria, which can be an indicator of the presence of other organisms that can cause people to get sick with diseases like gastrointestinal illness or skin infections.

The results of the tests are then analyzed, and if needed, an advisory will be posted on the City of Myrtle Beach’s “Check My Beach” website.

Coastal Carolina University posts their test results, and has been keeping track of the testing data since 1997. You can view those test results here.

The data that is presented on the Check My Beach site is delayed by a day. If DHEC samples after it rains, the sample will probably come back with a higher bacterial count. SCDHEC said that is because of the runoff from the rain. 

“The point of having such an up-to-date site is to provide timely information to beachgoers who are actually heading toward the beach and the ocean today, not three weeks ago or three weeks from now, when the weather, etc., all will be significantly different,” City of Myrtle Beach PIO Mark Kruea said.

If a testing site measures levels of the bacteria at greater than 104 Entero colony-forming units per 100 milliliters, swimming is not advised. An advisory is then issued for that portion of the beach, and will be listed on the site. 

“By targeting the folks at the beach and getting them that information, we’re getting them to our water quality page and getting them to other water safety tips that are associated with the beach,” SCDHEC Manager of Aquatic Science Programs Bryan Rabon said. “I, in many ways, have a greater fear of someone dying from drowning than I do from them getting sick.”

SCDHEC said there are two different types of advisories, temporary and long-term. A temporary advisory means a recent sample indicates swimming is not safe for 200 feet on either side of a posted sign. The area will be tested daily until the advisory can be lifted. Usually these advisories only last for a day or two.

While the advisory is in place, wading, fishing and shell collecting are still considered safe unless you have an open sore or cut that could allow bacteria to cause an infection. 

A long-term advisory means swimming is not advised within 200 feet on either side of the sign because high bacteria levels may be present based on data that has been collected for the past five years. 

Levels of bacteria may be higher in these areas following rain because of stormwater runoff. However, wading, fishing, and shell collecting are also not considered dangerous in these areas. The main risk is if water can get into your mouth. According to DHEC, most health problems come from swallowing the water. 

The department emphasized the importance of not having children sit in the water in these areas because they often will put their hands to their mouths, putting them more at risk even if their heads did not go under the water. Children also do not have immune systems that are as developed as adults and have not had the exposures that would protect them as much as an adult. 

“We always stress that if you have a compromised immune system or open cuts, make sure you protect those,” Bryan Rabon, SCDHEC manager of aquatic science programs, said. “If you have an immunocompromised system it might be better for you to think about, ‘do I really need to get into the water and swim in an actual environment?’ That’s just because there is always a risk. We can never say it is one hundred percent safe. That’s the last thing you’ll ever hear me say.”

Myrtle Beach began issuing long-term advisories in 2007 and Surfside Beach and Horry County began issuing advisories in 2008.

Over the past several years, Myrtle Beach has spent millions of dollars to ensure the quality of the water for visitors and locals is safe. 

“In the last 25 years, the City of Myrtle Beach alone has spent $77 million dollars on stormwater management projects to address both localized and regional collection, detention, flood prevention, and water quality topics,” Kruea said.

“Of that total,” Kruea said, “some $38 million has been for four deepwater ocean outfalls, which effectively carry rainwater (stormwater) under the beach, under the ocean, beyond the surf zone, and out about 1,100 feet, where it is quickly diluted.”

According to DHEC, these projects have significantly helped the water quality for the beaches, and the bacterial levels in the areas of the deepwater ocean outfalls have shown significant improvement. 

“Over time I would say it has gotten better,” Rabon said. “ We had a master’s student look at a couple of the outfall pipes that they put in and we could see a statistical difference that, yes, around those areas where we had the pipes, our advisory numbers went down.”

Rabon stressed that while the water in Myrtle Beach isn’t as clear as water in some other places, it doesn’t mean the water isn’t clean.

“I know some people think of those nice crystal waters that you find down around the Keys and into the Bahamas,” he said. “Those actually don’t have as much production, biological production occurring.

“We have a lot of that in our area,” Rabon said. “So it’s actually a rich, teaming environment with a lot of things you can’t see.”

The darker water is actually caused by natural environmental changes such as storms or wind. Once the water settles, it becomes a more blue color. Rabon also emphasized that water color should not be considered an indicator of water quality.

“There are a couple of reasons why you would see that change,” Rabon said. “If there has been a storm, if there’s been a lot of wind, and depending on which way, it will be stirring the sand up. And that’s where you’ll see those waters begin to become a little murkier or a little browner. It’s just because the water’s been stirred up.”