In Panama City Beach, the coast is struck by multiple “tidal waves” a day. Beachgoers are unfazed, however, as these waves are no more disruptive than radio waves. Contrary to the popular connotation, tidal waves aren’t roaring tsunamis, but rather the daily rise and fall of salty surfaces. You know, the ones caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon you learned about in 5th grade science class? Let’s delve a little deeper than the basics. You’re standing on a beach that happens to be on the side of our planet directly facing the moon. This celestial body acts like a magnet, exerting a gravitational force strong enough to create a tidal “bulge.” You would be witnessing high tide, when water levels reach their daily peak.
On the opposite side of the globe, the same process is underway. If you stick with our magnet analogy, visualize the force squeezing our typically spherical planet into an oval, creating bulges on each side. Areas that don’t currently lie within these two bulges experience low tide as water is sucked away from shorelines. Because the Earth is in constant rotation and is orbited by the moon, most coasts experience two high and low tides per day as they pass in and out of tidal bulges. However, Panama City Beach is unique, as it only experiences diurnal tides — one high and one low tide during a 24-hour rotation. These wave periods only occur in Antarctica, Australia and certain points along the Gulf of Mexico due to massive chunks of continental land obstructing the path of tidal bulges.
Despite having only a diurnal pattern to track, it is important to many in Panama City Beach to pay close attention to water levels and movements. Capt. Benjamin Kelley, owner of PCB’s Miss Kelley Fishing Charters, always keeps his eye on the tides before taking his boat out. “When catching bait around the shipping channel in the morning, an incoming tide will bring clean water inside the pass and make for good bait catching and mackerel fishing,” Kelley explains. “A falling tide will bring water out of the bay and sometimes push fish off the beach.” Luckily, his deep-sea fishing charters are rarely affected by the tides. It is small boats that participate in light-tackle fishing, Kelley says, that really need to study the tide tables. At one moment, you could be peacefully motoring along. At another, retreating seawater may expose jetties and shallow sandbars. Fish, divers and snorkelers all prefer to avoid having to swim against the tide. Fortunately, divemasters in and around Panama City Beach are experienced in navigating around these ebbs and flows. Dive shops are prepared to supply independent adventurers with the information they need and, thankfully, tidal data is readily available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Dr. Greg Dusek is the senior scientist for NOAA’s Tides and Currents Office. Operating out of Silver Spring, Maryland, he is responsible for monitoring more than 200 water gauges across the U.S. that record information about water levels. From those observations, he is able to make tidal predictions for not only tomorrow, but dozens of years in advance. “The nice thing about tides is that they occur in a steadily regular way,” Dusek says. “If we station a gauge in Panama City Beach and examine that data for a year, we are able to pull out the tide signature and predict how it will behave going forward in time.”
Sensors on these gauges measure the water every six minutes for a reliable read. Currently, these devices are transitioning to incorporate “microwave” sensors, technology that will float above the surface and use microwave radar waves to scan the waters and acquire its precise level. Also in development is new research that will utilize a wave model to predict the likelihood of what locals refer to as a “riptide.” Dusek clarifies that these aren’t a tidal phenomenon at all, but powerful currents that can pose a threat to swimmers. Low tides tend to influence stronger rip currents as waves continuously break over sand bars, but swimmers should not rely upon this information alone to avoid rips. To make the most of your day on the water and ensure safe travels, visit TidesAndCurrents.Noaa.Gov for daily tidal readings of Panama City Beach.