Tide direction is an important element for any swimmer, boater, or water sports enthusiast to consider before venturing out to the ocean. However, it’s not always easy to tell which direction the tide is heading. Fortunately, there is a set of definitive strategies that seasoned ocean-goers use in order to quickly tell tide direction within a matter of minutes.
You can tell if the tide is coming in or out by reading a local tide table since they list the predicted times that the tide will be highest and lowest. In the time that the tide shifts from its lowest point to its highest point, the tide comes in. The tide goes out during the other time intervals.
Although tide tables are largely considered the most effective tool for determining tide direction, there are other viable approaches as well. We’ll delve into the details behind these alternative approaches—along with the subtle intricacies of tide tables—in the paragraphs below.
Tide Tables: The Ideal Resource for Telling Tides
If you consider yourself to be a rather casual ocean-goer, you may not be intimately familiar with what tide tables are and how they work. In order to quickly tell tide direction on any given day, you need to at least have a fundamental working knowledge of tide tables.
What are Tide Tables?
Tide tables offer calculated predictions on what exact times the tide will be at its highest points and what exact times the tide will be at its lowest points. Alongside these anticipated times of high tide and low tide, there are also predictions regarding the height of these tides. This information is organized into a neat table for quick, easy reference.
The data for tide tables comes directly from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This predictive data is about as reliable as it gets, as the NOAA has been producing tide tables for more than 150 years (source). Needless to say, they’ve been fine tuning their process of predictive tide analysis for decades.
How to Read a Tide Table
Tide tables are available in both print form and digital form. You can find tide tables in print form by heading to local bait shops and marinas. Typically, these tide table booklets are complementary so that ocean-goers can be weary of hazardous water levels and plan their trips accordingly.
If you do not have access to the print version of the tide table for your local area, you can get free daily tide predictions from the NOAA’s online resource: Tide Predictions.
At first glance, tide tables may seem a bit complicated. Staring at the sheer volume of numerical values on one table all at once can be intimidating. Fortunately, it only takes a couple of minutes to familiarize yourself with the basics of tide table format and the underlying meaning behind the listed numbers.
Every tide table presents the following information:
- High Tide Time
- Low Tide Time
- Tide Height
The image below is from the NOAA’s online resource, Tide Predictions. The picture shows exactly how this information is organized.
This information may seem simple, but it provides swimmers, fishermen, boaters, and water sports enthusiasts with the information they need to maximize their ocean experience.
How to Use a Tide Table to Know When the Tide is Rising or Falling
The very first step to correctly reading a tide table is to identify the appropriate date that you’re heading out onto the water. If you check the daily tide predictions under the incorrect date, the data will be inaccurate and you’ll have a false notion of whether the tide is rising or falling.
Once you’ve located the specific date that you want, you’ll see a series of times paired alongside a series of different numerical predictions of how big (or small) the tide will be, as seen below.
The next question that people ask after they see these various times and metrics is, “What do the predicted tide values even mean?” In the graphic above, these predicted tide values would be the numbers circled in blue.
First off, it’s important to understand the number zero represents an arbitrary level of water that the tide rarely falls below. This is often referred to as the datum. In other words, any extremely negative numerical values would indicate an unusually low tide, whereas any extremely positive numerical values would indicate an unusually high tide. All tide predictions are listed relative to this mean low water level in units of feet.
Typically, there are two high tides and two low tides on any given day (source). For this reason, you will typically see two higher numerical values and two lower numerical values on a tide table on any given day. With this information, you can identify exactly what time high tide will be and what time low tide will be. Just take care to read the times listed on tide tables carefully, as many print versions of tide charts are presented in 24 hour time as opposed to the standard time format.
In the example below for the date of November 5th, you can see that low tide will occur two separate times: once at 5:05 A.M and once at 5:37 P.M. High tide will also occur at two separate times: once at 11:26 A.M. and once at 11:27 P.M.
From this information, you can easily discern at what time intervals the tide will be rising and at what times intervals the tide will be falling. An even clearer picture of these tide trends is provided in the graph listed directly above the table.
If you would like to further reinforce your knowledge on how to read tide charts, check out the video below!
Visible Cues that Tell Whether the Tide is Rising or Falling
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of using a tide chart, there are alternative strategies that you can use to tell if the tide is rising or falling. In most scenarios, this involves the observation of subtle visible cues that can be detected by the naked eye.
The Direction of Ripples on the Water
One easy way to confirm whether the tide is rising or falling is to observe the ripples on calmer waters. As the tide rises in calmer waters, you will see these light, wave ripples push ever so slightly toward the shore. These lines in the water may be barely discernible to the unassuming observer, but if you look close enough, these ripples can give away the direction of the tide.
The Presence (or Lack of) Detritus
Another useful trick for identifying whether the tide is coming in or out is observing how much detritus is present on the water line. For those of you that don’t know, detritus is a fancy term for physical debris or waste. A prime example of detritus typically brought in by ocean tides is seaweed.
So keep an eye on that seaweed! It may hold the key to the tide answers you’re looking for.
The Wetness of Natural Landmarks on the Shore
Another visible cue you can use in a pinch to tell tide direction is to take note of the wetness of certain objects on shore. This tactic is useful in locations where tree roots or boulders are aplenty, as any sort of waterline would be easily discernible on these prominent surfaces. It wouldn’t be necessary to actually go up to these natural landmarks and feel the wetness via touch.
Locals take advantage of this technique in South Andros, Bahamas, since mangrove roots can be found practically everywhere on the shoreline (source). By taking a quick glance at the mangrove roots, locals can tell if the tide is coming in or going out.
As a general rule of thumb, locals say that if the mangrove roots above the water surface dry, the tide is likely rising. On the other hand, if the mangrove roots above the water surface are wet, the tide is likely falling.
Of course, this strategy can be applied to natural landmarks other than mangrove roots, but I thought it best to offer a real life example of how seafarers put this method into practice.
Rising Tide vs Falling Tide: Can You Always Tell the Difference?
Now that you know the useful tricks for identifying a rising tide versus a falling tide, you’re probably wondering if these tricks are effective 100% of the time. The hard truth is that the difference between a rising tide versus a falling tide is not always apparent.
The reason that this difference is not always perceptible is that the water movement of a tide can be minimal on some occasions. At certain locations at particular times, the tidal range could be somewhat small.
To better classify tidal range, water movement has been broken down into three separate groups, shown in the following table (source):
|Meso-tidal||2 to 4 meters|
As you can probably guess, micro-tidal environments are the hardest to detect whether the tide is coming in or going out. The water shifts very little from low tide to high tide (and vice versa), so it can be difficult to rely on the visible cues we discussed earlier.
So if you can’t tell at what stage the tide is, then don’t be discouraged! It may just be that you’re located in a micro-tidal environment, so the tide movement is practically negligible.
The Bottom Line
Tide tables are the go-to resource for telling the tide no matter what date it is or what location you’re at. As aforementioned, you can pick up a tide table at virtually any local bait shop or marina. If you don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of physically going to these places to pick up a print version of a tide table, you can easily access online tide tables for free at NOAA’s Tide Predictions.
If tide tables aren’t for you, visible cues are another viable option for determining tide direction. You can look at the direction of ripples on the water, the amount of detritus at the waterline, and the wetness of natural debris on shore. These strategies may not be as accurate as tide tables, but they can definitely come in handy!