Backstory: Dean of the Florida sands

Lifeguarding at Miami Beach may sound like a pretty posh post, but it's a serious job with serious outcomes.

A red flag flies from the pastel-painted watchtower where lifeguard Adam Stanions keeps an eye on one of the world's hippest seaside resorts. The South Beach wind is so strong that the flag makes a whirring, buzzing noise as it flaps and flails.

The sky began the day blue, but inky black storm tendrils are now creeping closer, and the sea is frothing and heaving. Over the two-way radio that keeps Mr. Stanions in touch with his colleagues up and down this stretch of sand, emergency messages have been flying frantically all day.

"The victim is conscious and breathing," a relieved male voice pants over the airwaves, reporting on the latest sea-born drama.

To the doe-eyed, bikini-clad gaggles that come here to loll on the sand, it might seem that the bronzed Venuses and Adonises in the lifeguard towers are simply put there as eye candy. After all, South Beach is for the Beautiful People – a sizzling mecca where tourists come to gaze dreamily at more than just the cocktail menus.

But Stanions and his colleagues at Miami Beach Ocean Rescue deal in more serious matters. Like life and death.

It is 2:30 p.m. and already they've rescued 23 people, including a teenage girl and a 30-year-old man who were hauled ashore by the chisel-chested Stanions after they became trapped in powerful rip currents that have menaced the shore in recent days.

Could they have drowned without his intervention? "Yeah, I guess," he shrugs modestly, toweling his sun-bleached hair. Just another day at the office, it seems.

At this powder-white beach – his workplace for 25 years now – he has literally witnessed the shifting sands of time. When he first started in 1981, Miami Beach was not the trendy hot spot it is now.

"The average age of people on Miami Beach back then was 'dead', " he says, apologizing for the irreverence. "I can't even remember my first rescue, but it was probably grabbing an elderly person off the rope line that was set up to help them get in and out of the water. If it was rough, they'd be clinging on with the rope up against their throats like this," he explains, mimicking strangulation.

Now, among the oil-slathered masses that come to bask and play, he deals with everything from bathers falling facedown in the sea due to drug or alcohol intake to beer-fueled teenage brawls. On one occasion, a gang battle forced him to dive in the sand under his tower as rocks, bottles, and expletives flew.

"I called for help on the radio. When the mounted police arrived, it looked like something out of medieval times with knights in armor and horses stampeding down the beach, riding to the rescue," he recalls.

But 80 percent of the lifeguards' work is created by rip currents, ferocious forces of nature that can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea in seconds.

He knows the telltale signs of a rip, he says, but "the trouble is, the public generally doesn't.

"Today the water's really cranking, we've got a wicked squall coming in, the red flag's flying and we've still got people in the water," he notes.

Back in 1987 though, there was no flag system to alert bathers to hazards. On Nov. 14 that year, with the wind breathing its worst and the sea churning violently around him, Stanions performed a feat that his chief, Vincent Andreano, calls "the greatest save I have ever known."

"Two bodysurfers were in the water and got dragged out like they'd been shot from a cannon," says Mr. Andreano. "Adam was straight in there, but with the current he was being pushed into rocks where he would have been as good as dead. But he wouldn't give up."

Stanions recalls: "It was the first and only time I've ever thought I wasn't going to make it. I was stroking and swimming and swallowing the water and getting pulled back by waves that were 10 feet plus."

It ended happily and Stanions has a valor award from the City of Miami Beach for his heroics.

His paddleboard isn't just reserved for human victims, though. He has used it to save dogs, sickly pelicans, and injured gannets. Like a lot of humans who owe him their lives but are too embarrassed to acknowledge as much, though, he has found "birds aren't big on gratitude."

With his golden tan and ripped physique, Stanions has the lifeguard "look" that would, perhaps, have once seen him sail through a "Baywatch" audition. But the surfside soap opera did his profession few favors.

"Lifeguarding isn't about sitting watching girls through binoculars, but thanks to 'Baywatch' we'll always have that perception to beat," he laments. "It's instilled in you to be aware; it's a big responsibility. The bottom of the ocean is always changing, the sandbars shift, you always have to know what's going on 360 degrees around you. If you miss something, the consequences could be tragic."

Sometimes, tragedy catches up with him anyway. One day last December, Stanions watched open-mouthed as a seaplane carrying 20 people ditched just off the beach. He grabbed his paddleboard and was third on the scene, but there were no survivors.

Prior to that, his worst memory was of a 13-year-old boy who drowned in 1983 and whose body Stanions helped locate and recover. "To this day, I can still close my eyes and see his face," he admits, welling up.

But there are some comic moments in his job, too. He recalls the day he watched a hapless kite-surfer dragged all the way up the beach flat on his face. He rolls his eyes when asked if spring break is ever a bother: "Spring break is totally off the wall."

And yes, there have been a couple of "Jaws" moments during his years here, the latest just days ago when a 7-foot bull shark suddenly appeared close to shore.

"Often, people on the beach start freaking out shouting 'shark' when it's actually just tarpon, and we have to calm them down. But this was no harmless tarpon. It was no ray. We cleared the beach quick."

He fingers the silver chain around his neck and shows off a fossilized shark's tooth that is dangling from it. "Maybe the shark was looking for this," he jokes, explaining that it was found at an archaeological site.

Shark appearances are rare, but the Portuguese man-of-war is a frequent visitor and is "the wickedest of the creatures," he says, noting some of his more "scary" saves have been of people stung by the dangling tentacles of the floating sac-like organisms.

So do people think he's cool, being in such a heroic job?

"Think I'm cool? I am cool," he quips. "I'm 44, but I'm hip to the world. I like to relate to the younger generation. I want to be young, too. But this is also a serious job with serious outcomes. A lot of our work is preventive lifeguarding, showing people how not to get into trouble in the first place. Any life lost is a tragedy, but every rescue we make is a reward."

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