What do the beach warning flags mean? A water safety guide

Episode 240 of the Toronto Real Estate Musing daily video blog.

If you’ve ever enjoyed the sun and surf of The Beach’s excellent lake shore, you’ve probably seen several differently coloured flags flying on the beach. What do they signify?

To answer this, George O’Neill asked Jon Berrie, a headguard (aka lifeguard leader) at the Leuty Lifeguard Station, The Beach detachment of the Toronto Police Marine Unit.  While a historical landmark, Leuty Lifeguard Station continues to act as the main headquarters for the Leuty detachment of the Marine Unit’s Lifeguard Services.

Every day Woodbine Beach and Kew-Balmy Beach are open, a staff of about a dozen lifeguards are present to keep a close eye on us swimmers and boaters at ten elevated lifeguard stands spaced out along the three kilometres of shoreline.

These lifeguards use these coloured flags to show the public if and where the beach is safe for swimming.  For this, Toronto’s Lifeguard Services uses the same flag system as the International Life Saving Federation (ILSF).

Here are the flags:

A set of RED over YELLOW flags are also flown on their own flagpoles by the water. A pair of these flags indicate there is a lifeguard on duty monitoring the water between those two flags.  To stay safe, swimmers should stay within the boundaries these two flags.

In addition, a green, yellow or red flag is flown on the back of each elevated lifeguard stand to show whether the water is safe to swim in:

GREEN: The water is suitable for swimming and boating, with calm waters and an e.coli bacteria count of less than 100 parts per million. Water quality is tested every day the beach is open to the public.

YELLOW: This indicates somewhat rough surf conditions. The water is still suitable for swimming, however caution is recommended.

RED: A red flag indicates the water is unsafe to enter, either because of rough or stormy water, strong currents or an e.coli count higher than 100 parts per million.  Jon advises that you may see this around the end of August as the winds become stronger.

According to Jon, The Beaches are some of the cleanest and safest beaches in Toronto, being open “over 90% of the time”.  In fact, Woodbine and Kew Balmy are recognized with the international designation of being Blue Flag beaches – the only beaches in mainland Lake Ontario to be so – for exceptional water cleanliness and lifeguard presence. So please enjoy the water this summer, and be safe!


  1. Hey George, great info! Thanks for posting this.

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