OAKLAND -- Summer officially begins Saturday, but California's seasonal force of beach guardians is already looking for signs of trouble in the water.
Lifeguards rescued distressed and suffocating swimmers in recent weeks at Stinson Beach, Santa Cruz and Capitola Wharf. They also helped save a man bitten by a rattlesnake last weekend along the shore of Lake Del Valle in Livermore.
Fifty-two of the Bay Area's newest and best-trained lifeguards began as cadets last month, immersing themselves in a profession that is also, for some, a way of life.
"Attitude is everything; you have to push yourself when you're nervous, tired, exhausted," Pete DeQuincy said as a crew of cadets gathered at Lake Temescal in Oakland. "You have to be fit, strong, activate the team when needed and utilize them."
DeQuincy instructs the Bay Area's biggest public lifeguarding crew as head trainer for the East Bay Regional Park District Lifeguard Service. The 13-acre Oakland lake was transformed into a lifeguarding university on weekends last month as cadets performed drills, including diving to find and pull out fellow cadets submerged in the murky water.
The young women and men who made it through DeQuincy's eight-day gantlet -- of calisthenics, sprints, lifesaving techniques and swimming 550 yards in 10 minutes or less -- have already been deployed at 11 lakes and outdoor pools from Antioch to Fremont.
More than 100 applied for the May academy; about 90 took a preliminary test, and 60 passed. A smaller number completed the training. The program is known to be one of Northern California's toughest.
"They'll find it's either too vigorous, or they don't like swimming in the open water," said Nick Schriver, the district's aquatic supervisor, of those who quit. "Or they're scared by the reality of making decisions that can affect the outcome of someone's life."
The real-life test came early for top academy graduate Miguel Angel Beltran, who on his first day on the job at Shadow Cliffs in Pleasanton helped evacuate the lake for a parent's report of an "LCH2O" -- lost child in the water.
"He was on the beach somewhere. We reunited him with his family," said Beltran, 22, an aspiring firefighter from Tracy. "In a lot of cases, the child actually just wandered off and was found in the beach or the bathroom."
Lifeguarding has grown increasingly professional, and swim rules are stricter. Shifting its focus to "active supervision, not passive supervision" of children, Schriver said the East Bay agency directs some lifeguards to wade through the water as others watch from lookout chairs.
Drownings once happened almost every year at Bay Area public swimming holes; now they are far less frequent, and the last at an East Bay regional park was in 2008.
Many lifeguards parlay their training and experience into careers as firefighters or paramedics. A handful make a career of lifeguarding; hourly pay ranges from $13.50 to $23.49 for East Bay Regional Park District lifeguards, though the district and several Southern California beach agencies pay their top lifeguard managers six-figure salaries. In San Jose, the 17 lifeguards who watch over two community pools make from $10.27 to $12.47 an hour.
Others pursue something completely different but take the experience and discipline with them for life. One former teenage lifeguard, Ronald Reagan, became an actor and U.S. president. Ben Lee hopes to become an emergency room doctor.
The 22-year-old Livermore resident began lifeguarding at community pools as a teenager but said completing the park district academy -- last year and a second time in May -- brought him a higher level of expertise.
"They drill it over and over until you get it perfectly," Lee said. "It's a pretty amazing organization. Hopefully, it'll sort of prove my worth to the world."
In the meantime, before he heads to Brigham Young University in the fall, Lee is enjoying the beautiful views from his perch on the east beach of Del Valle Regional Park. Most of his days are "quite relaxing," he said, but they're interspersed with high-intensity, stressful moments when children go missing or snakes bite.
"It's pretty fantastic to drive to the lake in the morning and say, 'Yeah, this is where I work.' It's the best job you can ask for as a college student," Lee said. "I've never heard of a better one."