Wherever you live or like to visit in southern New Jersey, the ocean or a bay probably isn't far away.

Neither is a place to get the kids - or yourself, even - into swimming lessons.

"Just living in this area with all the water, I certainly would want my kids to be water-safe as early as I could do that," says Bill Shaughnessy, who teaches kids as young as 3 to swim as the aquatics director at Mainland Regional High School's pool in Linwood. "You know how quick things can go wrong."

And Shaughnessy isn't just trying to keep his own classes full.

"Go to the Ocean City Aquatic Center, go to Brigantine or wherever," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's just a must when you're in this area."

Or if it's closer, you can go to Vineland, where the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA offers group swimming classes almost all year long.

"June is when drownings or near-drownings are the most frequent," says Nicole McGinn, the instructional coordinator. "That's the time when it starts getting hot, but the kids don't quite know their limitations yet."

Like many places, the Vineland pool will start swimming lessons for children as young as 6 months old - with a parent. McGinn says the two spring sessions, which start in March and run into June in blocks of eight weeks apiece, are usually their busiest ones of the year.

Some instructors question the value of trying to teach 6-month-old kids to swim, but at the Ocean City Aquatic & Fitness Center, Karen Pratz emphasizes those lessons are for the parents, too.

"They learn how to cue the kids, like, 'Johnny, don't jump in the water until I say so,'" Pratz explains.

And the lessons at that age are strictly a matter of keeping children alive in water, adds Barbi Harris, an AtlantiCare nurse and the coordinator of the Safe Kids Atlantic/Cape May County program.

"It's not teaching kids how to do the backstroke," Harris says. "It's a survival thing."

AtlantiCare also offers a swimming program called Infant Swimming Resource at its Life Center, on English Creek Avenue in Egg Harbor Township. ISR will put children in the pool at 6 months, teaching them how to hold their breath underwater, roll onto their backs and float without help, but Harris also emphasizes all parents need to understand one universal truth about water safety:

As useful and necessary as they are, "Swimming lessons don't make a child immune to drowning," she says. "They must be supervised - supervision is the key to all this. And it has to be active, involved, eyes-on supervision, not just reading a book at the edge of the pool or on the beach."

Plus she wants to make sure everyone knows it's not just the big, bad ocean or the deep, in-ground pools that are potentially dangerous to kids.

Small, above-ground pools, "Inflatable (kiddie) pools and those little molded, plastic ones - kids drown in those too," Harris says. "They sit there and they're tempting for the child. ... When you're not looking, that's where they go."

She cites statistics that found more than 75 percent of young drowning victims hadn't been missing for even five minutes when they were found in the water.

And when adults realize kids are gone, "Everyone runs around the house looking for them," Harris says. "But they should just run immediately to where there's water. That alone could save lives."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

Where to get lessons

Here are some of the places in the region that offer swimming lessons to children - and usually to adults too. (All prices are for basic group-lesson packages. Most places also provide private lessons. Contact the organizations directly for more specifics. )

AtlantiCare Life Center

2500 English Creek Ave., Egg Harbor Township. 609-407-2273

Infant Swimming Resource lessons $100 per child per week. Additional $105 registration fee. ($75 per week for children of policeman, firefighters, EMS or military personnel)

Brigantine Aquatic Center

3118 Bayshore Ave., Brigantine. 609-266-7946, http://www.brigantineaquaticcenter.com/" target= "_blank">www.brigantineaquaticcenter.com

$99; eight lessons.

Cape May County Special Services School

4 Moore Road, Cape May Court House, 609-465-2721, http://www.cmcspecialservices.org/" target= "_blank">www.cmcspecialservices.org

$60 to $70 per session. (Sessions lengths, starting dates vary throughout the summer.)

Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA

1159 E. Landis Ave., Vineland, 856-691-0030, http://www.ccaymca.org/" target="_blank">www.ccaymca.org

$42 to $48 full members for seven- or eight-week session; $61 to $70 "program members."

Holly City Family Center

8 East Mulberry St., Millville, 856-293-0609, http://www.hollycity.org/" target= "_blank">www.hollycity.org

$37 full members; $63 "program members;" eight 30-minute lessons

Katz Jewish Community Center

501 N. Jerome Ave., Margate, 609-822-1167, ext. 144, http://www.jccatlantic.org/" target= "_blank">www.jccatlantic.org

$95 ($90 second child) members; $120 ($115 second child) non-members; six 30-minute lessons

Mainland Regional High School Aquatic Center

1301 Oak Ave., Linwood 609-601-6154

$65 Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point residents; $75 all others; 10 30-minute lessons

Ocean City Aquatic and Fitness Center

1735 Simpson Ave., 609-398-6900, www.ocnj.us

$56 ($51 second and less for subsequent children) members; $112 ($107 second and less for others) non-members; eight 30-minute lessons

Ocean Club

700 S. Main St. (Route 9), Stafford Township, 609- 978-2244, www.oceanclubfitness.com

$85 members, $105 non-members; nine, 30-minute lessons

Plymouth Landing Swim School

Lessons at AtlantiCare Life Center and Seaview Harbor, both in Egg Harbor Township, 609-484-1948, http://www.plymouthlandingswimschool.com/" target= "_blank">www.plymouthlandingswimschool.com

$125; six 30-minute lessons

Tilton Fitness

3022 Hingston Ave., Egg Harbor Township, 609-646-2590,

$128; eight lessons.

Tilton Fitness

323 S. Pitney Road, Galloway Township, 609-652-7744

$128; eight 30-minute lessons