Australia is blessed with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world…and the fabulous weather to enjoy them. But there’s more than a few dangers that lurk for the unwary. So, in this post I explore the question: “Are Australian beaches safe?”
Sharks, crocodiles, Irukandji jellyfish, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, stonefish…
In many traveller’s minds, these marine dangers rank right up there with snakes and spiders as the most dangerous things to fear in Australia. However, the reality is that the biggest risk at Australian beaches has nothing to do with critters…and a lot more to do with currents.
The biggest risk is a rip
A rip current is simply a strong moving current of water that moves very rapidly (and often forcefully) away from the beach. Even swimmers in relatively shallow water can be dragged away from the shore in a rip.
A rip is created from the waves breaking onto the beach and pushing water onto the shore. All that volume of water has to find a way back out to sea (what comes in, must go out…) and the route it finds is a deep, fast-moving channel that funnels back out into the surf zone of a beach.
According to the Surf Lifesaving Australia website, rips are responsible for an average of 21 drownings per year (compared with sharks at an average of 1 fatality per year).
So what do you need to know to stay safe?
- The number one tip is SWIM BETWEEN THE FLAGS! Those red and yellow flags show the safest part of the beach to swim in, and also indicate which area is being patrolled by professional lifeguards or volunteer lifesavers from Surf Life Saving Australia who do an awesome job every year watching over our beaches, keeping beach-goers safe, and in the event it is needed, rescuing swimmers in trouble. In the 2013-2014 year, “not one person lost their life at the beach when they were swimming between the red and yellow flags” (Surf Life Saving Australia President Graham Ford).
- Know what the flags mean. In addition to the red and yellow ones (patrolled, safest area) completely yellow flags are used to indicate potentially dangerous surf conditions, and completely red flags say – danger, danger…beach is closed! Black and white flags create a surfer-free zone just outside the red and yellow zone to make sure surfers don’t stray into a swimming zone.
- Read all the information signs. Don’t assume you know a beach. Conditions and hazards can change from one visit to the next. Check the daily update sign from the SLS patrol or lifeguards if there is one.
- Ask for advice from Surf Life Savers or lifeguards if they are on patrol.
- Always swim with a friend so that you can watch out for each other and call for help if it’s needed. And of course, never take your eyes off children, even for a minute.
- If you do get into trouble, keep calm, float on your back to conserve energy and raise an arm to wave and attract attention.
- If you see someone in trouble, call 000 immediately from your mobile phone. The emergency operator will alert the nearest lifeguards, Surf Life Savers or appropriate emergency services.
This cute video from SLSA outlines exactly what a visitor to Australian beaches should know (and is also available in Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic and Korean.)
The Beachsafe website is a fantastic resource maintained by Surf Life Saving Australia to show you the current information and conditions for a beach you would like to visit, hazards you might find there and the services available. You can select features to narrow your search, such as only searching for patrolled beaches, or ones with toilets and/or showers. And you can do a ‘beaches near me now’ search. It even shows photos of the beach so you can check it out in advance. (It’s also available as a smartphone app which is really handy when you’re out and about and seeking a nearby beach).
Appreciate the volunteers
Australia has over 36,000km of coastline with around 12,000 beaches. The Surf Life Saving organisation is committed to creating a safe environment on and off the beaches, through patrols, training programs and education. It’s the largest volunteer movement of its kind in the world.
Surf Life Savers spend more than a 1.4 million hours a year patrolling many beaches right around Australia. A few of the more popular beaches (such as Bondi in NSW, and the Gold Coast in Queensland) also have paid lifeguards (like seen on the TV show Bondi Rescue). And each year, lifeguards and lifesavers rescue around 12,000 people and provide emergency care to 64,000.
Fortunately, I’ve never had to be rescued, but I have visited SLS patrols with small injuries (jellyfish stings or cut feet) and found the service and attention the volunteers give to be outstanding. So, make things easy for them when you’re next at the beach and swim where they can see you – stay between the flags.
Have you ever needed a lifeguard or life saver’s assistance?
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