The beach can seem like the ultimate destination at any time on the long, hot days of the Australian summer.
But the desire to cool off with a dip in the ocean can end in tragedy – and already has for far too many people this summer.
A horrifying spike in drownings started in December and shows no signs of slowing in the early days of 2019.
At least nine people have drowned in Australia since Christmas Eve – including two in Victoria this week and one each in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.
The loss of so many lives has prompted renewed desperate pleas from emergency services and Surf Life Saving Australia for beachgoers to follow the most basic of rules: Always swim at a patrolled beach, between the flags.
SLSA says swimmers must also know how to spot a rip – the No.1 danger on Australian beaches.
“Rips can change shape and location quickly and may be difficult to see,” the organisation wrote on its Facebook page on December 29.
“Always stop to check for rips before you go into the water.”
Tragically two lives lost on our coast Christmas Day. More warm weather on the way. Please be safe on, in and around our…
On Tuesday, Life Saving Victoria said it rescued four people from a rip at Venus Bay in eastern Victoria, just four kilometres from the local surf life saving club. A fifth person was saved by volunteer guards while swimming between the flags.
“We saw an increase in the strength and frequency of rip currents last season, so it’s important that people become familiar with how to identify, avoid and escape rip currents,” LSV acting life saving operations manager Kane Treloar said.
“They can occur at all beaches, even in bays.”
He urged beachgoers looking for relief from the hot weather to draw a line in the sand when they get to the beach – and to stop, look and plan before rushing into the water.
“It’s also important that people realise just how dangerous beaches can be, even when the weather is nice,” he said.
Signs of a rip can include
- A patch of deeper, darker-coloured water
- Fewer breaking waves
- A rippled surface surrounded by smooth water
- Anything floating out to sea, or foamy, sandy water out beyond the waves.
Associate Professor Rob Brander, from the University of New South Wales, told the ABC that surf life savers’ red and yellow flags were an extremely effective way to keep people safe, but it was not possible to patrol every stretch of beach on the Australian coastline.
“It is rare for people to drown between the flags, but we simply don’t have enough flags,” Professor Brander said.
“We hear the message to swim between the flags so often that we kind of switch off, and there’s a dangerous complacency about swimming at unpatrolled beaches.
“If you don’t understand things like rip currents and dangerous breaking waves, and you are not a good swimmer, you are at such incredible risk when you swim at an unpatrolled beach.”
Gold Coast chief lifeguard Warren Young said patrolled areas offered the greatest security for swimmers.
“We are really saying ‘go where the guardians are’ – where the life guards and professional people are and the life savers,” Mr Young told the ABC.
“If you go for a swim on an open beach on this coastline and if you are not a surfer or an experienced surf life saver and you have no floatation and your kids get into trouble, someone’s going to drown.”
Information about patrolled beach locations and times is available at beachsafe.org.au, and by downloading the Beachsafe app.