Opinion: Dead in the water: beach safety stalled by ignorance

This opinion article of Dr Rob Brander, senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, applies to Australian beaches, but the situation is very similar at South African beaches or other beaches worldwide. The most frequent reason why beachgoers drown in the sea or in the ocean is because they are not aware of rip currents. As long as rip awareness and rip education in beach areas fail, more people will drown because they are caught in a rip current and swept out to sea. So far the comment of Safe Coastal Tourism.

The photograph is haunting. The scene is innocent enough: a placid sea on a stunning day at New Zealand's Hot Water Beach. Almost unnoticed in the foreground a man stands in knee-deep water, feeling the sand with his feet to seek the hot springs the beach is famous for. I didn't take the picture for the scenery, but because the water is not as calm as it seems. Near some rocks, the surface is rippled and disturbed - a clear, but subtle sign of a rip current. As a scientist, lifesaver and surf-safety educator, I took the photo to show that rips can form even when waves are small.

Now I show it to illustrate the life-and-death importance of understanding surf conditions: 30 minutes after I took the photo, the man in the picture drowned, another victim of the most dangerous and poorly understood hazard on our beaches.

Dr. Rob Brander
14 November, 2008

This tragedy could have happened on any of the thousands of Australian beaches with rips and unfortunately it does: during the summer months, someone drowns in a rip every two to three days. Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that most of these deaths are preventable.

If fatal shark attacks happened at the same rate the response would be frenzied -  beach closures, airborne surveillance and funding to address the shark "problem". Yet none of this happens with rips.

We rarely hear about rip drownings and, so far as most are concerned, there is no rip "problem". This is because most Australians don't really know what a rip is and literally couldn't spot one to save their life.

Rips are strong, narrow, offshore currents that flow like "rivers of the sea" from the shoreline seaward, to the extent of breaking waves, where they peter out and disperse. They are best identified as gaps of darker, calmer water between breaking waves.

Contrary to popular belief, rips are not an "undertow" because there is no such thing. They don't pull swimmers under the surface but sweep them along with the current, away from beach into deeper water. They flow faster than the average person can swim, so swimming against the current to get back to the beach is pointless and will only exhaust you leading to panic. The best thing to do is relax and stay afloat.  You can then either raise your hand to signal for help, or try and swim towards the side of the rip aiming for breaking waves and white water, which indicate shallow water and water being brought back to the beach.

While most beachgoers are vaguely aware of rips, a recent study by the University of New South Wales and Surf Life Saving Australia has shown that half of Australian beachgoers couldn't identify a rip when shown a picture of one.  We can safely assume that nine out of 10 overseas tourists are likewise unaware of this deadly threat.

This level of ignorance is particularly frightening when you consider that rips are involved in the vast majority of the 80 surf drownings and more than 15,000 rescues that occur on Australian beaches each year.

Of equal concern is that the annual number of surf drownings has not changed over the past decade: if anything, it appears to be increasing.

Australians have an unhealthy degree of complacency when it comes to beach hazards. It's assumed we're well looked-after - and we are. You only have to watch an episode of Surf Patrol or Bondi Rescue - full of dramatic rescues made by lifesavers and lifeguards - to know that our beaches are in good hands.

But which beaches? Australia has more than 11,000 mainland beaches but only 3% of these are actually patrolled. Even worse, most of these are patrolled only seasonally and the flagged areas cover only small sections of beach.
So, the "well looked-after" assumption is somewhat tenuous. There's a lot of beach out there to get in trouble, lifeguards and lifesavers can't be everywhere, and it only takes a minute to drown.

The last point is crucial. Drownings can occur in a blink of an eye. Calls for more lifesavers and lifesaving equipment may sound like a solution, but not only is this logistically impractical, it arguably won't have a significant impact.

When it comes to rip currents, it must be recognized that prevention is the best medicine and at the core of prevention lies improved knowledge through education. If a swimmer doesn't enter a rip in the first place, they won't drown in one.

The "Swim Between the Flags" campaign has worked and the message is ingrained in our psyche, but the flags themselves have no educational value of the hazards swimmers should be trying to avoid. Likewise, the effectiveness of warning signage is extremely limited.  Although a plethora of excellent beach safety education programs already exist, there is much room for improvement in terms of increasing the target audience.

Surf Life Saving Australia has engaged on an urgently needed national rip education campaign to help achieve the Australian Water Safety Council's goal of reducing surf drownings by half by 2020.

Just as we all know to look both ways before crossing a street, every Australian should know to look for rips when they go to the beach. Tourists must also be specially targeted for rip education.

However, none of this will ever be achieved without more funding. At present, the funding for the national rip campaign, rip education and research is relatively limited, which is incredible given that rips are responsible for more deaths each year than bushfires, floods, cyclones, tsunami, and sharks combined. Yet only a modest amount of extra money is needed to achieve and even exceed the 2020 goal. Until this happens, another 80 people will continue to drown needlessly in the surf each year. For a nation that prides itself on its beaches, that's not only unacceptable - it's shameful.