Water safety in Australia

Source: Flickr/Walter (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Australia has over ten thousand beaches and summer is the best time to enjoy them. But many new Australians aren't aware of the dangers. So, how do you stay safe in the water?

Almost 300 people drowned last year in Australia. Migrants and international visitors tend to be at high risk because they're not familiar with the environment, when it comes to big waves or rips, for example. Scott Harrison is the Community Awareness and Multicultural Programs officer at Surf Life Saving Queensland. He and his team have worked hard in the last few years to reduce the number of visitor and migrant drownings.

"Originally, when this program started in 2010, they did represent a high percentage of our drowning statistics. They did represent 65% of our stats during that time. But from during that period to now, 2017, there has been quite a dramatic decrease in that figure. Last year the actual figure represented only 18% of our drowning towards the state."

Migrants and international visitors tend to be at high risk because they're not familiar with the environment, when it comes to big waves or rips.

To get that number down, Surf Live Saving Queensland has been going to beaches, but also to different communities and universities to talk about water safety. They've produced a multilingual water safety booklet to help lifeguards communicate with swimmers from non-English speaking backgrounds. Scott Harrison also encourages people to use the Beachsafe app.

"We also have the Beachsafe app that we actually get a lot of people to download for free, which actually has 72 languages on it. They can look at every beach in Australia and get access to that information in their own language. So if they're not comfortable in English, they can download the app and look at the whole app in their own language. It's quite a useful tool."

The Beachsafe app provides information about patrol status, facilities, hazards, weather, swell and tide. But the main thing to know is that to be truly safe, you need to go to a beach that is patrolled, especially if you're not a confident swimmer.

"It's important to understand that the red and yellow flag is the safest place to be when you go at the beach. It just means that there are lifeguards around if you need some help; we've got equipment there like rescue boards and jet skis, and access to helicopters. It's just understanding that the red and yellow flag is the safest place to be and that they can have a fun an enjoyable time at the beach especially with summer coming up."

Rip currents are a major threat for those deciding to swim in areas that are not patrolled. They claim 21 lives per year on average. Sydney University's School of Geosciences' Dr. Jack McCarroll says it's good to learn how to identify rip currents.

"Look for a place to swim where the waves are going to be as small as possible. The waves are the things that force the rip currents. So the bigger the waves, the stronger the rips, and it's just more dangerous to swim in larger waves. If you get into trouble, if you notice that you're being taken offshore and you realise you're caught in the rip, is to simply put your hand up, stay afloat, get somebody's attention and try to remain calm until you're rescued."

And it's not only when swimming that you should be careful at the beach, rock fishing can be a very dangerous sport. Craig Roberts is the National Manager for Aquatic Risk at the Royal Life Saving Society. He says rock fishers need to be prepared.

"Persons who want to participate in rock fishing need to do so with the right safety equipment and the right location, simple things like telling a friend and going with a friend about where you are going, making sure you are wearing cleats or appropriate footwear, wearing a life jacket at all times, not just when you're in the water but also when on the edge of water when you're fishing so that if you do fall in, you can stay afloat until emergency assistance arrives."

He also insists that rock fishers should always do safety checks before they go out.

"Making sure what the weather conditions are both from a meteorological point of view, but also from a surf point of view or ocean point of view. Rock fishing is a sport that ties in the waves and one of the key factors that drag people into the water causing deaths and drowning."

It only takes a few seconds for a rock fisher to be swept out to sea and prior to drowning; there is also the danger of being smashed against rocks. You should avoid rock fishing on days where the waves are big.

Craig Roberts also reminds us to remain vigilant at pools and around rivers, the number one location for migrant drowning deaths in Australia.

"One of the key things is to make sure you walk in the river. Ask the locals about what are the dangers of the rivers, be aware there are dangers underneath the water, wear a life jacket, learn CPR, and always swim with someone else."

No matter what your plans are for the summer, he encourages everyone to learn CPR.

"An important factor of saving anyone's life is getting early access to the person who is drowning and the next step is early CPR. We encourage everyone to obtain a CPR certificate and learn CPR skills. It may be your own family or your friend who you may have to save one day."

To get information on beaches in your languages, download the Beachsafe app.

You can also find out more about water safety on the Surf Life Saving Australia's website,

The Royal Life Saving Society offers CPR training across the country. And when you're at the beach, talk or signal to a lifeguard if you need some help.

Useful links:

Beachsafe app

Beach Safe by Surf Life Saving Australia - multilingual

Beach Safe by Surf Life Saving Australia

Royal Life Saving



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