Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: Staying water-safe in Australia

Source: CC BY-SA 4.0

Australians love immersing themselves in water activities. But often in summer tragedy strikes. Many new Australians aren't aware of the dangers of being in the water. So, how do you stay safe?

Summer can be a frustrating time for lifeguards on our beaches. Language barriers can hinder their efforts to convey important safety messages.  In the past decade, almost one thousand drowning fatalities have been recorded. 

On Queensland's beaches, nearly half of all drowning deaths are migrants or international visitors.
Royal Life Saving Society Australia have identified those from Chinese, Indian, South Korean and Malaysian backgrounds as being at high risk.

Surf Life Saving Queensland recently launched a multilingual water safety booklet to help lifeguards communicate with swimmers from non-English speaking backgrounds. Chantel Fife is the Coastal Safety Officer who helped launch the trial.

"The trial is actually going really, really well. We've only just introduced the book for the first week of summer and our dawn patrol down on the Gold Coast actually utilise the booklet to speak to about 15 Korean people who're actually going into the water and they could easily communicate to the official to say that they're not allowed to swim in this spot and they need to swim between the flags and directing them down to that safe place."

Australia has over 11,000 beaches but only four per cent are patrolled.

Chantel Fife says non-confident swimmers should only go where lifeguards are on duty.

"The main things when going down to the beach is finding the flag and swimming between them, and also swimming during patrolled times. So that's a big indicator that we want to swim when there's a lifesaving or lifeguard service down there  and only actually swim at patrolled beaches. You're guaranteed to stay nice and safe and if you have any troubles or if you do get stung by a jellyfish, you can come up and see a lifeguard and they'll help you when you do go down there."

More people die from being caught in rip currents than those attacked by sharks - taking 21 lives per year on average.

Sydney University's School of Geosciences' Dr. Jack McCarroll says it's vital to learn how to identify rip currents.

"Looking for a rip current, standing up high, looking for the dark areas where there's no waves breaking. They're narrow fast flowing offshore flows from the shoreline towards offshore where the waves are breaking. And most commonly the reason that we find rip currents is in channels between shallow bars, so you get more water coming onshore over the bars as waves break, and quite simply as the water gets pushed on shore and it runs back out through the deep rip channel."

Dr McCarroll warns swimmers to avoid rip currents by only going to patrolled areas.

"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."


Rock fishing is widely regarded as the most dangerous sport in Australia. A study by the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSSA) NSW Branch found there was an average of 17 drowning-related recreational fishing fatalities per year over the period 1 July 2000 to 30 June 2007.

In NSW, rock fishers of Asian backgrounds represented 59% of all rock fishing related death during the same period.  Craig Roberts is the National Manager for Aquatic Risk at the Royal Life Saving Society.  He says rock fishing can be very dangerous.

"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."

Craig Roberts says 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 into the sea.  Prior to drowning, there is also the danger of being smashed against the rocks.  Dr. Jack McCarroll warns enthusiasts not to be deceived by seemingly calm waves.

"It is certainly a very dangerous sport. It's advised to look at the wave conditions before you go out and to make sure the waves are below a certain level say one to 1.5 metres. When the waves are large and clean, the sort of big waves that surfers like, you can get breaks between the waves, where they're flat for a while and then they get very large every five minutes or so. So those types of days where the waves are large and clean can be particularly dangerous for rock fishers."

But it's not just the beach where swimmers get into trouble. Craig Roberts from the RLSSA says rivers are the number one locations for migrant drowning deaths in Australia.

"It's often the calms to the waters above the river that looks like it's safe but it's usually underneath the water. Trees, branches, things like that as well as your rip currents which are often quite dangerous and are causing accidents and people to drown."

He says always assess the surroundings before swimming in the river.

"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."

While it's essential to be informed about the beach or inland waterways, it's just as important to know about pool safety.  With the recent drowning of two Sydney toddlers, Royal Life Saving Society are urging parents to actively supervise their children at all times. Craig Roberts also encourages everyone to learn CPR skills.

"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."  

Whether you're young or old, learning swimming, water safety and basic rescue skills can make your summer even more enjoyable.

Royal Life Saving Society offers CPR training across the country.

For information on water safety, visit the Royal Life Saving Society:

For multilingual beach safety tips, visit Surf Life Saving

Source SBS Radio