Australia is renowned for its beautiful beaches, and no summer is complete without a few days sprawled out on the sand. The waters are warm, clear and refreshing on a hot day, and our beaches quite often feature adjacent parks and barbecues, making them a great destination for a day out with friends and family.
But Australian beaches can be dangerous places and beach safety should always be observed.
On average, one person drowns at Australian beaches every week, and a further 10 need rescuing. International tourists and beach newcomers are those most at risk, but even regular visitors need to follow some basic beach safety rules.
Top 5 beach hazards
There are a number of dangers at Australian beaches, including:
- Rip currents;
- Tidal and runback currents;
- Waves/shore breaks;
- Drop offs;
- Marine stingers;
- Submerged objects;
- Other people;
- Surf craft;
- Alcohol and drugs.
The top five are:
1. RIP CURRENTS
Rip currents, commonly referred to as rips, are Australia’s number one beach hazard and are responsible for a large percentage of rescues. When waves break on the beach, they push water towards the shoreline. Once that water reaches the shore it has to find a way back out to sea, and it does this by flowing downwards into deeper channels in the surf zone.
Rip currents often lead to drowning when swimmers attempt to fight the current by swimming directly back to the shoreline. This causes you to panic and tire quickly. They can also be deadly for non-swimmers that are unfortunate to get swept up when standing in waist deep water.
There are several types of rips to look for at Australian beaches:
- Fixed rips Fixed rips are confined to deeper channels between sandbars, and are often persistent in a location for a few days, weeks or even months. The size and shape of the rip channel can change over this period, but the location does not.
- Flash rips Flash rips, otherwise known as “high energy rips”, occur when wave conditions increase suddenly or during storms when the water level rises. Flash rips can appear and re-appear at different locations along the beach, usually during high energy wave conditions. Mega rips are the largest of the flash rips, and may extend hundreds of metres offshore during wave events over three metres.
- Topographic rips Topographic rips are usually semi-permanent, as their occurrence is related to fixed features in the surf zone such as headlands and man-made structures such as groynes.
Spotting a rip
Key signs to look for when identifying a rip are:
- Deeper, darker water;
- Fewer breaking waves;
- Sandy coloured water extending beyond the surf zone;
- Debris or seaweed;
- Inconsistently breaking waves.
If you get caught in a rip, it’s important you know your options:
- Stay calm, float, raise your arm to gain attention and ride the rip until assistance comes.
- Escape the rip current by swimming parallel to the beach, towards the breaking waves.
- Float and hope the rip flows in a circular pattern that returns you to an adjacent sandbar. These may sound simple, but rip currents are complex, so it’s vital you assess your situation wisely. You could float on an unpatrolled beach or not be returned to a sandbank, and you could swim parallel against a longshore current that never seems to end, so the best thing you can do is to try and avoid rips altogether!
2. SHORE BREAKS
A shore break is a wave that breaks directly on the shore, which can cause you to be swept off your feet. The power of a shore break can cause injuries to extremities and the cervical spine if you find yourself tumbling. Many accidents occur when people dive into a shore break having misjudged the depth of the water.
3. BITES AND STINGS
Australia is home to large number of lethal and nonlethal marine stingers. Lethal stingers include Irukandji, box jellyfish and the blue-ringed octopus, and when these are present the beaches are likely to be closed. This is certainly the case in the Northern states, when stinger season causes many beaches to close between November and March.
Non-lethal stingers include bluebottles and small jellyfish, and when stung they can cause an itchy or mildly painful reaction (especially to children). The best treatment is hot water (as hot as you can stand) or ice. Pick off any tentacles, don’t rub with sand and don’t rub with vinegar. The pain should subside within 30 minutes.
Too much sun can put a dampener on your trip to the beach and can be potentially dangerous. Heat disorder symptoms include sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, and regular sunburn can cause skin cancer. Heat disorders can be extremely unpleasant, so timing your beach visit to include times when the sun is less intense (before 10am and after 4pm) should be a priority.
For a day at the beach, choose a water-resistant sunscreen with a minimum 30 SPF and apply it 30 minutes before any sun exposure. Don’t forget the tops of your feet, and reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming. Ideally, you want to cover your head, face and eyes with a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and cover up with long sleeves and pants when you aren’t swimming.
5. ALCOHOL AND DRUGS
Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs puts you in great danger at the beach. Beach safety in Australia is about judging your surroundings, and alcohol and drugs seriously hinder that. A large number of accidents and beach rescues are courtesy of people under the influence, so never swim if you’ve been drinking or taking drugs.
Top 5 rules to follow at the beach
- Know your flags
Red and yellow flags show the supervised area of the beach, and it is here where you should swim. The absence of red and yellow flags means there is no supervision. NO FLAGS = NO SWIM! A red flag indicates that the beach is closed and you should not enter the water. A blue flag indicates that surf craft is not permitted. A yellow flag signals potential hazards in the water, and a red and white quartered flag means emergency.
- Read the signs
Beach safety signs can be different shapes and colours, and inform you about the beach and conditions. Warning signs are diamond shaped, and are yellow and black. Regulatory signs are a red circle with a diagonal line through the middle. Information signs are blue and white. Safety signs are green and white and indicate a safety provision nearby. Some surf clubs also provide a board with updated information on conditions.
- Wear sunscreen
Sunscreen at the beach should be water-resistant and at least 30 SPF. Apply it 30 minutes before going to beach, and then every two hours after that or immediately after swimming. Also wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses and consider a long-sleeved shirt. A good sun safe rule is: Slip: on a long-sleeve shirt; Slop: on some SPF 30+ sunscreen; Slap: on a hat; Seek: shade, particularly during the hours of 10am and 4pm; Slide: on some sunglasses; Slurp: plenty of water, and avoid fizzy or alcoholic drinks.
- Swim with a friend
Swimming with a friend means you can look out for one another. Before swimming, inform your friend of your swimming limits and if one of you gets in trouble, seek the appropriate help.
- Identify hazards
Each beach as its own individual hazards, and being aware of them makes a trip to the beach that much safer. Learn how to identify rip currents, ask about sandbars and drop-offs and look for surf craft or debris in the water.
All information in this article is intended for general
information purposes only. Information should not be considered medical advice and is
in no way intended to replace a consultation with a qualified medical practitioner.
CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may
include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS
Health Cover policies. For full terms, click
Back to news