Beach Safety Guide

Australia is renowned for having some of the best beaches in the world. Australia’s beaches are both a popular place to visit for Australians during the warmer months and a major reason why tourists from overseas flock Down Under.

However, Australia also has some of the more treacherous beaches in the world. From rips to large waves and submerged rocks to near-to-shore reefs, there are plenty of potential hazards are associated with going for a swim at the beach. You also need to be careful about sea life such as sharks and stingers, while being sun smart is another essential. Make sure you read this Beach Safety Guide before you next head to the beach.

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Risks of Going to the Beach

One of the biggest risks associated with going to the beach in Australia is drowning. Even more competent swimmers can drown if they don’t follow the signs and warnings. According to the Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2021, there were 294 drowning deaths across Australia’s coastline, inland waterways and pools. Of these, there were 66 drowning deaths at beaches.

While a large number of beaches around Australia are patrolled by lifeguards or lifesavers – especially over the warmer summer months – all drownings cannot be prevented. Aside from water conditions, there are also risks associated with marine life including stingers and sharks. Beach goers who are not sun smart can also get themselves into trouble, with the risk of serious sunburn and even skin cancer.

Warning Flags and Signs

Swim between the flags

If you are planning a trip to the beach and want to go for a swim, always look for a beach that is patrolled by lifeguards or lifesavers and swim between the flags. Lifeguards or lifesavers wear bright red and yellow uniforms and during patrolled hours they will set up flags on the beach. If there are no flags on a beach it means there is no supervision in progress. The water between two red and yellow flags indicates where it is safe to swim and a lifesaving service is operating. Swimming outside of the flags may be dangerous and lifeguards or lifesavers will not be watching you and therefore may not be able to assist in an emergency.

Other flags at the beach

In addition to the red and yellow flags, there are three other flags you may see on beaches around Australia:

  • Red Flag – This flag means the beach is closed and you should not enter the water. This could be for a number of reasons, including dangerous water conditions or even a nearby shark sighting.
  • Black and White Chequered Flag – This flag indicates an area where board riding and surfing is not permitted.
  • Yellow Flag – This flag indicates potential hazards in the water, so be careful if you are going for a swim.

Beach signage

In addition to flags that lifeguards and lifesavers put up on patrolled beaches, many beaches around Australia also have temporary or permanent safety signage. It is important to check these signs and adhere to their warning. Signs you may see include warnings that the water is ‘Unsafe for swimming’, ‘No swimming’ or ‘Swim between the flags’. There are also signs that warn of ‘Strong currents’, ‘Dangerous surf, big waves’, ‘Shallow water not suitable for diving’, ‘Deep water’ and ‘Sudden drop off’. In the northern parts of Australia there are also warning signs for ‘Marine stingers under water’ and ‘Floating marine stingers’.

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Swimming Safely at the Beach

If you’re planning to go for a swim at the beach, there is more to consider than just the warning signs or flags, including:

  • Avoid swimming alone: It is always best to go for a swim with a buddy. That way, if you get into trouble there is someone with you who can call for help in an emergency.
  • Avoid swimming at night: Swimming at the beach at night poses a greater risk than swimming during daylight hours and is not safe. At night, there is decreased visibility which makes it harder to see where the shore is and can make spotting rip currents and shore breaks more difficult. Beaches are also not patrolled by lifeguards or lifesavers at night, meaning if something does go wrong you will find it hard to get help.
  • Don’t swim under the influence of alcohol or drugs: Swimming while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is dangerous behaviour with potentially fatal outcomes. About one in five costal drowning deaths in Australia involve people under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Alcohol and drugs can remove inhibitions and reduce coordination. They can also numb the senses – including sight, sound and touch – causing you to be unsteady and impair reaction time if you do get into trouble.
  • Actively supervise children: Lifeguards are not babysitters. It is your responsibility to actively watch your children at the beach. Actively watching your children means constant visual contact, rather than the occasional glance. Younger children in particular should always be within arm’s reach. Children can get into trouble in the water more easily than adults, especially in strong waves and rips. It can take just 20 seconds for children to drown.
  • Ask for advice: If you are unsure about conditions at a patrolled beach, ask the lifeguards or lifesavers for advice. They are highly trained and very knowledgeable when it comes to beach safety and conditions and will be happy to help.
  • Don’t swim beyond your ability: If you are a weak swimmer, it is unwise to wade out too far from shore. Stick within your swimming capabilities and remain in the more shallow waters where you can still stand up if that is the case. Also beware of swimming in large waves if you are a weak swimmer.
  • Put your hand up if you need help: If you do get into trouble in the water while swimming between the flags at a patrolled beach, try to stay calm, raise your arm in the air and wave it from side to side. This will help catch the attention of the lifeguards or lifesavers on duty, who will be able to come to your assistance. After you have got the attention of a lifeguard or lifesaver, you can conserve your energy by floating on your back and staying calm to remain afloat.

How to Spot a Rip

Rips are one of the most common hazards on Australian beaches and it can be handy to know how to spot one, especially if you are planning to go for a little dip at an unpatrolled beach. Rips can drag you away from the shore and out to sea and it can be impossible to fight against a strong rip – no matter how good a swimmer you are. Rips are complex and can change shape and location quickly, but signs of them include deeper and/or darker water, fewer breaking waves, significant water movement, sandy coloured water which extends beyond the surf zone and debris or seaweed.

If you do get caught in a rip and dragged away from the shore, it is important to stay calm and float to converse energy. If you are at a patrolled beach, raise your arm to attract the attention of lifeguards or lifesavers. If you are a good swimmer you may also be able to escape the rip by swimming parallel to the beach, towards the breaking waves.

Sea Life to Watch Out For

While shark attacks make headlines in the news when they do occur in Australia, they are very rare.

Sharks do not hunt humans for food and in 2021 there were only 12 unprovoked shark bites recorded across Australia, just three of which were fatal. A more common sea life hazard in Australia is marine stingers, which are found in the waters of Queensland beaches, particularly between November and May each year. During these months it is especially important to only swim at patrolled beaches which are supervised by lifeguards or lifesavers. It is recommended that those entering the water in some northern Queensland beaches wear ‘stinger suits’ to reduce the chance of suffering a marine sting. Crocodiles are sometimes found at beaches in the northern parts of Australia.

Being Sun Smart at the Beach

Going to the beach generally means some fun in the sun. But it is not nearly as fun if you suffer serious sunburn, which can contribute to even more serious consequences down the track. In 2022, it was estimated that there would be 17,756 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in Australia and 1,281 deaths would be caused by the skin cancer. Melanoma is consistently the third-most diagnosed cancer in Australia behind prostate cancer and breast cancer. Statistics show that two in three Australians are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70. Australia has some of the highest ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels in the world and they can cause sunburn in as little as 10 minutes. Be sure to protect yourself when you go to the beach using the Five S’s – Slip, Slop, Slap, Slide and Seek. Slip on some clothing, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat, slide on some sunglasses and seek some shade wherever possible.

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