Beach 'blackspot' where six people drowned in two weeks serves as 'tragic reminder'

The Bass Coast is known for its picturesque beaches, but it's also becoming known for a much darker reason.

Activists are calling for an immediate government inquiry into the skyrocketing rate of deaths along beaches in an established "national blackspot" known for its "dangerous currents and rips", after a staggering six people drowned in the region in under two weeks.

The Bass Coast, in Victoria's southeast, is known for its pristine shorelines and picturesque beaches, but it's also becoming infamous for a more sinister reason — the soaring rate of swimmers dying in the ocean.

Between Friday, January 12 and Wednesday, January 24, six people drowned at beaches under the Bass Coast Shire LGA in the space of just 13 days. While the figure is steep, it comes after years of what activists have said are similar, preventable drownings.

A beach on the Bass Coast.
A total of six people have died in rough surf along the Bass Coast in the space of just under two weeks. Source: Instagram / Bass Coast Surf Academy.

Locals say recommendations haven't been implemented

The deadly strip hasn't gone unnoticed by authorities, with the 2019 "Bass Coast Shire Coastal Risk Assessment" conducted by Surf Life Saving Victoria (LSV) recommending a raft of changes, though locals say they haven't been implemented and exhaustive attempts to review the report — which hasn't been made public — have not been successful.

One such recommendation that was released however cited the need for increased signage along shorelines, warning beachgoers of the risks.

Poor signage could contribute to increased drownings

“One key risk treatment strategy proposed for all sites is signage, and this report strongly recommends a Shire-wide uniform signage strategy," the report stated. "Used on public land specific to aquatic recreation drowning and injury event minimisation; it should be implemented in a coordinated and consistent manner.”

Beach safety signs on the Bass Coast. One cautions beachgoers over dogs, while warnings about rough surf are a fraction of the size. Source: Sentinel-Times.
Surf Life Saving Victoria say better signage is needed at hazardous spots, but recent pictures show many are in a state of disrepair. Source: Sentinel-Times.

Though, images taken at beaches in the shire — of which there are over two dozen between Phillip Island, Cape Patterson, Inverloch and Wonthaggi — show that signs remains lacklustre, many in states of decay, fallen from their posts or even absent altogether. The majority of these beaches are also unpatrolled.

All deaths at unpatrolled beaches

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, a LSV spokesperson said every single death in the two-week timespan occurred at a beach not monitored by lifeguards, including four people from one group drowning in one afternoon in the ocean off Newhaven on Phillip Island.

"The Bass Coast Shire has been recognised as a national blackspot in terms of coastal drowning risk," the spokesperson said.

"In addition to its residential population, it is also popular among day and overnight visitors. The recent drownings have all occurred at unpatrolled locations that are popular with surfers, but known for their dangerous currents and rips in an exposed stretch of coastline."

20 drownings in Victoria since December

Asked whether the deaths can be attributed to a spike in beach activity or surges in people to the area, the authority said it wasn't aware "of any significant increase in tourism or unusually rough surf in the region".

The spokesperson did however say the figures are "concerning" and that overall in the state, drownings have spiked this summer.

"There have been 20 fatal drowning incidents in Victoria from December 1, 2023, to January 30, 2024," the spokesperson said. "This is three more than the five-year average (from 1 December 2018 to 30 January 2023) — that is 18 per cent higher. This is two more than the same period last year... 11 per cent higher."

The drownings in the shire make up an incredible 30 per cent of the state's total during the summer so far.

Bass Coast Shire weighs in

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Mayor of Bass Coast Shire Council Clare Le Serve urged people not to swim at beaches if they're "unsure of the conditions".

"Our community is deeply saddened and affected by the drownings in our region. Whilst we live in a beautiful region surrounded by beaches; this is sadly a tragic reminder of how dangerous the ocean can be," Le Serve told Yahoo.

"We extend our thoughts and sincerest thanks to the first responders and other beachgoers who tried to save these victims in a major multi-agency operation.

Pictured here is Phillip Island. Source: Visit Phillip Island.
30 per cent of Victoria's drownings this summer have occurred in the Bass Coast region. Source: Visit Phillip Island.

"As always, we encourage all beach users to assess the environment and take precautions to prevent tragedy by swimming on patrolled beaches, checking signs and swimming between the flags. If you are unsure about conditions on a beach; do not swim there. "

Le Serve added that "council will continue to consult and work closely with experts" and will "consider all advice and ideas that may make our beaches safer".

"Beach signage is just one important component of beach safety education," she said.

Yahoo News questioned the Shire Council over accusations that recommendations included in the Bass Coast Shire Coastal Risk Assessment had not been implemented. A spokeswoman said she would look into the matter.

Local's plea

Local resident Graham Jolly called for more transparency from council when it came to implementing the recommendations from LSV's report, and urged them to immediately fix inadequate signage at the entrances to “high hazard” beaches.

"Together with the impact on these poor families, this has had a profound impact on the emergency services people who responded and on the broader community of Phillip Island and Bass Coast," Jolly told the Sentinel-Times.

"The community is tremendously saddened by what has occurred and they want action. What have the authorities done about implementing the recommendations in this report, and why hasn’t the full report been released, five years on?"

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