Calls for change to Aussie tourist spot after 21 deaths: 'No coming back'

A new report highlights the dangers of the popular Queensland swimming spot and advises action needed to mitigate the risks of more lives being lost.

It's a picturesque swimming hole surrounded by lush rainforest, but tourists travelling to Babinda Boulders, near Cairns, are being warned about the deadly risks of visiting.

So far, there have been 21 deaths at the Far North Queensland site, three since April 2020, and Cairns councillor Brett Moller said more has to be done to prevent another tragedy.

The issue, he says, is people disregarding warning signs already in place, alerting visitors of 'no go zones' and dangerous swimming spots. Despite existing safety measures, swimmers still find themselves in sections known as The Chute, The Washing Machine and Devil's Pool, where swimming is prohibited.

"In all circumstances, the message is that if you slip, if you fall, if you enter that water you’ll be a recovery not a rescue, because that’s how dangerous it is," he told Yahoo News Australia.

Visitors to Babinda Boulders standing on rock.
Visitors to Babinda Boulders are ignoring safety warnings advising of significant risk in some areas. Source: Instagram

Recent deaths call for safety audit of Babinda Boulders

In December 2021, police located the body of a 19-year-old woman who had slipped into the water at Devil's Pool. Another woman, 18-year-old Madison Tam, died at the same spot in April 2020. That same year a Brisbane man, identified as 37-year-old Shanon Hoffman, lost his life — they'd all been swimming in the restricted area.

The deaths prompted calls for another safety audit, led by Mr Moller. A report released last week found there is a "significant problem" with young people (aged 18-34) "intentionally entering" the no-go zone "despite warnings".

The report identified five recommendations that could prevent further tragedies in the area, including improvements to signage, visitor engagement and education, which will roll out immediately if approved. But Mr Moller has warned "safety first and foremost is an individual responsibility".

Man sitting on rock at Devil's Pool in Babinda Boulders, near Cairns.
There have been three deaths at Devil's Pool in Babinda Boulders, near Cairns, since April 2020. Source: Instagram

Reports reveal 'confronting' danger of popular hotspot

Last year, Council conducted a survey where visitors to the Boulders were asked to rate which part was the most dangerous — The Chute, Devil’s Pool and The Washing Machine. Visitors perceived 'The Chute' to be the lowest risk area, despite it being the deadliest, which highlighted a major problem.

More than half of all recorded deaths in The Boulders happened at 'The Chute', Cairns Regional Council noted. This particular spot has an appearance of a small stream, running through a narrow rock formation into a pool at the bottom, but underneath lies a 10m deep crevice — it's here people can get trapped and die.

Graphics showing person swimming in The Chute at Babinda Boulders.
These graphics show the potential dangers of swimming in The Chute, in Babinda Boulders. Source: Cairns Regional Council

Graphic diagrams presented by the council show the "confronting" reality of what happens to a person who falls into 'The Chute'. "It pulls you down, it doesn’t push you along. Under that water are cavities and caves where you get trapped and there’s no coming back," Mr Moller explained to Yahoo News.

The council shared one image on Facebook last week and already "people are now understanding the severity of that very stretch of waters" Mr Moller said. "It puts a clear understanding into the minds of those that visit of the dangers that are present," he added.

Map showing The Chute, Devil's Pool and the Washing Machine in Babinda Boulders.
People are banned from swimming at The Chute, Devil's Pool and the Washing Machine sections of Babinda Boulders. Source: Cairns Regional Council

Social media to blame for risky photo opportunities

The report issued by the council states the danger in this stretch of creek is "significant" and "the potential for death once in the Chute is extremely high". Mr Moller said "there's a clear misunderstanding and perception of the risk," and he along with others is trying to understand the reasons why.

He suspects social media is to blame with hundreds of images drawing people to the area. Photos shared on Instagram show visitors jumping fences and ignoring signs just to get a photo on the dangerous rocks. Mr Moller warned doing so puts their life at risk, but also the life of SES workers.

"It’s not just about you but it’s about the rescuers who have to put themselves in precarious and dangerous situations to rescue, or more likely recover you," he said. "It’s the impact on your family, your loved ones and the community because the community does feel the losses of these tragedies."

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