Alarming new statistics have shined a light on the confronting death toll on Australian beaches over the summer with the nation experiencing a deadlier-than-usual season, with lifeguard rescues also ramping up.
Despite cooler weather now arriving, "the risk is not over" for beachgoers Professor Rob Brander, a beach safety expert told Yahoo News Australia, pointing to a hidden danger in our oceans that has been on the rise recently – and we're likely to see life-threatening conditions continue, he says.
This summer, NSW recorded 28 coastal drowning deaths, which is the highest number of coastal drowning deaths ever recorded over the summer period. That figure is 55 per cent above the state's 10-year average, statistics from Surf Life Saving Australia show.
But this number could have been much higher if not for the 3,052 rescues performed by SLSNSW services over the summer, Dr Jaz Lawes from Surf Life Saving Australia told Yahoo. "Each one of these rescues represents a near miss, many of which also represents a life saved," she said. Victoria and Queensland also reported higher than normal figures.
Drownings caused by increased rip currents as sand shifts around
Addressing the statistics, Professor Brander, from UNSW's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, explained that more drownings on our beaches were likely due to an increased number of rip currents, caused by smaller waves.
"We’ve just come out of these La Nina phases where you tend to get a lot of storms that take sand away from the beach, and when it settles down, as it did in the summer, you tend to get that sand come back. That’s when a rip occurs," he said.
Good weather throughout the season likely attracted more swimmers to our beaches with Prof Brander saying he's never seen the beaches as busy as he did this summer. Smaller waves made the ocean "more inviting" but unfortunately meant more rips.
"We finally got a decent summer and also people aren't travelling overseas as much, so we're still hitting the beach after a few years of Covid restrictions," he said. "That kind of links with why we had so many drownings at unpatrolled beaches because there were lots of rip currents and no lifeguards".
Challenging conditions expected to stick around
Randwick Council lifeguard Brad Rope told the Daily Telegraph it had been a difficult season on busy eastern Sydney beaches, including Coogee and Maroubra. On average, more than five rescues took place each day this summer across Sydney's east with a total of 510 rescues.
"It has been the summer of swell and lifeguards up and down the coast are all saying the same thing," he said. "[Conditions] have proven treacherous for inexperienced swimmers and it has definitely kept all the lifeguards on our toes throughout the entire summer."
Despite being autumn, Prof Brander expects these challenging conditions will remain as he warns beachgoers to be careful.
"Even though people think summer is over, the water is still really warm and we've [usually] got really good swimming conditions right through Easter and a little bit beyond, so the risk isn't over," he said.
"I think these statistics that came out for the summer are a reminder that beaches are still pretty risky, especially unpatrolled beaches, because almost all those drownings were at unpatrolled beaches.
'Dark gaps': How to spot a rip
If you are swimming on unpatrolled beaches he said you "really want to be thinking about rip currents" so "take a few minutes to look around" before jumping in the water.
"You're looking for these dark gaps, these areas where there are not many waves breaking," he explained.
"It often looks like the rips look like the safest place to swim because there are not many waves breaking there, but the opposite is true."
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