The reason so many people are still drowning in Australia

AUSTRALIANS love bragging about the 12,000 beaches that stretch along our mammoth coastline but forever coupled with that statistic is something much sadder.

Each and every year, especially in the months of December and January, thousands of people find themselves struggling in our nation's waterways.

And each year, hundreds of those people don't make it out alive.

From July 2016 to June 2017 a total of 291 people died in Australia's waterways, according to the National Drowning Report from Royal Life Saving.

In December, five children between 11 and 15 have lost their lives in the water. At least 17 people have drowned on the coast this month alone.

And while some of those deaths were unavoidable tragedies, Surf Life Saving Australia's national coastal risk and safety manager, Shane Daw, said a lot of our country's drownings can be attributed to a number of common misunderstandings.

A grief-stricken man mourns the loss of his friend Ravneet Singh Gill at Duranbah Beach. Picture Mike Batterham
A grief-stricken man mourns the loss of his friend Ravneet Singh Gill at Duranbah Beach. Picture Mike Batterham


If you've ever seen someone pretending to drown on a TV show or movie, you'd no doubt feel pretty confident about spotting the warning signs.

They scream, flail their arms above their head and splash water everywhere.
But Mr Daw said that's a ridiculous misinterpretation.

"A drowning is a very quiet event, there's not all the drama associated with it that you see on the TV," he said.

The fight for survival is often what silences people in the middle of drowning incidents.

"Once you realise you're in trouble, you're fighting for survival so you start swallowing water and panicking. Then, you're submerged very quickly," Mr Daw said.

"Young children simply don't have that mechanism where they're going to be yelling out, they don't have that strength or ability and when they're trying to breathe they start swallowing water and the whole drowning cycle happens."

The speed at which people drown is also something grossly misunderstood.

"Drownings happen in the space of seconds, I'm talking 20 or 30 seconds and someone can lose their life in that small time frame. You could all be singing Happy Birthday and the next second someone's under," Mr Daw said.

"Parents or caregivers often say to us, 'I just turned my back for 20 seconds and the drowning occurred.'

"Vigilance, particularly with young children is essential, if not critical. That's why we say supervise children on, in and around water because while they might not be in the water, you only have to turn around to pick up towel or sunscreen and the next thing they've disappeared."

But it isn't just oceans where tragedy strikes. Pools and inland waterways can be just as deadly.

In November, a four-year-old girl drowned "in a matter of seconds" after she slipped below the surface of a busy public pool.

Despite being surrounded by family and friends, Mia Harrison had already drowned by the time they spotted her motionless body.

Mia Harrison, the four year old who drowned surrounded by family and friends.
Mia Harrison, the four year old who drowned surrounded by family and friends.

Amina Anderson, a five-year-old girl from North Sydney, was one of the lucky ones to narrowly escape drowning.

"We turned around and saw her submerged underwater. When we pulled her out of the water, she wasn't responding, and her chest was making a cracking noise … I thought she was going to die," her mother Tdjanaya Anderson-Rosser told the Sydney Morning Herald .


Earlier this week, revered surf academic Rob Brander, better known as "Dr Rip", hit out at the nationwide "swim between the flags" campaign.

"I think it's lost its effectiveness," the University of NSW professor told the Gold Coast Bulletin .

Dr Brander declared the decades-old campaign "white noise" because only 4 per cent of Australia's beaches are patrolled. His main point - unpatrolled beaches are where most drownings happen where swimmers are dealing with other hazardous conditions.

"It's a controversial statement but I think it's a discussion we need to have," he said.

"We know people aren't swimming between them and there are so many beaches that are unpatrolled and they're easy to get to.

"You can't stop people from swimming and people don't read signs, and you've got to have the mindset of beachgoers."

SLSA's 50,000 patrolling members perform over 10,000 rescues year in, year out but of course - their eyes can't be everywhere.

"It's a real problem," SLSA President Graham Ford told earlier. "We try and get the message out there but we can only do so much.

"The message is clear. The ocean is a dangerous environment, we know that. Reduce your risk by being between the flags."

Lifeguards work on a 15-year-old boy who got into trouble off South Australia’s Glenelg Beach. He didn’t make it. Picture: Russell Millard
Lifeguards work on a 15-year-old boy who got into trouble off South Australia’s Glenelg Beach. He didn’t make it. Picture: Russell Millard


While it's important to swim between the flags, Dr Brander said it's even more important to know about rips - the biggest killers at Australian beaches.

Each summer, we're inundated with warnings about rips. How to spot them, how to escape if we get stuck in them and how to avoid them completely.

But just because it's a constant conversation we're having, doesn't mean Aussies have any idea about the dangerous currents - a statement that is well and truly supported by statistics.

Mr Daw and his team at SLSA have conducted countless experiments testing people's knowledge of rips, showing them photos or taking them down to the beach to point out obvious currents, and what they found was concerning.

Two in three Aussies who say they know how to spot a rip current, actually can't.

"That's a big issue we have here," Mr Daw said. "Aussies are a coastal loving community.

"We love our beaches and I think there's always been a bit of awareness around rip currents but two out of three people have no idea," he added.

Another myth a lot of Aussies seem to believe is that most people dying in our waterways are foreign, often inexperienced swimmers when in reality, 80 per cent of drowning fatalities are Australians. The bulk of people who get into trouble in the water are males aged between 15 and 36 years of age who are reasonable swimmers.

"We're really trying to bust a lot of those myths because a lot of Aussies seem to believe we're all a little bulletproof but not having the ability or failing to recognise hazards can be deadly," Mr Daw said.

Another myth SLSA is trying to bust is the assumption we're safe just off the shore - the truth is we aren't.

It's that seemingly calm water just past the shoreline. Outside the red and yellow flags where you're just in up to your knees or waist, feet firmly planted on the sand and with the safety of the shore in easy reach.

"People go into water that looks calm near the shore, but that's the most dangerous area and where the rip currents are," Surf Life Saving Australia president Graham Ford told

"Wading in itself can be difficult because a lot of beaches have these gutters. They have a lot of movement in the water, with waves bringing water in and out. That water has to escape, which is what can sometimes be a rip, even in knee-deep water."


While rip currents can vary greatly depending on their location and surf conditions, the SLSA said there's a few common things swimmers can look for.

1. Deeper, darker-coloured water

2. Fewer breaking waves

3. A rippled appearance, surrounded by smoother water

4. Debris floating seaward

5. Foamy or discoloured sandy water extending beyond the surf zone

"Rip currents may not necessarily show all five signs at once, and may have only one or two of these characteristics. The best way to avoid a rip current is to swim at a patrolled beach between the red and yellow flags," Mr Daw said.

How to escape a rip current.
How to escape a rip current.
News Corp Australia

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