Australian beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, but our waters are also some of the most dangerous. And if sharks and jellyfish have popped into mind, think again: rip currents (rips) are the biggest threat to swimmers in our seasi. But despite the danger that rips present to swimmers, many people are under-informed about what they are and why they're dangerous. With one in four beach drownings attributed to rip currentsii, it's important to change our attitude towards rip currents and ocean swimming.
In 2001, Dr Rob 'Rip' Brander - coastal geomorphologist and senior lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of NSWiii - started an educational program called Science of the Surf (SOS), which is designed to teach the general public about how beaches, waves and currents workiv. With twenty years of beach and surf knowledgeiv, Brander's philosophy is that aside from knowing how to avoid beach dangers, it's equally important to understand how these natural occurrences work in order to stay safe.
Understanding rip currents
A rip current (or rip) is a strong and fast flowing current of water that usually starts near the shoreline and flows away from the beachv. They flow out past the breaking waves and they tend to flow in deep channels between shallower sand bars - Dr Brander recommends that you think of them like 'rivers of the sea'vi. You cannot see a rip as such, but you can see the indicators of a rip current's presence.
Signs of a rip include deeper and darker waters near to shore, and where there are fewer waves breakingvii. As these waters in a rip appear calm, the beginning of a rip tends to look just like the perfect place for swimming - but it's important that you're not deceivedi. Rip currents flow fastest around low tide and are particularly hazardous in the 3 hour windows before and after the daily maximum low tidei.
Despite typical ideas about rip currents, if you become caught up in a rip, you will not be dragged underwaterviii. This is just one misconception of rip tides. To learn more about rip currents, visit the SOS website - there are a range of beach safety fact sheets available for download and videos that describe what rip currents are. These resources will also teach you how to spot a rip and what to do if caught in one.
If you happen to be caught in a rip, the first thing to do is remain calm and try not to swim against the current. Strong swimmers are advised to swim parallel to the beach. Swimming towards the breaking waves can help assist you back to shoreix. If you are unable to reach shore, conserve your energy by staying afloat on your back and raise your arm to draw attention to yourselfix.
It's also important to abide by the following guidelines in swimming at the beach:
- Always swim between the red and yellow flags
- Read safety signs before heading out onto the beach
- Obey instructions from surf lifesavers and lifeguards
Getting involved in safety campaigns such as the Rip Current Awareness Day (RCAD) is also a great way of sharing beach safety knowledge with your friends and family. On this day, lifesavers across Australia release fluoro dye into the surf of 100 beaches to help swimmers and onlookers identify rip current formationsx.
The rip current survivor survey
Currently, the University of NSW and Surf Life Saving Australia are conducting a research project - rip current survivor survey - into the rip current hazards on beaches. Introduced by Brander, the aim of the study is to learn from the experiences of people who have been caught in rip currents and to gain insight into how to improve and develop future rip current and beach safety education programs. If you have ever been caught in a rip, you can take the online survey to help the researchers educate others about rip currents and how to survive them.
i ripcurrents.com.au, 2009, Why are rip currents dangerous?, http://www.ripcurrents.com.au/About-Rip-Currents/Why-are-Rip-Currents-dangerous.aspx
ii Surf Life Saving, 2011, Surf Life Saving and UNSW Rip Current Survivor Survey, http://sls.com.au/content/surf-life-saving-and-unsw-rip-current-survivor-survey
iii Australian Museum, 2012, Ripper of an idea reduces surf drownings, http://eureka.australianmuseum.net.au/1C8C4080-94C4-11E1-8A69005056B06558?DISPLAYENTRY=true
iv Science of the Surf, 2010-11, About SoS, http://www.royallifesaving.com.au/schools/out-and-about/locations/inland-waterways
vripcurrents.com.au, 2009, What is a rip current?, http://www.ripcurrents.com.au/About-Rip-Currents/What-is-a-Rip-Current.aspx
vi Science of the Surf, 2007, SOS Fact Sheet: RIP CURRENTS, http://www.scienceofthesurf.com/downloads/SOSFact_Sheet_Rip.pdf
vii ripcurrents.com.au, 2009, Summary Rip Current Safety Tips, http://www.ripcurrents.com.au/
viii Science of the Surf, 2007, SOS Fact Sheet: MYTHS, http://www.scienceofthesurf.com/downloads/SOSFact_Sheet_Myths.pdf
ix ripcurrents.com.au, 2009, What to do in a rip current?, http://www.ripcurrents.com.au/Rip-Currents-Safety/What-to-do-in-a-Rip-Current.aspx
x Surf Life Saving , 2012, Surf Lifesavers Turn the Spotlight onto Rip Currents this Weekend, http://sls.com.au/content/surf-lifesavers-turn-spotlight-rip-currents-weekend