All 54 drownings in Australia last summer occurred at locations not patrolled by professional lifeguards or volunteers.
“People want to be where they see on social media: they are looking for that perfect photo, wanting to be on that isolated sandy beach,” Weir said.
“Over summer I’ve seen a number of articles showing the ‘top 10 beaches to visit’, but a number were unpatrolled. We are pushing people to go to these beautiful places, but we need to consider the water risks.”
Weir said Surf Life Saving had been attempting to bolster its presence in unpatrolled locations with government investment in drone technology and rescue watercraft.
But he said there was also a need for better coastal information campaigns, suggesting Airbnbs and other holiday accommodation in areas near unpatrolled beaches could provide information about local conditions.
The organisation is currently working on a research project with UNSW focused on ways to improve community awareness of rips in the surf. Previous research has found most Australians cannot identify a rip, and two in three people who think they can get it wrong.
UNSW injury prevention researcher Dr Amy Peden agreed the study’s results were not surprising.
“There is a sad trend of adults drowning when going in to rescue a loved one, and that does often happen at unpatrolled beaches,” she said.
She said the idea of involving coastal accommodation providers in water safety messaging was a good one, but it had already been tried in various iterations before at holiday parks and camping ground.
Peden said the “swim between the flags” message needed to be much more nuanced, suggesting messages which instead focused on floating, not panicking, if a person becomes stuck in a rip and encouraging families to pack a pool noodle when headed to the beach to attempt a non-contact rescue if required and to call Triple Zero if possible when attempting a rescue.
Asked about the possibility of a new national safety campaign, a spokesperson for federal Sports Minister Anika Wells said the federal government was providing $43.9 million over four years from 2021-22 through its Water and Snow Safety Program (WSSP) to support safety organisations.
“The WSSP and Surf Life Saving Australia training activities are currently being reviewed. The review is due to be completed in early 2024 and will make recommendations on future policy direction,” they added.
Since the start of this summer, there have been 33 coastal drowning deaths, compared to 26 by this time in the 2023 season.
There have been 61 drowning deaths overall this summer and Surf Life Saving has completed more than 2900 rescues on the nation’s beaches.
The family of Seti Tuaopepe, 35, who drowned while paddleboarding at the new Penrith Beach in Sydney’s west in December, said the father of five had been saving his children before his death.
On January 6, a father died in front of his eight-year-old son at Ettalong Beach on the NSW Central Coast. Three days earlier, a 50-year-old woman swimming with young family members died at Park Beach in Coffs Harbour after the group became caught in a rip.
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