Australian Beach Rips: Much More Deadly Than Man-Eating Sharks

December 19, 2017 Updated: December 19, 2017

As Australia’s summer temperatures rise, so do the number of drownings on the sunburnt nation’s picturesque beaches. According to Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA), four children aged 11 to 15 years lost their lives to drowning on Aussie beaches since Dec.6. A total of nine deaths in December have been due to coastal drowning.

Among the main culprit behind these deaths are rip currents, which according to the SLSA are the number one hazard on Australia’s beaches.

For Rob Brander, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales, the lack of attention paid to such drowning cases in the country makes little sense.

“Can you imagine the response if five people had been killed by sharks over the same period? No doubt the ensuing outcry would result in even more debate and financial resources invested in a problem that typically results in only one human fatality each year in Australia,” Brander wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Brander says that around 20 people – many of them from overseas – die per year in the ocean due to rip currents. But the deaths are avoidable with better education and less complacency, says Brander.

“The trauma experienced by victims’ families and all those involved in these drownings is extreme and no different to fatal shark attacks. Yet millions of dollars have been devoted to the shark problem,” he wrote, referring to recent findings from an Australian senate inquiry into shark mitigation and deterrent measures.

Earlier this year, the senate inquiry was set up to investigate shark attacks and look into how they can be lessened. After ten public hearings, the senate committee’s report made suggestions that more money be spent on the issue while also criticizing the media’s sensationalizing of the shark menace.

Among the money spent so far is AU$16 million (US$12.3 million) by the New South Wales state government on its shark management strategy which includes the use of drones to detect sharks near beaches.

The senate inquiry was criticized for being the result of media induced public hysteria and overreaction.

Brander believes spending more money on sharks is ineffective and wasteful. He said more lifeguard services would surely help, but lifeguards can’t be everywhere all the time.

“Devoting more financial resources to getting beach safety education into all schools needs to happen,” he said.

“The federal government should make it mandatory that beach safety information is shown on planes and made available in airports to all incoming passengers. It’s not hard to do and certainly doesn’t cost millions,” he wrote.

Mostly Young Men

Based on 2004–2016 figures, 86 percent of people who died in rips were male and the average age of those killed was 35 years of age.

Shane Daw from SLSA said young men aged 15-39 years are most likely to get caught and die in rips.

“All too often, young men have an attitude of over-confidence and enter the surf before checking to the ocean conditions, sadly, that overconfidence can prove deadly,” Daw said in a statement.

“They get into trouble because they either haven’t checked for rips or can’t correctly identify a rip, or swim at unpatrolled locations.”

SLSA research findings published in October found that two out of three people who think they can identify a rip current, can’t. The research also found that one in four Australians, or 4.2 million individuals, aged 16-69 have been caught in a rip current unintentionally at least once in their lives.

Last year, Surf Life Saving services in Australia were involved in more than 10,000 rescues and nearly 4 million preventative actions. That equates to 30 rescues a day and 900 preventative actions each hour, said SLSA.

Fatal shark attacks are not considered frequent occurrences in Australia. This year, there has been one fatal unprovoked shark attack.

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