30 December 2022

Record drownings prompt plea from lifesavers as temperatures rise

| James Coleman
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Barlings Beach, one of 83 beaches in the Eurobodalla Shire, only eight of which are patrolled. Photo: Kim Treasure.

After a record year of drownings, volunteer lifesavers on the South Coast are begging holiday beachgoers to take extra care this summer.

The period between December 2021 and February 2022 claimed the record for the most coastal and ocean drowning deaths over any summer, with 25 fatalities recorded in NSW.

This is despite the higher than usual rainfall from La Niña and reduced beach attendances.

Beaches might look extra inviting when balmy weather finally rolls in after weeks of cooler temperatures but, according to Far South Coast Lifesaving director Cheryl McCarthy, looks can be deceptive.

“We’ve seen a definite increase in fatalities right across the state,” she says.

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The Far South Coast alone saw five lives lost last year, all of them at unpatrolled beaches.

“Part of that may be because we had more people coming to our beaches last year, after COVID impacted visitor numbers.”

Data from the 2022 NSW Coastal Safety Report, released in September as a reflection of the 12 months from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022, show men are heavily overrepresented in drowning statistics, making up 87 per cent of all recorded fatalities.

During the documented period, 55 coastal drownings were recorded – a record high that was up almost 30 per cent on the 10-year average.

Rip currents remain the biggest problem for the South Coast’s lifesavers, with a lot of people rescued from them every year.

“I think there’s an assumption out there that you’ll only get caught in a rip if you’re swimming, but we see a lot of young ones wading knee or waist high when they’re taken off their feet by rips,” Cheryl says.

President Award - Cheryl McCarthy, Bermagui SLSC. Photo: Supplied.

Cheryl McCarthy, from the Bermagui Surf Life Saving Club, was awarded the President’s Medal in the Awards of Excellence. Photo: SLSC.

It’s estimated that 3.7 million Australian adults have been unintentionally caught in a rip, ranging from those that form in the same place to those that come up suddenly depending on the swell. On average, 26 people drown in rips every year.

“One in three Australian adults do not know how to identify a rip current,” Cheryl says.

“We see people set up on the beach right in front of the section of water that appears to be the calmest but the darker spot where there are no waves is typically where the water is being sucked out to sea rapidly. White is right, green is mean, as I was always told as a kid.”

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Last summer was also a busy time for sharks, as the La Niña weather patterns were thought to drag warmer waters closer to Australia’s east coast, bringing schools of fish with them. But given Surf Life Saving NSW has started to use drones to monitor for sharks across 50 key locations, Cheryl says more sightings may not translate to more sharks.

“Every summer we have sharks spotted at different beaches on the Far South Coast and we get people out of the water for half an hour or so as the sharks move on,” she says.

“But we haven’t had a marked increase in the number of spotted sharks or the number of beach closures.”

Another particular challenge, especially over the holiday season, is throwing drinks into the mix.

“We get that people love to get out and have a celebration with friends and family, but alcohol and surf just don’t mix.”

Surf lifesaver in action

Surf lifesavers are preparing for a busy summer season. Photo: SLS NSW.

Lifesavers will be patrolling eight of the beaches in the Eurobodalla Shire, including Narooma Surf Beach, Dalmeny Beach, Tuross Head Main Beach, Moruya South Head Beach, Moruya North Beach (near breakwall), Broulee South Beach, Malua Bay Beach and Surf Beach. Those in the Bega Valley Shire include Horseshoe Bay in Bermagui, Tathra Beach, Pambula Beach, Aslings Beach in Eden, Camel Rock Beach, Short Point Beach, Bar Beach, and Main Beach in Merimbula.

“If you need help, come and say hi,” Cheryl says.

“The teams are always happy to have a chat and answer your questions.”

The free Beachsafe App is also available for accessing the latest information about every Australian beach on the go. This provides detailed information about patrol status, facilities and weather, swell and tide hazards.

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