Visiting Oz? Here's how to avoid looking like a prawn!

Beach safety is quite straightforward but if you don't know the rules you may find yourself in some very dangerous situations.

Australia is renowned for its beaches; ultra white sand, crystal clear water - paradise right? Wrong! Like many things in Australia it may look benign but it can be a life threatening experience unless you follow some simple rules.

Beach Safety in Australia 

Surf Lifesaving Flags

First and foremost it is best to swim at patrolled beaches. Travelling around Australia you will find that many beaches are not patrolled, often these are long stretches of rugged and dangerous coastline that are best enjoyed from the sand for very good reason, if you get into trouble at these beaches, you are on your own.

At patrolled beaches the first thing to do is pay attention to any signage, particularly if the signs say the beach is closed. This is not because the lifesavers are on strike, it's because the beach is too dangerous to swim at.

If the beach is open the safest place to swim is between the red and yellow flags. The flags are placed at the safest places to swim and are for swimmers only. If you are surfing it is not good form to do it between the flags (lifeguards may confiscate your board).

Bondi Beach, Sydney

In summer patrolled beaches, particularly tourist Mecca's like Bondi and Manly will be positively heaving with people, on a busy day Bondi Beach can have over 50,000 people on it.

Lifesavers and Lifeguards are best able to keep the beaches safe if you follow their directions. They will use whistles, sirens hand signals and verbal directions to keep beach-goers safe.

Don't swim alone, particularly if you are not a strong swimmer. Even if you are a strong swimmer know your limitations, the surf can be very rough and conditions can change quickly.

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How can I spot a rip?

Beware of strong currents

Many of Australia's beaches have rips, these are powerful currents of water that can drag you along and out to sea.

If you find yourself caught in a rip, do not panic (easier said than done). A rip is a narrow current that flows against the waves back out to sea, so if you swim parallel to the beach just a few metres you can often swim out of it.

You can also float and go with the rip, because they often disperse just beyond the breakers, as long as you are a good swimmer to then get yourself back to shore.

If you are in trouble and need help from the Lifesavers raise one arm up in the air.

Shallow water danger

Kids on a beach

Children should always be supervised when playing, even on the shoreline and they should always be accompanied in the water by an adult who can swim.

Don't dive into water, even if it looks deep enough. Sandbars can occur anywhere, and they're hard to spot. Lifeguards deal with almost as many spinal injuries as drownings.

Deadly Stingers and Jellyfish

Blue-ringed octopus

Another danger in shallow water and along the waters edge are stingers! It should come as no surprise to hear that Australia is home to a large range of lethal and non-lethal marine stingers! Before you totally re-think your Aussie Beach Holiday, stingers are usually pretty easy to avoid and spot.

The lethal ones can cause a beach to be closed, in fact throughout Far North Queensland some beaches are closed during the stinger season from November to March, yet another good reason to read signs on beaches.

Lethal stingers include Irukandji, Box Jellyfish and the blue-ringed octopus. To treat these stings rinse the affected area with vinegar or salt water not freshwater or urine (yes, you read that correctly) as some people may suggest, and pick off any tentacles that have stuck to the skin. Try not to rub the affected area and seek out a lifesaver or lifeguard for assistance.

If you are at an unpatrolled beach and have been stung by anything you think may be lethal dial 000 for emergency assistance. Further treatments will depend on what kind of stinger you have been attacked by.

Bluebottles and other non-lethal stingers


Non lethal but painful nonetheless are Bluebottles, a small jellyfish which really is bright blue (makes them easy to spot).

You will know if and when Bluebottles are present at a beach as some washed up along the shoreline.Some people, especially children, find the sting painful, others say it causes a mild itch.

The best treatment is hot water (as hot as you can stand), the next best treatment is ice. Again, pick off any tentacles, don't rub with sand, and don't use vinegar.

The pain goes away after 15-30 minutes, and the red welt will disappear in a day or two. 

Larger sea creatures – much larger!

White pointer shark

Then there are the larger, potentially deadly sea creatures - sharks. There were 16 shark attacks in 2010, but only 2 were fatal. The USA had 2 deaths, but 40 separate attacks, so stop picking on Australia! (Okay, they have a population of 250 million and Australia just 22 million - not good odds.)

But go to our piece on sharks and croc's to get some tips on avoiding these nasty creatures.

Beach and sun safety


The dangerous fun at Aussie beaches doesn't end there, before you even enter the water you are faced with extreme danger from the sun.

Sun protection is a very serious matter in Australia, as the Ultra Violet (UV) is very high at all times of the year. Thank the great big hole in the ozone layer above Australia for this! The UV exposure is at its greatest between 10am and 3pm so it's best to totally avoid skin exposure to the sun between these times, particularly children.

The key to being sun-safe in Australia is Slip, Slop, Slap. This is the recommendation from The Australian Cancer Council: Slip on clothing that covers arms and legs; slap on a hat; slop on sunscreen; seek shade and an extra one from us - slide on sunglasses.

Try to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF30 and reapply it regularly, particularly after swimming or sweating. Wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your face, head and eyes and drink water regularly to prevent dehydration. Sunburn and sunstroke are no fun and severe dehydration will land you in hospital on a saline drip!

So, to avoid looking like a total tourist - don't get sun-burnt and swim between the flags!

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