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Beach safety

10-minute read

The beach is one of Australia’s most recognisable and enjoyable features. Here is to enjoy a day at the beach safely and help prevent accidents or injury.

To make sure you are safe when swimming at the beach:

  • Always swim between the red and yellow flags on patrolled beaches.
  • Look for signs at the entrance to the beach for local information.
  • Never swim alone, always swim with someone else.
  • Never swim under the influence of alcohol or after a big meal.

If you get into trouble, conserve your energy by floating on your back and staying calm. This will ensure you have the energy to remain afloat until assistance arrives.

Who are lifeguards and lifesavers?

Lifeguards and lifesavers are people who supervise beachgoers and provide advice about beach conditions.

You should note what uniform your lifesaving service is wearing when you go to the beach so you know what to look for in an emergency.

What do the beach safety flags mean?

Every beach has permanent and occasional hazards that you will need to look out for. Lifesaving services use safety flags to help identify these hazards and to indicate supervised areas.

  • Red and yellow flags show the supervised area of the beach that a lifesaving service is operating. The absence of red and yellow flags indicates there is no supervision. NO FLAGS = NO SWIM.
  • A red flag indicates that the beach is closed and you should not enter the water.
  • A black and white chequered flag indicates the area where board riding and surfing is not permitted.

Beach safety flags

Flag images: Courtesy of Surf Lifesaving Association

RED & YELLOW: Area operated by a lifesaving service

RED: Beach is closed - you should not enter the water

BLACK& WHITE: Board riding and surfing is not permitted

YELLOW: Potential hazards in the water

What do the beach safety signs mean?

Beach safety signs can be different shapes and colours. They tell you about the beach and conditions.

  • Warning signs are diamond-shaped and yellow and black. They warn you about hazards at the beach such as ‘unexpected large waves’ or ‘swimming not advised’.
  • Regulatory signs are a red circle with a diagonal line through a black image. They are used to inform you about prohibited activities at that beach such as ‘no swimming’ or ‘surfboard riding between flags prohibited’.
  • Information signs are square shaped and blue and white. They are used to provide information about features at that beach such as ‘patrolled beach’ or ‘surfboard riding’.
  • Safety signs are square-shaped and green and white. They are used to indicate a safety provision nearby or to provide safety advice such as ‘emergency telephone’, ‘first aid’ or ‘lifesaving equipment’.

Beach safety signs

Beach safety sign images: Courtesy of Surf Lifesaving Association

Large waves

No swimming

Patrolled beach

First aid

Do I need to worry about rip currents?

Rip currents (sometimes called a 'rip') are the number one hazard on Australian beaches and cause on average 19 deaths every year. These are strong currents beginning around the shore that run away from the beach. Being caught in one may feel like you are in a flowing/moving river. Not all rip currents flow directly out to sea. Some may run parallel to the beach before ultimately heading out to sea.

If you find yourself in a rip current, follow these steps:

  • Do not panic.
  • Raise an arm and call out for help, you may be rescued.
  • Float with the current, it may return you to a shallow sandbank.
  • Swim parallel to the beach or towards the breaking waves until you escape the rip current.

What should I know about waves and a large surf?

While waves are one of the most enjoyable features of the beach and ocean, they are affected by different conditions.

Plunging/dumping waves break suddenly and can knock you over and throw you to the bottom with great force. These waves usually occur at low tide where sandbanks are shallow. They can cause injuries to swimmers, particularly spinal and head injuries, so you should never try and bodysurf on one of these waves. If in doubt, ask a lifesaver or lifeguard for safety advice.

Spilling waves have white water tumbling down the face of the wave. They usually have less force and are the safest for body surfing. They are found in sheltered bays where the sea floor slopes gradually, and near sandbanks at high tide.

Surging waves may never actually break as they approach the water’s edge because the water below them is very deep. These waves occur in rocky areas around cliff faces and where the beach drops off quickly. They can be very dangerous because they can knock swimmers over and drag them back into deep water.

Large surf should only be attempted by experienced swimmers, and only between the red and yellow flags. Swimmers should also avoid creek and river mouths when a large surf is running because the currents in these areas are often stronger.

How can I keep my children safe at the beach?

While lifeguards and lifesavers watch over you and your children when in the water, children require constant parent/adult supervision when visiting the beach or when they are around any body of water. You should:

  • keep them within arms' reach at all times
  • put them in bright swimming suits and rash shirts which are easy to see
  • identify an easy to find point on the beach, such as the lifeguard tower, where the child can go to if you are separated

Why is it dangerous to drink alcohol at the beach?

Every year many people get into difficulty, both on the beach and in the surf, due to the effects of alcohol. Drinking alcohol and swimming is a dangerous combination leading to impaired judgement, lack of co-ordination and reaction time, and an inability to control your body temperature.

What about sharks and stingers?

On average, shark attacks injure a few people every year, but over the same period about more than 100 people drown along our coast. While there are more than 170 species of sharks in Australian waters, only a few are perceived to be dangerous. For more information on staying safe from sharks go to the Beachsafe website.

Non-tropical marine stingers, such as the Bluebottle (physalia) or Hair Jelly (cyanea), may be found anywhere on the Australian coastline, but usually south of tropical Queensland (south of Bundaberg) and south of tropical Western Australia (south of Geraldton). Their stingers are not generally life-threatening but can cause distress and discomfort if you come into contact with them.

Tropical marine stingers, such as the Irukandji and Box Jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri), are classed as 'dangerous'. Caution must be exercised when entering tropical waters during the ‘marine stinger season’, which generally runs from November to March.

If you are stung, or are with someone else who has been stung, the treatment will vary depending on your location and what type of stinger is involved. In areas where dangerous tropical jellyfish are found, and the species causing the sting cannot be clearly identified, it is safer to treat the patient with vinegar. The treatment is as follows:

  • Remove the patient from the water and restrain if necessary.
  • Call for help dial triple zero (000) or get a surf lifesaver or lifeguard to help you.
  • Assess the patient and commence CPR as necessary.
  • Liberally douse the stung area with vinegar to neutralise invisible stinging cells.
  • If vinegar is unavailable, pick off any remnants of the tentacles (preferably with gloves) and rinse the sting well with seawater (do not use freshwater).
  • Apply a cold pack.
  • Seek medical assistance and transport to the hospital immediately.

For Bluebottle stings:

  • Keep the patient at rest and under constant observation.
  • If it's a major sting to the face or neck, dial triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance (especially if there is swelling).
  • Do not allow rubbing of the sting area.
  • Pick off any remaining tentacles with fingers (a harmless prickling may be felt).
  • Rinse the sting area well with seawater to remove any invisible stinging cells.
  • Place the sting area in hot water (no hotter than the rescuer can comfortably tolerate). If the pain is unrelieved by the heat, or if hot water is not available, apply cold packs or wrapped ice.
  • Don't use vinegar or rub sand on the sting.

For other non-tropical minor jellyfish stings:

  • Keep the patient at rest and under constant observation.
  • Do not allow rubbing of the sting area.
  • Pick off any remaining tentacles with fingers (a harmless prickling may be felt).
  • Rinse the sting area well with seawater (not freshwater) to remove any invisible stinging cells.
  • Place the stung area in hot water (no hotter than the first aider can tolerate).
  • If local pain is unrelieved by these treatments, or generalised pain develops, or the sting area is large (half of a limb or more), or if the patient appears to be suffering an allergic reaction to the sting, seek urgent medical help dial triple zero (000) and get a surf lifesaver or lifeguard.

For more information go to sea creature stings.

Why is rock fishing dangerous?

While rock fishing is enjoyed by many people around the Australian coast, it is also one of Australia’s most dangerous sports. Rock platforms, like beaches, are subject to the same unpredictable conditions.

To keep safe when rock fishing:

  • Know the tide and weather.
  • Never fish alone.
  • If conditions worsen find a calmer, more sheltered spot — or go home.
  • Ask local people for advice.
  • Fish only in places that you know are safe.
  • Tell someone where you are.
  • Spend at least half an hour watching the wind and wave action.
  • Plan an escape route.
  • Never turn your back on the sea.
  • Take the right gear — a life jacket, shoes with non-slip soles, light clothing.
  • Carry a mobile phone with you.
  • Carry a rope and float with you.

Do NOT jump in if someone is washed into the water.

For more safety tips go to the Safe Fishing website.

How do spinal injuries happen at the beach?

Every year, a number of spinal injuries occur around the beach by accident, and through participation in high-risk activities. They most commonly happen by:

  • being dumped head first by a wave
  • diving head first into the water
  • jumping off rocks (sometimes called ‘tombstoning’)
  • hitting submerged objects other than the sea floor

Any neck soreness or pain should be treated as a potential spinal injury.

Where can I find out more information about beach safety?

You can find more about beach and coastal safety on the Surfe Life Saving website and information about Australian beaches at Beachsafe website.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2020

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