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Beach safety

16-minute read

Key facts

  • always swim between the red and yellow flags on patrolled beaches
  • look for signs at the entrance to the beach for local information
  • always swim with someone else
  • never swim after drinking alcohol or taking drugs

The beach

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

If you get into trouble, save your energy by floating on your back. Try and stay calm. This will ensure you have the energy to stay afloat until help arrives.

Who are lifeguards and lifesavers?

Lifeguards and lifesavers are trained to supervise beachgoers. They provide advice about beach conditions.

You should note what uniform the lifesaving service at your beach is wearing. This will help you know who 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 show these hazards. The flags also show you safe areas to swim in.

A good rule is: NO FLAGS = NO SWIM.

Beach safety flags

A red and yellow beach safety flag

A red and yellow flag tells you to swim between the flags.

They show the supervised area of the beach. This means that lifeguards are watching that area.

If there are no red and yellow flags it means there is no supervision. Check with the lifeguards and if you are unsure don't go into the water.

A red beach safety flag

A red flag means that the beach is closed. There is no swimming and you shouldn't enter the water.

A yellow beach safety flag

Yellow flag means that caution is required. You should be careful as there are hazards in the water. A yellow warning sign should be displayed nearby showing what the hazard is e.g. large waves or jelly fish.

A black and white checkered beach safety flag

Black and white check flag shows where board riding and surfing is not allowed.

Beach safety sign images: Courtesy of Surf Lifesaving Association

What do the beach safety signs mean?

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

Beach safety signs

An example warning sign depicting the danger of large waves.

Warning signs are diamond-shaped, yellow and black. They warn you about hazards at the beach. Hazards can be things like ‘unexpected large waves' or ‘swimming not advised'.

An example of a warning sign for large waves

An example of a regulatory signs for no swimming

Regulatory signs are a red circle with a diagonal line through a black image. They tell you about prohibited activities at that beach. Prohibited activities could be things like ‘no swimming' or ‘no surfboard riding between flags'.

An example of a regulatory signs for no swimming

An example of an information signs for a patrolled beach

Information signs are square-shaped and blue and white. They give information about features at that beach. Examples are ‘patrolled beach' or ‘surfboard riding is allowed'.

An example of an information signs for a patrolled beach

An example of a safety sign for first aid

Safety signs are square-shaped and green and white. They show a safety provision nearby. They can also show safety advice such as ‘emergency telephone', ‘first aid' or ‘lifesaving equipment'.

An example of a safety sign for first aid

Beach safety sign images: Courtesy of Surf Lifesaving Association

Do I need to worry about rip currents?

Rip currents (sometimes just called a 'rip') are the main hazard on Australian beaches. Rips are strong currents that begin near the shore that run away from the beach. Being caught in a rip 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. Rips cause about 26 deaths every year.

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

  • don't panic
  • raise an arm and call out for help, you may be rescued
  • float on your back 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
  • do not swim against the rip, you will exhaust yourself

What should I know about waves and a large surf?

Waves are one of the most enjoyable features of the beach and ocean. However, they change with different conditions.


waves break suddenly. They 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. You should never body surf on these waves. If in doubt, ask a lifesaver or lifeguard for safety advice.


waves have white water tumbling down the face of the wave. They usually have less force.

They are the safest for body surfing. They are found in sheltered bays where the sea floor slopes gradually. Sometimes they can be found near sandbanks at high tide.


waves may never actually break as they get close to the shore. This is because the water below them is very deep.

These waves are found in rocky areas around cliffs and where the beach drops off quickly. They can be very dangerous. They can knock you over and drag you back into deep water.


surf should only be attempted by experienced swimmers. You must keep between the red and yellow flags.

You should also avoid creek and river mouths when a large surf is running. This is because the currents there are often stronger.

How can I keep my children safe at the beach?

Lifeguards and lifesavers watch all swimmers in the water. Parents and carers also need to watch their children — at all times. You should:

  • keep children within an arms' reach at all times
  • put them in bright swimming suits and rash shirts which are easy to see

When you arrive at the beach decide on an easy-to-find point, such as the lifeguard tower. Tell your child to go there if you get separated.

Why are alcohol drugs and medicines dangerous at the beach?

Every year many people get into difficulty, both on the beach and in the water, because of alcohol. Drinking alcohol and swimming is a dangerous combination. It can lead to poor choices. Alcohol can also cause a lack of co-ordination and reduced reaction time. It can make you unable to control your body temperature.

Taking illegal drugs and some medicines can also lead to problems in the ocean. Some prescription medicines and over-the-counter medicines can make you sleepy. These effects may be increased when you drink alcohol at the same time.

Illegal drugs can numb your senses, reduce your inhibitions and change the way you see a risk. Again, these effects may be increased when you drink alcohol at the same time.

What about sharks and stingers?


Shark attacks injure only a few people every year. It is important to remember that the number of shark injuries is much less than the number of beach drownings.

There are more than 170 species of sharks in Australian waters. Only a few types of shark are thought to be dangerous.

Swimmers should come out of the water immediately if the lifeguards sound a shark alarm.

Jelly fish

Some sea creatures can cause a painful sting. The sting is not usually life-threatening but can cause distress and discomfort.

Different jellyfish (stingers) are found in different locations in Australia.

Bluebottles also called Portuguese man-o-war (Physalia physalis) and lion's mane jellyfish, also called the hair jelly (Cyanea capillata) are not generally life-threatening but they can cause pain and distress if you are stung by them.

Bluebottles and lion's mane jellyfish are found anywhere on the Australian coastline, but usually south of tropical Queensland (south of Bundaberg) and south of tropical Western Australia (south of Geraldton).

The Irukandji and box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri), are classed as 'dangerous'. If you are stung by these jellyfish you should call an ambulance. You must be careful when going into tropical waters. While they can be found all year they are more common during the ‘marine stinger season'. This is usually from November to March.

For more information about sea creature bites and stings, go to sea creature stings.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Why is rock fishing dangerous?

Many people enjoy rock fishing along the Australian coast. However, it is also one of Australia's most dangerous sports. The ocean and waves around rock platforms can make rock platforms unsafe.

To keep safe when rock fishing, it's important to prepare:

  • never fish alone
  • tell someone where you are going and when you'll be back
  • fish only in places that you know are safe
    • know the tide and weather
    • don't fish in exposed areas when the sea is rough
    • ask local people for advice
  • take the right gear:
    • a life jacket
    • shoes with non-slip soles
    • light clothing
    • a mobile phone
    • a rope and float

Once you arrive:

  • spend at least half an hour watching the wind and wave action
  • plan an escape route
  • never turn your back on the sea
  • if conditions worsen find a calmer, more sheltered spot — or go home

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

To learn more about rock fishing safety tips visit this site.

How do spinal injuries happen at the beach?

Every year, people have accidents that result in spinal injuries. They can happen at the beach or because people are doing high-risk activities.

Spinal injuries most commonly happen by:

  • being dumped headfirst by a wave
  • diving headfirst into the water
  • jumping off rocks (sometimes called ‘tombstoning')
  • hitting objects that are underwater like rocks

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

Resources and support

You can find more about beach and coastal safety on the Surf Life Saving website.

For more information on about Australian beaches visit the Beachsafe website.

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

Last reviewed: January 2023

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