Ocean rips kill more people in Australia on average each year than bushfires, tropical cyclones, floods and shark attacks combined.
Australia’s top rip expert Rob Brander, of the University of NSW, analysed fatality figures from rips, natural disasters and shark attacks going back as far as 1842 reveal the omnipresent danger of Australia’s surf.
The study found that, on average, 21 people drown in rips around Australia each year compared with eight killed in cyclones and six in bushfires. When the data for 2004-11 was taken into account (the only years for which reliable rip fatality numbers are available) bushfires became the No.1 killer, claiming 27.1 lives a year. The higher bushfire death rate occurred because of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, which killed 173 people.
Dr Brander said the number of confirmed rip deaths was probably an underestimate of the reality, because they were only confirmed when a witness described how the victim drowned. “Unlike a disaster where there is a mass loss of life from one incident, rip currents do not have that shock value,” Dr Brander said.
“Someone will drown, and then someone else will drown a few days later in a different location. It is not widely reported and people become complacent about the severity of the hazard. “Studies show Australians do not understand rips and cannot identify rips as well as the think they can.”
The report said more money was spent on programs warning about bushfires and other disasters even though they claim fewer lives on average each year.
On Australia’s 11,000 mainland beaches, about 17,500 rips can occur at any given time.
Dr Brander wants more funding for school programs to teach children how to identify rips from a young age. He also supports more lifeguards at beaches now unpatrolled, but understands the logistical challenge and expense.
Surf Life Saving Australia has collaborated with UNSW over the past three years to better document deaths caused by rip drownings. “It is mostly Australians that are drowning in rips so people should not be complacent,” SLSA’s coastal safety manager Anthony Bradstreet said.
“The reality is that tourists are not the big issue as some people might think. Usually they account for less than 10 per cent of fatalities.”
However, SLSA has attempted to target tourists by airing videos about rips on inbound flights. Lifesavers also greet incoming travellers at baggage claim terminals in tourist hot spots such as the Gold Coast.