Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rip Deaths Outnumber Other Threats

By Stephen Luntz

Among the threats that haunt Australia’s summer psyche, rips at beaches do not get the most publicity yet they kill more people than higher profile causes combined.

Dr Rob Brander (AS, December 2012, p.38) used coronial data to find that ocean rips were responsible for 21 deaths per year from 2004–11. “This is likely to be an underestimate because there has to be a witness to an event who saw the person was caught in a rip, and then this information has to be included in the coronial report,” says Brander, a coastal geomorphologist at the University of NSW.

Surf Life Saving Australia notes that 121 people died in coastal waters last year. Many of these were a result of heart attacks or people being swept off rocks, but quite a few were from causes unknown with the possibility that a rip was responsible.

The figure was a record for the past 9 years, but Brander says the trend over the past 5 years has been towards fewer deaths from rips. “I’m wary of short-term data,” he says, “but I like to think this is because of better rip education”. Brander, who is sometimes known as Dr Rip, has played a big part in this, with a YouTube video about how to identify likely rips before swimming having had more than a million hits.

Brander recommends avoiding gaps in the surf where the water is green rather than white, saying these are usually rips. A way to remember this is that green is mean while white is alright.

It would take a large reduction to make rips less of a threat than other summer hazards. With access to longer-term data, Brander reported in Natural Hazards and Earth Science Systems that Australia averages 5.9 deaths per year from bushfires, 4.3 from floods and 7.5 from cyclones. The urge for punitive attacks on sharks looks particularly misplaced when considering they have been responsible for just one death per year since 1962 – which itself is half the rate of deaths due to bee stings.

Surf Life Saving Australia’s National Coastal Safety Report noted that, contrary to popular perceptions, international tourists are not particularly prone to dying in our waters. “The highest increase in deaths was amongst baby boomers,” said SLSA President Graham Ford.