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Australia’s Biggest Natural Killer Coming To A Beach Near You

By Ben Graham on January 10, 2014 in News

Picture: Waverley Council

Picture: Waverley Council

Australia has more than its fair share of hazards, from its vast array of dangerous animals to its extreme weather patterns, which bring misery to many in the form of bushfires and storms.

Yet the biggest natural killer in Australia comes from the country’s most cherished and enjoyed assets: its beaches and surf.

You would be forgiven for thinking that shark attacks are the major threat on our beaches, with the recent deaths of 19 year-old Zac Young near Coffs Harbour and 35 year-old Chris Boyd off the south-west coast of Western Australia making emotive headline stories across all of our newspapers.

Surf expert and former Beast contributor Dr Rob Brander, however, believes that this type of coverage is dangerous because it takes the focus away from the real danger in our ocean, the rips.

“During the summer months in Australia, on average, someone gets caught out every two or three days and most of the thousands of rescues that happen on our beaches are related to rips,” said Dr Brander.

His latest research shows that 21 people drown in rips around Australia each year compared with one death a year from shark attacks.

He believes that these deaths would be totally preventable if people were given education about how to identify a rip and how to react when they became stuck in one.

“We have so many of these dangerous currents on every single surf beach and yet we have such a poor understanding of them,” he said.

Dr Brander believes that deaths caused by rips never make big news stories because they happen in isolated incidents.

“Shark attacks sell newspapers because they are scary looking things and they get a reaction. Beaches don’t look scary so they don’t have that visual element that shocks people.”

Dr Amy Smoothey, the shark biologist who identified the animal that killed Zac Young as a three-metre tiger shark, said that the chance of a shark attack is still incredibly low.

“Although we experienced the tragic shark incident in Coffs Harbour recently, it does not mean that shark numbers are increasing, nor does it mean that this summer the chances of encountering a shark are greater,” Dr Smoothey said.

“The chance of encountering a shark is no different from any other day, year or summer.

“The fact of the matter is, you are more likely to drown at the beach than be killed by a shark,” she said.

The scientist at NSW Department of Primary Industries believes that shark incidents still receive a lot of media attention for two reasons. Firstly, because they are so rare and because it’s not known why they occur. Secondly, because the media’s portrayal, especially in Hollywood films, has led humans to believe that all sharks are serial killers, which is simply not true.

Dr Brander said that rips are particularly dangerous because they flow faster than most people can swim and they often look like the safest place on the beach to take a dip.

“Of the 11,000 beaches in Australia only three percent are actually patrolled by surf lifesavers and lifeguards, and that means there are a lot of beaches and a lot of rips that you could easily get into trouble in,” Dr Brander said.

“Basically, rips are strong narrow currents that flow from the shoreline through the surf zone and offshore. They exist to take all the breaking water that’s piling up on the beach back out to sea.

“The main thing is not to panic, because the rip will not pull you under the water or take you to New Zealand. All it will do is take you out to sea and it will sometimes bring you back.”

Dr Brander recommends that you always swim between the flags, raise your arm to signal distress and swim towards whiter water if you can.

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