How to Survive An Australian Beach

 
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Our beautiful country of Australia is as well known for its wild, rugged, gorgeous beaches as it is for its dangers – including the dangers encountered at the beach.  Shows like Bondi Rescue and various news stories broadcasting shark attacks and killer rips can make our beaches seem daunting – and indeed there are some things you do need to be wary of.  Whilst our beaches can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, keeping a few tips in mind and a savvy head on your shoulders will make your visit to our beaches memorable for the right reasons.  We’re not biased or anything, but we reckon they’re so glorious you really can’t miss them if you’re travelling down under. 

Here’s what you need to know.

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#1: Protect Yourself From the Sun

 … Because in Australia, even the sun is trying to kill you.

That hole in the ozone layer everyone’s flipping out about?  Yeah… it’s like, right above Australia.  UV damage due to sun exposure is a real danger, especially on the beach where the glare from the reflection on the sand packs a double punch.  The best way to avoid damage is to minimize your exposure between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm, when UV levels are at their highest.  (Easier said than done.  I have legitimately suffered severe sunburn from travelling inside a car.)

If you are going to be outdoors at this time (or anytime during daylight hours – yes, even on overcast or rainy days), do the following to ensure protection from the sun:

  • Make sure you cover yourself head to toe in sunscreen.  (Ladies, I even spray my hair with a UV protectant before hitting the beach). First do this 5-10 minutes before sun exposure with a minimum of SPF30 and then reapply every two hours.  You should also choose a sunscreen that is water resistant if you’re hitting the surf. 

  • Wear a hat: A wide-brimmed one that covers your ears if possible. 

  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt, a kaftan, or rashie vest over your swimmers to protect your arms and upper body from sun damage.

  • Ensure your sunglasses have SPF: Because sunburnt eyeballs are a thing and it really, really sucks.

  • DO NOT SUNBAKE!  Don’t be fooled by those gorgeous bronze babes you see sunbathing topless on the beach.  Believe me when I say the sun-bronzed skin of today becomes the dry, leathery skin getting gigantic malignant skin cancers getting cut out of it everywhere tomorrow.

On another note, make sure you drink LOTS of water, put up a beach umbrella if you can access one and retreat to shadier areas regularly.  Alternatively, just give the beach a miss on stinking hot days.  Sunstroke and heat stroke happen!  Either condition will land you in the hospital and spoil your holiday, so they are better avoided than treated.

#2: Stick to the patrolled beaches, stay between the flags, read all signs and follow lifeguard instructions

Many of our most beautiful beaches are patrolled by highly trained lifeguards who do a brilliant job.  These lifeguards are trained in rescue, emergency first aid, and monitoring surf conditions, so it pays to only swim at patrolled beaches and in between the red and yellow flags, where lifeguards are patrolling and able to get you out of (literally) dire straits.

If you see signs notifying you of beach closures, pay attention and steer clear of the water, or even the beach altogether, depending on the sign’s instructions.  This isn’t just because the lifeguards are off duty but because surf conditions have been deemed too unsafe for swimming and lifeguards are not on patrol.  If you get yourself into strife out there, no one will hear you scream.  No, really.

Also, just FYI (especially up north) – humans aren’t the only ones who like to lounge around on the beach after a good swim on a hot day.  Gigantic saltwater crocodiles (more below) like to lounge on beaches and swim in oceans anywhere further north than Rockhampton, so pay attention to warning signs.

Listen out for any lifeguard instructions over the megaphone.  Get out of the water if you hear a siren and if a lifeguard comes and gives you a personal instruction, pay attention to it.  Failing to do so can not only put yourself at risk, but also other beachgoers and the lifeguard who will inevitably have to come and save your ass.

#3: Watch out for jellyfish and other stingers

Australia is known for all the deadly wildlife we have for seemingly no reason, and it is as true for our beaches as it is for our outback.

Up north, there are lethal stingers like Irukandji.  When I say lethal, I mean their sting can cause loss of consciousness and death.  These nasty suckers will necessitate a beach closure and understandably so.  (Another reason why you really need to pay attention to signs).  Just to be really annoying, these deadly buggers turn up in summer when you want to enjoy our beautiful beaches most, so keep a particularly watchful eye out for signs alerting you to their presence, especially between November and March.  Also, be aware that stingers’ tentacles are virtually invisible in the water and can stretch meters from their bodies.  Even if you can’t see any tentacles, keep a careful eye out in the water for something in the distance that looks like a blue water balloon.

Although they are usually spotted up in north Queensland, it is thought that they could soon be found as far south as the Sunshine Coast.  A few years, back four people were stung on Fraser Island.  This is due to rises in temperatures, favorable conditions for Irukandji, combined with an extension of their season from 1-2 months to 6 months.

Symptoms include a searing 10/10 pain, severe nausea and vomiting and stomach cramps.  There is also a feeling of impending doom and cardiac symptoms. If an Irukandji or box jellyfish stings you, or you are not sure what stung you:

  • Don’t pee on it.  This is a myth.

  • Notify your lifeguard immediately, who will provide further first aid and assistance.  If you are at an unpatrolled beach, call 000 immediately.  If your mate gets stung and loses consciousness, perform CPR while you wait for emergency services.

  • Avoid pouring fresh water on the sting.

  • Use salt water and vinegar to rinse the area and carefully pick the tentacles from the body.

Irukandji aren’t the only jellyfish you need to be careful of.  Bluebottle jellyfish are smaller and their sting is still HELLA painful.  Also, don’t pick one up if you find it washed up on the beach.  A dead organism can still sting with full force.

If you are stung by a bluebottle:

  • Hot water or ice are the best things to use

  • Do not pour on vinegar or rub on sand

  • Notify your lifeguard for further assistance and first aid

  • Seek medical attention if there is an intense and persistent pain, worsening rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes, if the area becomes red, tender or warm or if symptoms of shock emerge.  

#4: Avoid getting eaten… yes, eaten

We have two prehistoric apex predators swimming in the waters of Australian beaches.  Both of them are known to pick off more than the odd swimmer.  Even experienced surfers and swimmers get attacked and sometimes fatally so.  These predators are saltwater crocodiles and sharks.  Whilst we have measures in place like regular patrols and shark nets, these aren’t foolproof and fatalities and serious injuries still occur.

Whilst many people are wary of sharks, visitors to Australia can be caught off guard by the presence of saltwater crocodiles on our beaches.  Although the stereotypical belief is that crocodiles are confined to lurking in the murky waters of rivers and billabongs up north (and yes, this is true), they are also capable ocean dwellers and like to wash up on beaches to sun themselves. (This is more common up north in places like north Queensland and the Northern Territory).  

To avoid becoming croc bait:

  • If you see ANY sign warning you about crocodiles DO NOT go near the water.  Crocs have had millions of years on this planet to evolve the art of blending in with their surroundings in and out of the water to lure unsuspecting prey.  Even if it looks like the water is still and there is nothing there, don’t chance it.  Don’t swim, don’t paddle, don’t even stick your toe in.  

  • If you are in an area where crocodiles are frequently sighted, avoid swimming or paddling in waterways, especially at night.

  • Don’t stick body parts over the edge of a boat.

  • Set up camp more than 50 meters from the water’s edge.  There are all kinds of stories about crocs poking their head into tents for a midnight snack.

  • Don’t collect water from the same place every day.  These guys are problem solvers and skilled hunters.

 The other apex predator you need to be cautious of is the mighty shark.  Now, I am a bit of a shark conservationist.  I think they get a worse rap than they deserve.  You have every bit as much of a risk of dying in a car accident every time you jump in the car to go to the beach as you do dying from a shark attack.  To put it into even more perspective, your chances of drowning at the beach is 100 times higher than a fatal shark attack.

With all that being said, it pays to be sensible.  Shark attacks do happen.  However, in a lot of cases, they can be avoided by sticking to the guidelines below.

  • Always swim at patrolled beaches and listen carefully to lifeguard instructions.  If a lifeguard at a patrolled beach spots a shark, a shark siren will sound.  At this point, move calmly and quickly out of the water immediately (don’t thrash around in a panic).

  • Don’t swim too far out from the shore.

  • Swim with a group.  The “safety in numbers” adage applies here as sharks are more likely to target an individual swimming alone.

  • Sharks are most active in twilight hours and at night, so avoid swimming as and after the sun starts to go down.

  • Avoid swimming in areas used by commercial or recreational fishers, or places where you can see diving seabirds.  Where there’s lots of fish, it’s probably an all-you-can-eat shark buffet.

  • It is a myth that where you see dolphins you won’t see sharks.  After all, at the end of the day dolphins and sharks eat the same food

  • Sharks love to hang out between sandbars, near the mouths of rivers and near steep drop-offs so avoid swimming in these areas

  • Avoid swimming in canals and rivers that are close to coastal areas.  Stories of pets getting picked off by sharks in the Nerang and Brisbane Rivers, for example, are not unheard of.

  • Do not swim near seal colonies.  Seals are shark food, not friends.

  • Do not enter the water if you’re bleeding.  Sharks can smell a drop of blood diluted millions of times in water.

What to do if you spot a shark:

  • I know that from the safety of typing this at a computer on dry land, this is easier said than done but it is important not to panic.  Thrashing about will attract the shark.

  • Leave the water IMMEDIATELY with a brisk but as smooth a stroke as you can muster.

  • Alert other people and the lifeguard immediately so that they can raise the shark siren.  This will save lives.

  • It’s common sense, but don’t try to be a hero and do anything to provoke the shark.

#5: Watch where you put your hands and feet – especially at low tide and around shallows, rock pools and jetties

Australia’s rock pools are a natural wonder in and of themselves and some beautiful creatures can be found in them, as well as in and around jetties.  But be careful!  We’ve added in a few venomous creatures here too.  For an unsuspecting tourist, picking up a curious little sea creature or rock can be something of an [un]lucky dip.

  • Stonefish are the world’s most venomous fish and are so called because they are camouflage masters.  They make themselves look exactly like every other bit of stone poking up from the sand.  That is, until you stand on one and it pokes up its spines, injecting its deadly venom straight into your feet.  The sting is excruciating, causing you to writhe in agony – but not for long, because it also causes paralysis, tissue necrosis, and death within two hours.  Stonefish are most commonly found in and around jetties, especially at low tide, nestled in mud and/or sand around estuaries and tidal inlets, and in coastal rivers.  When exploring these areas, wear thick soled rubber footwear and tread lightly.

  • Another deadly sea creature which can turn a dream beach holiday into a nightmare fast is the blue-ringed octopus.  These little guys frequent rock pools and coral reefs and are adorable looking.  They’re only tiny, and they’re mottled yellow and brown.  To warn you that they came here to have a good time but are honestly just feeling so threatened right now, they display striking electric blue rings (hence the name).  Despite their tiny size, their venom causes nausea, blindness, paralysis, respiratory and cardiac failure resulting in death within minutes.  As cute as he may look, admire him from a distance and leave him alone.

  • A favorite pastime of many beachgoers (me included) is to pick up and look at the beautiful shells in all different shapes and sizes on the beach or stuck in rock pools.  Cone-shaped shells are particularly striking and beautiful.  However, it’s better to admire them from a distance and not touch.  Try not to even stand on them when walking along the beach.  They are home to the cone snail, a sea snail whose sting when disturbed has enough venom to kill multiple humans.  In fact, the venom is on par with some snake species.  The sting causes severe pain, impaired vision, paralysis and respiratory failure.

#6: Look out for snakes, especially around dunes and tall grass

If there’s one thing Australia is renowned for besides Steve Irwin, Crocodile Dundee and kangaroos, it’s probably our venomous snakes.  And for good reason – we are home to 21 of 25 of the world’s most deadly snake species.  But it’s not just the outback, inside toilet seats or the tinsel on your Christmas tree you have to be careful of.  Our venomous snake population enjoys sunning themselves on the beach as much as we do.  Snakes are cold-blooded and therefore solar powered.  As Tip #1 above goes to show, where better to get a full blast of sunshine and warmth than the beach?

The eastern brown snake (the world’s second most deadly snake) is most common around coastal areas, although red-bellied black snakes have also been spotted on northern NSW beaches in recent times.

My Nanna always used to say “Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you” and truer words were never spoken when it comes to snakes.  

  • Avoid walking through, poking around and sunbathing in or near sand dunes, particularly where there are tufts of long native grass.  This is particularly where snakes like to frequent.

  • Be on the lookout where you place your feet so that you don’t accidentally tread on one.  This is true wherever you walk in the great outdoors.  As long as you’re watching where you’re going, you can usually spot a snake before you reach it.  By the time you’ve come across it, it will usually be trying to get out of your way.  If you do see one, give it LOTS of room and call a snake catcher.

  • In that same vein, stick to the designated walking tracks and avoid taking a shortcut through bushland, grass or dunes.

  • Be careful of reaching down blindly to pick up a stick or piece of driftwood– lest you accidentally pick up a stretched out snake just trying to get a summer tan.  Snakes can also wind themselves through driftwood and can be hard to spot.

  • On the Gold Coast, there has been a tonne of media reports about snakes being caught on beaches, particularly between The Spit, Main Beach, and Surfers Paradise.  I have been going to those beaches frequently for 25 years and have yet to ever see one.  That’s not to say of course that they’re not there.  I know people who have personally spotted snakes on Gold Coast beaches.  Like all of these tips, there’s no cause for panic or to let it stop you from enjoying our beautiful beaches, it just pays to be aware.

  • For peace of mind, read up on first aid for snake bites (not a substitute for first aid training), carry a travel first aid kit with you and do a first aid course.  I really believe first aid is a life skill course everybody should do for so many reasons, what to do in the event of a snake bite being just one of them.  I did mine through Red Cross* and it was worth every penny.

  • Watch out for snakes in the water, too! Australia has two species of sea snakes common to its waters: the yellow-bellied sea snake and the beaked sea snakes. Both are venomous. Bites can cause pain, paralysis, difficulty swallowing/breathing, vomiting, blurred vision and death if left untreated. However, there have been no recorded fatalities in Australia from a sea snake bite, possibly because they are so rare and very docile. Sea snakes are timid and only want to be left alone, so if you see one leave him be, as you would any snake.

#7: Go with a Group

There is safety in numbers, especially at the beach.  We tend to have the “don’t swim alone” rule for kids but forget it as we get older, feeling invincible because we know how to swim.  However, it is still relevant advice to never swim alone at the beach.  The fact of the matter is that shit happens.  Having someone there to keep tabs on where you are and summon help when needed could save your life.

#8: Know Your Limits

One only needs to watch an episode of Bondi Rescue to know that Australian beaches are not for rookies.  When you consider that even the most experienced swimmer or surfer can get themselves into trouble in our tough surf conditions and that one person drowns at an Australian beach every two to three days(!!!), being sensible about the strength of your swimming skills is paramount for your safety.  

Riptide currents are sneaky buggers and there is nothing more terrifying than thinking you’re only a couple of metres from the beach, right between the flags, only to look behind you and discover that those flags are metres away and that beach is further away than you could possibly swim – especially if you are not a strong swimmer.  Please trust me on this because I know from experience.  It happened when I was a kid and I thought I was done for.  Luckily I was swimming with a Nipper (a junior lifeguard) who knew just what to do and someone rescued us.  Since that day, I have avoided swimming in the surf any further out than waist deep. If in doubt, I stick to just wading – not because I am afraid (I love swimming at the beach) but because I know I am not a strong enough swimmer to get out of danger in time when it all goes to hell in a handbasket.

Realistically and without bravado assess your swimming skill and surf knowledge in a safe environment before plunging in head first.  

#9: Watch out for riptides

Further to my above point, watch out for riptides when swimming at Australian beaches.  These guys are the silent killers and perhaps the most deadly part of swimming at our beaches.  In fact, 90% of the above-mentioned drownings are rip related.  Almost all of these occur at unpatrolled beaches or after lifesaving hours.  This is yet another reason why sticking to patrolled beaches is so important.

A rip is a current which begins close to shore and then washes out to sea.  When waves crash upon the shore, the water has to make its way back to the sea somehow right?  The flow backward into the ocean spills into deep channels, which create the rip current.  A rip current can move faster than an Olympic swimmer, going as fast as 3 m per second.  This is why they are so lethal and can trip up even an experienced swimmer.

Although they can take on many appearances, rips most commonly look like a calm, slightly choppy, dark patch in the water amongst wildly crashing waves.  To the unsuspecting and inexperienced beachgoer, it looks like a calm haven within which to swim safely, but it is actually quite the opposite.  Within just 30 seconds of even suspecting that you’re caught in a rip you can be carried out to sea, so you don’t have much time to act.  Here’s how to avoid getting caught in a rip and what to do if you do get caught:

  • Stand back and assess the situation before you go in for a dip.  What are the conditions like?  Where can you see the dark, calm patches in the water?  How far out are they?  Unfortunately, no two rips are alike so it is difficult to give a definitive guide on what to look for.  However, having a general awareness, whilst it cannot guarantee your safety, can help.

  • Don’t let calm surf situations fool you.  In fact, it’s days when the waves don’t look so big that there can be more rips than ever.

  • Swim between the flags, swim between the flags, swim between the flags.

  • Use said flags as a guide for your position and consistently and often look back toward the flags.  This can be useful for noticing when you may have gotten yourself in a sticky spot.

  • If you get caught in a rip, as frightening as it can be, it is important not to panic.  I’ll say it again.  Do not panic.  When you panic you make terrible decisions and terrible decisions in this situation will probably get you killed.

  • Raise your arm to attract the attention of a lifeguard or someone on the shore and stay afloat until help comes.  Do what it takes in the most energy conserving way possible.

  • If no help is coming, unless you are a very strong and experienced swimmer, you probably cannot out swim a rip directly back to shore.  This is a mistake a lot of people make.  Therefore, the aim is to conserve your energy as much as possible.  Swim calmly, parallel to the beach, toward white water and breaking waves.  This is where the water is shallower and you will be able to get to safety.

  • When in doubt, float on your back.

#10: Don’t drink and swim

I really feel like I shouldn’t have to say it, but I do because people still do it.  Do not drink and swim.  Not only does alcohol intoxication impair your reaction time, it also impairs judgment.  This leads to greater risk-taking, which due to the aforementioned tips is not a wise state to be in.  Further, it reduces coordination and can cause disorientation.  And if you do get yourself into serious trouble, alcohol intoxication reduces the chances that CPR will work in the event you require resuscitation.  So don’t do it.  Just don’t.

#11: Do mind the coconuts

Our beautiful beaches in north Queensland are truly a national treasure – so much so that for our honeymoon Greg and I spent a week lazing on Cairns’ beautiful tropical beaches.  But like any other tropical beach in the world, you do have to beware the coconut trees.  There is an urban legend floating around that up to 150 people are killed annually around the world from falling coconuts, more than are killed by sharks.  Imagine just sitting on a beach, minding your own business, only to suffer life-threatening blunt force trauma from getting sconed by a falling superfood.

You may giggle, and in fact, the above statistic is an urban myth and no exact figure is documented, but coconut trees loom high, and an unhusked coconut weighing a few kilograms falling from a fully grown tree can land with the force of a tonne. Very ouch.

All it means is don’t lay your beach towel underneath a coconut tree and be careful where you’re sitting/walking.

Before you run screaming from the computer, vowing never to come to Australia for a beach holiday, let me remind you that I have been swimming at Australian beaches for 33 years, since before I could even walk, and I have survived unscathed.  In fact, apart from the time I got caught in a rip or the time when I was really little and I was “adopted” by a family of kangaroos on the beach who got super aggressive when my parents tried to take me home (lol that actually happened) I have never had an incident on an Australian beach that was in any way remotely dangerous.  So long as you are sensible and carry these tips in your mind when visiting, I assure you that you will be as spellbound by our beautiful beaches as I am.

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