Traveller’s guide to beach safety in Australia

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Australia boasts some of the most beautiful, breathtaking beaches in the world. It's exciting to experience and face the tremendous and incredible waves of these beaches. However, we must take caution when encountering the raw power of these wonders of nature, which can be unpredictable and become dangerous.

Whether you are visiting for a surf, a snorkel, a swim, or to play with your little ones, knowing which beaches you can do these activities is essential. You also need to understand the safety precautions to enjoy the beaches and keep yourself safe.

Know which beaches are safe to swim in

To find the safest beaches to swim in and which Lifeguards and Surf Lifesavers patrol, research the local patrolled beach closest to you. Beachsafe is a website that enables you to do this as does their Beachsafe app.

Lifeguards are there to help

Most popular beaches are staffed by lifeguards who patrol the beach and set out flags indicating safe swimming spots. You can ask them questions if you see them on shore and take down their phone number in case. If you are out swimming and feel uncomfortable in the water, wave your hand to catch their attention so they can assist.

Always swim between the flags

Look for red and yellow flags and always swim between these—these show where there is a lifesaving service operating and supervising the area. If there are no flags, it's best not to swim there or check with lifeguards if they are there.

Sometimes the flags are there due to a permanent risk. Other times the flags represent a specific risk for that day or time.

Watch for rips

Rip currents (or simply "rips") are the top coastline hazard in Australia. According to Surf Life Saving (SLS), rip currents account for more deaths each year than sharks, floods and cyclones combined. Knowing how to spot a rip can help prevent getting into a dangerous situation. Surveys show that three in four people can't spot a rip (National Coastal Safety Survey 2018).

When beach water runs back to the open ocean, a rip forms. When that water heads back out to sea, it creates a channel moving at such a fast speed that even the strongest swimmers will find it challenging.

Surf Life Saving (SLS) provides the main signs to look for in a rip:

  • Deeper or darker water
  • Fewer breaking waves
  • Sandy-coloured water extending beyond the surf zone
  • Debris or seaweed
  • Significant water movement

SLS's website says, "Sometimes it can be easier to look for where the waves are breaking consistently, and then look to each side where they don't break consistently. Those areas are rip currents."

If you get caught in rip current, SLS advises to:

  • Stay calm
  • Seek help by raising and waving your arm and calling out so the lifeguards may see and come to your rescue.
  • Floating with the current may return you to a shallow sandbank

Swimming parallel to the beach or towards the breaking waves may help you escape the rip current.

Understand waves

It can help to understand waves, so you know what to look out for and avoid. Trent Maxwell, a Bondi lifeguard, tells, “On the beach, watch the water to see how the waves roll in, watch for any waves that are not breaking and avoid these as they could be a dangerous rip.”

SLS explains that there are three types of waves:

  1. Dumping waves are hazardous and, as the name suggests, can pick someone up and 'dump' them with great force. They create hollow tubes when they break.
  2. Surging waves can suddenly appear as they approach the water's edge and may not ever break as they do. They knock people over and then drag them back into deeper water. These are found mostly near rock platforms and beaches with steep shorelines.
  3. Spilling or rolling waves near flat shorelines that break onto the wave face itself are generally the safest.

Sea life

Visitors to Australia will be keen to experience activities that involve seeing and getting close to beautiful sea animals, whether through snorkelling or scuba diving. Tours would be the safest way to see these. According to SLS, most of them are harmless if left alone, and they are not aggressive. However, it's always best to follow the "no touch" rule if you come close to any such animals.

Some sea animals, including sea urchins, sharks, sting rays, and box jellyfish, may sting or bite. Box jellyfish, which are highly venomous, are found in northern waters between November and May.

In other parts of Australia, the bluebottle jellyfish (also known as the Portuguese man o' war) is common. Though not deadly, they can give a nasty sting. Many lifeguard-protected beaches will erect warning signs when there is an influx of bluebottles.

Many popular beaches are fitted with underwater netting to keep sharks away, and patrolled beaches monitor the waters for sharks. They will warn swimmers using a loud alarm if they spot one. Therefore, to reduce your chance of encountering a shark, swim at a patrolled beach, and swim between the flags. Avoid swimming at dusk and dawn, when you can see people fishing.’s website states that crocodiles only live in the tropical north. If visiting the beaches in this region, there will be croc warning signs.

SLS has a Coastal Safety booklet that contains images and information about dangerous marine life, how to avoid them, and what to do if you get hurt.

General beach safety tips

In addition to the advice above, here are some general tips to help you stay safe at Aussie beaches.

  • Most beaches will have signs at the entrance that provide information about the local area, amenities, and the meaning of signs on the beach.
  • Always swim with someone else, never alone.
  • It would be best never to swim, affected by alcohol or after a big meal.
  • Stay safe in the sun by applying (and reapplying) sunscreen, covering up and seeking shade.
Tracey Cheung
Written by
Tracey Cheung

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