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Scanning for rips

By Sarah, 10 January 2014

Cliff overlooking the coast.

Waves breaking on the shore create different types of currents.
Image: CSIRO

It’s summer in Australia, and for many of us this means packing our bathers, sunscreen, and hats, for a day in the surf. While many people are aware of beach rules, we must be particularly careful of rip currents.

When waves break at the beach, they create currents. Currents flowing away from the shore are called rip currents, which are important as they allow water to return seaward. The speed and strength of rip currents can vary, and often weak swimmers are in greater danger. However, these currents have been recorded at speeds of 2.4 metres per second, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer!

These characteristics allow rips to quickly carry swimmers away from the shoreline out into the ocean, which can lead swimmers to extreme tiredness, panic, and in severe cases, drowning. Scientists have estimated that rip currents are the leading cause of natural hazard deaths, with approximately 21 human deaths in Australia per year. This figure is higher than the number of deaths caused by cyclones, bushfires, floods and shark attacks combined!

It can be difficult to identify rip currents, making their presence dangerous for beachgoers. You can scan the beach for signs that help to identify these hazardous currents. Some of these clues include: paths of darker water heading out through the breaking waves, or sandy water, or seaweed and debris flowing out beyond the breakers.

To prevent getting caught in a rip, always swim between the flags, have someone with you at all times, and look out for signs of a rip current. Should you get caught in a rip, it may be instinct to swim against the current to safety, but this can lead to exhaustion. The best thing to do is remain calm, signal for help, and float with the rip until it weakens enough for you to swim across it to safer water.

More information

Understanding rip currents
Beachsafe: rip currents
Bondi Beach surf cam

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