Smart Beaches research reveals link between tide and fatal beach drowning

Fatal drowning on Australian surf beaches is more likely to occur around low tide, new research reveals.

The study, undertaken as part of the Smart Beaches project in collaboration with Ocean Live and supported by Surf Life Saving Australia, looked at almost 560 cases of fatal surf beach drowning from July, 2004, to June, 2019.

Researchers from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UNSW Sydney found that fatal drowning on Australian surf beaches is 26.7 per cent more likely at low tide than at high tide.

“The risk of drowning cannot be determined by tide alone,” Project Lead and PhD student William Koon said. “But a major factor in many surf beach rescue and drowning deaths is rip current hazards, and these typically intensify around low tide.”

In order to observe trends, the time of day of drowning cases was linked to historical tidal data for the area where the incident occurred.

Mr Koon said there had previously been very little evidence-based research evaluating associations between tide and drowning.

“These findings could help lifeguards and other decision-makers manage risk and prepare for times when surf beach drowning events are more likely to occur,” he said.

Despite the association between fatal drowning events and low tide, the research found no correlation between the direction of the tide – whether it was incoming or outgoing – and the occurrence of drowning.

Ocean Live has developed an innovative application that uses tide, among other factors, to communicate risk to beachgoers via a traffic light system similar to those seen at ski resorts.

Smart Beaches Project Manager Tony Blunden said the research added to the collective knowledge of professional beach lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers.

“Studies such as these provide a base of real evidence on which to build beach safety management plans, and we are excited for other studies like this into the future,” Mr Blunden said.

Smart Beaches is a partnership between Lake Macquarie City Council, Northern Beaches Council and University of Technology Sydney, trialling technology and applying research to increase beach safety and improve visitor experience.

It is partly funded under Round Two of the Australian Government’s Smart Cities and Suburbs Program.

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