Most dangerous places to swim in NSW
They're the secluded beaches and 'Insta-worthy' waterways luring swimmers on balmy days, but amid a deadly drowning season, authorities are warning many can turn fatal.
Lifesavers have renewed calls for swimmers to stick to patrolled areas as national drowning deaths spiked to 61, including seven on the Australia Day long weekend.
All coastal drownings this year have been in unpatrolled areas, some just 600m away from an established location, said Surf Life Saving NSW chief executive officer Steve Pearce.
"It's demonstrated statistically that the safest place to swim along this vast coastline is anywhere that's a patrolled location, anywhere where there's a lifeguard or lifesavers on duty," he said.
Anecdotally, travel restrictions and a recent heatwave appear to be increasing visits to idyllic spots beyond Sydney's crowded beaches now limited by a COVID-safe capacity.
Beaches at the Royal National Park south of Sydney have been so popular, the park has been forced to close on multiple weekends to control numbers.
Adding to the pull of 'secret spots' are countless lists of 'beautiful beaches' on websites and social media promoting isolated locations with no help at hand, Mr Pearce said.
"From an aesthetic perspective, they're gorgeous. The danger though, if you go there and if you do get into trouble, is essentially you're on your own," he said.
"If people want to go to these idyllic, beautiful secluded beaches, they need to understand it's going to be terribly difficult to get assistance to them if they get into trouble."
As of January 29, there have been 61 drowning deaths reported in Australia this summer compared to 48 the same time last year.
Mr Pearson said lifesavers knew it would be a challenging season, with lockdowns, border restrictions and a heatwave seeing coastlines inundated beyond controlled locations.
SLS NSW has already extended its reach beyond red and yellow flags this year, using drones and deploying more assets and response vehicles to safeguard swimmers.
But in what is already their busiest period in at least five years, failure to heed warnings about high risk activities and locations is complicating the challenge.
NATIONAL PARK BEACHES
Mr Pearson said anywhere in coastal national parks were challenging and dangerous because of the isolation and lack of communication, especially the Royal National Park, now the second busiest in the state.
There have been a total of 12 drownings/deaths at the park's beaches in the past five years, including six at Wattamolla Beach and eight at the Figure Eight Pools, a series of rockpools made popular with tourists and Instagrammers.
"There is no communications down there. So all our clubs have to operate on satellite phones. We consistently deploy our helicopters in there to winch people out," Mr Pearce said.
"It's just so dangerous because of the swells that sweep across that platform there."
The site is a huge drain on resources for the closest surf clubs - Garie and Burning Palms - which devote the bulk of their first aid and rescues to people at the site, he said.
The NPWS website currently lists the risk of swimming in the pools as "extreme" as waves can wash over and trap swimmers, take them out to sea or bash them against rocks
Wattamolla Beach in the national park is another fraught spot with frequent cliff jumping and rock fishing accidents.
NPWS contracted lifeguards to patrol the beach this summer due to the high number of visitors considered high-risk at the beach, including from culturally diverse communities, but it hasn't been foolproof.
On January 4, just ten minutes after lifeguards packed up, Sachet Bimali, 27, drowned after he and a fellow swimmer got into trouble jumping from a rock ledge into the lagoon.
A fortnight later, a rock fishermen swept into the sea was in the water for 40 minutes before rescuers in two helicopters found him barely alive in seas off Garie Beach.
Most beaches in the park are unpatrolled including Wattamolla and Garie beaches where seasonal lifeguard services have now ended.
Wattamolla and Garie can both experience large swells, strong rips and currents and shifting water levels in the lagoon can make cliff jumping extremely dangerous.
"Regarding swimming at Wattamolla - jumping off the waterfall at the Lagoon is not permitted and visitors must obey safety signage including 'no jumping' and 'no diving' signs at the waterfall which is fenced off to the public," a NPWS spokesman said.
Of the seven people who drowned on Australia's coastlines over the Australia Day long weekend, three were rock fishermen swept to their deaths at Port Kembla.
Only one was wearing a lifejacket.
Rock fishing is ranked as the third highest cause of coastal drowning deaths, after swimming and boating and since 2004, 192 fatalities have been recorded nationally. Two thirds of those were in NSW, and 83 per cent were not wearing a lifejacket.
Mr Pearce was at the scene at Port Kembla the morning after the triple fatality and saw the distress on rescuers' faces.
"You could actually still see the impact on their faces of having to deal with that situation. And in that particular situation, you know, it's dark, its 10 o'clock at night, there's a really large hazardous swell.
"It's just so terribly sad because, you know, the ripple effect back into the families. To lose a life, whether it be rock fishing or drowning, it's just horrendous for everyone. Our hearts really do break when we turn up and see the anguish on the families' faces."
Rock fishing is classified as a sport but it's extremely dangerous one, he said. Many local government areas now mandate life jackets for rock fishing, including Randwick which has the highest statistics of rock fishing deaths in NSW, but the message isn't cutting through.
"We have so many fatalities and rescues that are directly associated with rock fishing.
"What makes it extremely frustrating is the next day, it wasn't even 24 hours after the deaths of those three men, we had another rock fisherman swept off the same platform in really high seas."
Saved by the luck of a passer-by calling triple-0, the man wasn't wearing a lifejacket.
"We obviously have to put our lifesavers and lifeguards into those situations as well. And it's just really frustrating when people don't hold those safety messages."
DEADLIEST NSW ROCK FISHING AREAS
● City of Randwick
● Northern Beaches Council
● Central Coast Council
● City of Lake Macquarie
● City of Wollongong
● Sutherland Shire Council
● Waverley Council
* source SLSA
Summer hadn't even started in November when three people died in waterholes in NSW: a 7-year-old child at Jellybean Pool in the Blue Mountains, a 65-year-old man off Mildura wharf and 14-year-old boy at Potoroo Falls northeast of Taree
Those tragedies were followed by the death of Manu Nehua, 16, on the Hawkesbury River and a 35-year-old man in the Murray River - two of state's three most dangerous inland waterway black spots - the Murrumbidgee being the third.
Just days ago, Riing Doar, 15, drowned swimming at Kentlyn near Campbelltown on the Georges River, a NSW top 10 black spot.
Craig Roberts, Royal Life Saving NSW General Manager, said inland waterways had been the leading location for drowning deaths for almost 10 years now.
"One of the biggest challenges is, most people think kids drown and people drown at beaches where the reality is adult males are certainly the most significant demographic.
"And inland waterways are just as challenging as our beaches."
A vast network of rivers, creeks, waterholes and dams, inland waterways are impossible to patrol, requiring a whole-of-community approach to prevent drownings.
This year, 'outback lifeguards' are being piloted at Wagga beach on the Murumbidgee and remote beacons and rescue equipment rolled out in some smaller, isolated hot spots.
The danger of inland waterways and creeks are many from hard to spot currents to debris and snags that can trap swimmers. Ondrej Ivanic drowned on January 17 when his inflatable lilo became wedged on a large submerged rock in the Colo River.
It's not just what lies beneath either - cold water, especially in southern parts of NSW, can be deadly. About a quarter of drowning deaths in inland waterways are the result of falling in, and when someone falls into cold water, the risk of drowning is heightened, the shock can cause involuntary inhalation and vasoconstriction.
Alcohol is also a factor in about 30 per cent of inland drowning deaths.
NSW WORST RIVERS FOR DROWNINGS
● Murray River NSW - Albury, Corowa, Moama
● Hawkesbury River, Windsor and Wiseman's Ferry
● Murrumbidgee River, Wagga Wagga
● Parramatta River, Sydney
● Georges River, Sydney
● Nepean River, Penrith & Emu Plains
* source RLSA
Almost half of coastal drownings in NSW in 2019-2020 were between one and five kilometres from a lifesaving service, according to the SLSA National Coastal Safety Report 2020.
Many involved dangerous rips, the number one hazard on beaches. Late last year, a 41-year-old man died trying to save three children swept into the water at Woonona Beach near Wollongong in an area known for its dangerous rips.
On January 17, 50-year-old Leonie Jackson lost her life trying to saving her son from a rip while swimming at Congo Beach on the south coast.
Mr Pearce said many people think rips only occur at remote locations but there's plenty at most Sydney metropolitan beaches including Tamarama. The difference is the lifesavers and lifeguards set the flags so you know the safest locations to swim.
"Tamarama has one called the Bronte Express and the lifeguards and lifesavers are forever retrieving people getting swept around into Bronte," he said.
Because rips can appear as dark, relatively calm channels, many swimmers assume their safe because there are no waves breaking.
"A person that's not confident going into breaking waves and surf might think, well, that's a bit of a separate area, whereas in fact, they're actually putting themselves straight into a rip."
Dr Rip, aka Dr Rob Brander, a coastal geomorphologist behind Science of the Surf warns many of the "social media darlings" on the NSW coast including Fingal Head beach and Dreamtime Beach can run very strong headland rips.
Stanwell Park beach is another, the picturesque stretch south of Sydney described on his website as "an extremely hazardous beach and the rip currents and dangerous shorebreak".
"If you ever visit, you MUST swim between the red and yellow flags and if they aren't there, don't go in unless you are an extremely competent ocean swimmer or surfer."
Unpatrolled south coast beaches with bad rip currents much of the time include Merry Beach, while Lighthouse Beach near Seal Rocks can also be dangerous.
NSW WORST COASTAL BLACKSPOTS
These areas recorded the highest number of fatal coastal incidents in 2019-202
● Port Stephens
● National Parks
● Northern beaches
* source SLSA
For more information on rips, visit his science of the Surf site.
SLS's Beachsafe offers the latest info on every Australian beach from patrols to hazards and weather. Check before heading to the coast.
For information on inland waterways, visit RLSA
Originally published as Most dangerous places to swim in NSW