Going for a dip? Australia warns foreign visitors and students of drowning risk at beaches, rivers

File photo of rowers training on Melbourne's Yarra River.
File photo of rowers training on Melbourne's Yarra River.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - With beaches and waterways packed for the Australian summer, authorities have warned about the risk of drowning, particularly for international visitors and especially Asian students.

So far, 29 drowning deaths have been recorded across Australia since Dec 1.

This included the tragic death on Dec 25 of Ravneet Singh Gill, a 22-year-old Indian student, at Duranbah, a beach in northern New South Wales.

Mr Gill, a business student at Southern Cross University, drowned after a wave dragged him into the water and he was caught in a current.

"The water was only (waist high) and there was a wave... they (him and his friends) were trying to come out but they could not, the water was pulling them back," a friend, Mr Manjit Boparai, told the Gold Coast Bulletin.

The growing toll of drowning deaths has prompted authorities - and the Prime Minister - to issue a warning about beach and water safety.

Authorities noted two specific dangers: the risk for foreigners, who often lack swimming skills and familiarity with Australian beach conditions, and the risk - which is often underrated - of drowning in rivers and lakes.

The Royal Life Saving Society said foreigners, particularly students, were a high-risk group who needed to take care and familiarise themselves with local safety rules.

"They (international students) are coming from countries across Asia increasingly and those countries have very low levels of swimming and water safety ability, and extremely high rates of drowning," the society's head, Mr Justin Scarr, told ABC Radio.

"So it is not unpredictable that they would get to our wonderful waterways but not necessarily have the swimming and water safety skills to stay safe."

According to figures compiled by the society, 291 people drowned in Australian waterways last year. Of these, 20 were overseas visitors and eight were students. Eight of the tourists who died were from Asia.

Some universities have started water safety programmes and are offering free swimming lessons tointernational students. The programmes include lessons on beach safety, such as the need to swim between red and yellow flags, which mark the patrolled area of beaches. Students are also taughthow to spot and survive rips, or dangerous currents and tocall for help and never to try to swim against the current.

But the lessons are not always compulsory. In additions, the programmes are often not available at some smaller colleges and universities.

An expert on beach safety, Associate Professor Rob Brander, from the University of New South Wales, said the programmes should be compulsory for all foreign students.

"We don't get large numbers turn up because they are largely not interested when there are so many other things going on after their arrival," he told The Straits Times.

"While most students are not that interested in beach safety, at some point they are likely to visit a beach and are therefore at great risk. Most also do not understand or are not aware of how dangerous our surf conditions can be and many swim on unpatrolled beaches - oblivious to the hazards."

Australia's Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, visited Sydney's popular Bondi beach on Monday to announce A$3 million (S$3.1 million) for swimming safety programs. He highlighted the need to assist foreigners, mentioning his own experience as a volunteer life saver in Bondi when he often had to assist recent arrivals.

"I remember as a young lifesaver here, helping people who have recently come to Australia and weren't used to the different swimming environment here," he told reporters.

"We've got to make sure that whenever there is a vulnerability in any community group, lack of knowledge, lack of swimming expertise, lack of awareness, that that's addressed."

The other recent warning issued by the Royal Life Saving Society has focussed on the risk of drowning at inland rivers and lakes.

Somewhat surprisingly, these waterways actually have more deaths each year than beaches. About 23 per cent of drownings last year were at rivers, creeks and streams, compared with 17 per cent at beaches. A further 16 per cent were in the ocean and harbour, 15 per cent in the swimming pool, and 10 per cent in lakes, lagoons and dams. The remainder involved baths and other sites.

Experts say that rivers can often appear deceptively tranquil despite having strong currents. They can also be more shallow than they appear, leading people to dive in and hit the bottom. Or there can be hidden dangers such as tree branches or icy cold patches of water.

The riskiest rivers have been named as the Murray River in south-east Australia, the Yarra River in Melbourne, the Brisbane River in Brisbane, the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, and the Swan River in Perth. Alcohol is often a factor and has been involved in about 41 per cent of river drowning victims.

At a popular swimming spot along the Murrary River in the town of Albury, a local, Mr Antony Brown, said he believed it was important not to swim alone.

"Making sure you're swimming with friends, or at least someone, is important," he told The Border Mail newspaper.

"It's good to be with people and it's safer."