Home » 'A nation of waders': Why Australians keep drowning at record rates

'A nation of waders': Why Australians keep drowning at record rates

Nina Darious never wanted to learn to swim when she was young, but it was a decision she came to regret as she grew older.
As a child, her home country of Sri Lanka was plagued by civil war, which meant she was forced to move from one place to another.
"We couldn't go to school regularly, let alone learn to swim," Nina, now 40, told SBS News.
Being in a sinking boat when she was young also contributed to her fear.

"The memory stayed with me and made me reluctant to swim. I had no confidence."

A woman with goggles on her heard smiles at the camera.

Nina Darious, who grew up Sri Lanka, says learning to swim was never a priority when she was a child. Source: Supplied

Nina came to Australia with her parents and three brothers when she was 16. Now an adult in Melbourne with a young family, she doesn't like that she can't swim.
"I feel I have missed out on experiences over the years. When I visited resorts with my husband, I wanted to be in the water. When we visited the Great Barrier Reef, I desperately wanted to snorkel but I couldn’t.

"Once you have kids, a lot of activities start to revolve around the water."

Many Australians can't swim

One in four adults in Australia are either weak swimmers or can’t swim, according to Royal Life Saving Australia (RLSA).
RLSA CEO Justin Scarr said .
"When those adults find themselves on holidays and they're playing, standing or wading in the water with currents and steep drop-offs, they can get themselves into trouble very quickly and silently."
Scarr said Australia is .
"At least 40 per cent of children now leave primary school not being able to swim, and it's likely much, much higher the further away you get from the coast.
"Australians have a long-term reputation as being a nation of swimmers, but in fact, we're increasingly a nation of waders."
Scarr said a child should be able to swim 50 metres and float on their back for two minutes before they leave primary school.

"If they can't, they're at significant risk of drowning throughout their youth and also adulthood."

A young girl at swimming lessons

Royal Life Saving Australia says not enough children take swimming lessons when they're young. Source: AAP

How many people are drowning and where?

RLSA says at least 33 people drowned in Australia in March (compared to a 10-year average of 25), after 99 people drowned over the summer.
The March figures included .
Despite our quality swim programs and , our drowning statistics haven't improved from a decade ago.
A graphic showing the number of drownings in Australian waterways each year for the last decade.

Source: SBS News

Around a quarter of drownings (27 per cent) occur in rivers and creeks, another quarter (27 per cent) on beaches, around 12 per cent in the ocean and harbours, and 10 per cent in pools. The remainder occur in lakes and dams, on rocks and in bathtubs and spa baths, according to the National Drowning Report 2023.
In pools, danger factors include medical conditions, misadventure (including use of drugs and alcohol), and a lack of swimming ability.

Rip currents meanwhile are the number one cause of coastal drownings and account for more deaths than sharks, floods and cyclones combined, according to Surf Life Saving Australia.

A bar chart showing where Australian drowning deaths occur.

Source: SBS News

What's going wrong?

The cost of swimming lessons is a significant factor, Scarr said.
"Parents who are unable to afford lessons can't necessarily rely on the school system to provide the safety net that it once did. Many kids slip through the cracks."
Drowning rates in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities are up to two and a half times higher than the national average, Scarr added, while recently arrived migrants are also at greater risk.
"Refugees and migrants arriving in Australia show significantly higher drowning rates within the first five to 10 years than people who have been in Australia longer or were born here."
But that's not to say that most drownings are among foreigners and tourists, he added.

"The majority of people who drown in Australia are in fact locals, but we do see tourists and international students getting themselves into trouble very quickly — due to their enthusiasm for our wonderful waterways and their lack of understanding of the inherent risks."

Once an international student himself, Dr Masaki Shibata is now a beach safety researcher at Monash University and a volunteer lifesaver at Sydney's Tamarama beach.
He believes a review of beach safety messaging is urgently needed — for foreigners and locals alike.
He points to , consisting of 136 domestic and 84 international students. The survey showed approximately half of both misunderstood the common term "always swim between the flags", believing that surfers should also stay between the flags, which can be dangerous for swimmers.
"Most concerningly, 21 per cent of international students perceived the sign meant that beachgoers who don’t or can’t swim should stay outside the flags,” he told SBS News.

Shibata has now swapped his message of "swim between the flags" to "stay between the flags".

All about education

Scarr said while being aware of the dangers "is really important", the RLSA is most concerned about the "fundamental lack of swimming ability" among people in Australia.
He believes the answer lies in improving school-based and vacation swim programs, improving the availability of programs in high-risk areas, and providing more pools.
"There are swimming pool shortages across the country, which put barriers in place to lessons," he said.
"Across the population, it's a significant challenge to raise swimming ability in adults."

Nina has now been taking weekly swimming lessons for more than a year and has made huge progress.

A woman in a swimming pool holds onto the railing and smiles. A swimming instructor is supporting her.

After taking weekly swimming lessons for more than a year, Nina Darious can now swim with the help of a board. Source: SBS News

"I can now swim with a board and float on my back. It's really built up my confidence," she said.
She thinks other adults unable to swim should jump at the chance to learn.
"I’m so happy I can swim with my kids and we can enjoy water activities as a family.

"And I am giving myself this skill that I will have for the rest of my life."

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