The quest to get a perfect selfie at a stunning, remote beach, or at a spectacular inland waterfall, as well as poor swimming abilities, are behind a rise in the number of drownings over summer, according to water safety experts.

Across Australia, 99 people lost their lives at beaches and in rivers, pools, and other waterways between December 1 last year and February 29 this year — a 10 per cent increase on the previous summer.

More than half the deaths were on the coast, with at least 54 of the 55 drownings occurring outside patrolled areas.

The exact location and cause of one death, at Mooloolaba Beach in Queensland, is under coronial investigation.

Data from Royal Life Saving Australia shows drowning rose in many areas.(ABC Graphics: Paul Sellenger)

A significant number of the other drownings occurred in remote locations at inland waterways where it was often difficult to get help quickly.

And more than a quarter of the deaths occurred in the week between Christmas and New Year, according to the Summer Coastal Drowning Report released by Surf Life Saving Australia.

However, the toll could have been higher, with the report showing more than 5,700 people had to be rescued from coastal locations by lifeguards and volunteer surf lifesavers over the summer period.

A further 25,000 first aid treatments and 1.3 million preventative actions were also provided by surf lifesavers and lifeguards patrolling beaches across the country during this time.

Drop in swimming skills

More than 5,700 people were rescued from the surf by lifesavers and volunteers over summer.(Supplied: Surf Life Saving Australia)

The highest number of drowning deaths was recorded in New South Wales, where 30 people died.

In Victoria, 27 people drowned.

Queensland recorded 22 drownings — a 57 per cent jump from last summer.

National research manager at Royal Life Saving Australia Stacey Pidgeon said a driving factor behind the increase in tragedies likely stemmed from COVID lockdowns, when pools were closed.

Stacey Pidgeon says swimmers need to be aware of their abilities before entering the water.(Supplied: Royal Life Saving Australia)

“Some people didn’t return to the swimming pool or didn’t have their swimming lessons and have stopped altogether, so now we’re starting to see a cumulative effect of that,” she said.

More than a quarter of those who drowned were adults aged 55 years and over, which Ms Pidgeon said was a concerning trend.

“It is really important for adults to remember they may not have the skills they once had,” she said.

Isolated drowning locations

Surf Life Saving Australia is responsible for coastal water safety, while Royal Life Saving Australia focuses on all other bodies of water, including rivers and pools.

Both organisations are funded by the federal government,  and are aiming to halve the number of drowning deaths by 2030, as part of the Australian Water Safety Strategy.

Chair of lifesaving at Surf Life Saving Australia Chris Jacobsen said many people were entering the sea outside the designated safety zones between red and yellow flags. 

Chris Jacobsen says people should check the conditions before entering the water.(Supplied: Surf Life Saving Australia)

“People are wanting to explore,” he said. 

“Social media is a key influencer here of people sharing some of those lovely, beautiful places.”

The Summer Coastal Drowning Report released by Surf Life Saving Australia has found 60 per cent of coastal drownings occurred in regional and remote locations, which Mr Jacobsen said was a 9 per cent increase on last year’s average.

Ms Pidgeon said the growing popularity of isolated swimming locations was also a concern for Royal Life Saving Australia.

A man jumps from the top of a waterfall to get the perfect selfie.(Supplied: Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash)

“There’s beaches, but there’s also hidden waterfalls or water holes … that are often really hard to get to, which means if someone gets into trouble in those locations, it’s harder for emergency services to respond,” she said.

Lack of rip awareness

Mr Jacobsen said rips were main cause of three in every four fatalities at coastal locations.

“People aren’t aware of the rips. When we go out there and we ask people how to identify a rip, some people think they can but they actually can’t,” he said.

According to data, two in three summer coastal drownings occurred more than a kilometre from surf lifesaving services.(ABC Graphics: Paul Sellenger)

“There’s a lot more work we need to do and Australia needs to do in identifying rips, and [teaching] what to do when you are in trouble, because this is something that we can prevent.

“That’s what’s really alarming about these statistics — all these drownings … are preventable.”

In late January in Victoria’s Gippsland region, four people died at Forrest Caves beach on Phillip Island.

Police believe the four swimmers were caught in a rip.

Authorities said the incident was Victoria’s deadliest beach tragedy in almost 20 years.

It meant seven people drowned off south Gippsland beaches within 13 days.

On February 22, just a few kilometres down the coast from Forrest Caves, 19-year-old surfing instructor Niamh Moore rescued a family of three who had been caught in a rip.

“It was pretty much the exact same conditions to what the surf was like on the day of that Forrest Caves drowning,” she said.

“It was blazing hot, 40 degrees, tiny waves, but it was super, super windy.”

Niamh Moore says some young people don’t care about staying between the flags.(Supplied: Phillip Island Boardriders Club)

Ms Moore said a three-year-old girl and her father had been playing in the water at Smiths Beach before getting swept out, and the mother followed in an attempt to rescue them but also ran into trouble.

“[The mum had] nearly collapsed from exhaustion,” she said.

“All I could see was her face sticking out of the water, so I thought she was actually on her back floating unconscious.”

Ms Moore and two other surfers eventually managed to help all three back to shore on their surfboards. She said the beach’s summer patrol period had only ended the week before.

“It’s seen as a safe beach, a patrolled beach, but it just shows you that it’s not. The water is insanely dangerous,” she said.

People ‘not reading’ warning signs

Phillip Island resident Graham Jolly has been calling for the Bass Coast region’s beach warning signs to be improved for several years, as he believes many don’t meet current Australian standards.

“In the signs down here, the top of the sign is very small in showing people the beach safety warning,” he said.

“More often than not, you’ve got a ‘no dog’ sign nailed underneath the main sign or you’ve got something to do with … protecting our shorebirds.

“But the main thing of getting the beach danger warning sign out to the public, right in their face … it’s not happening.”

A safety sign at Kilcunda Surf Beach in Victoria’s Gippsland region, where a man drowned last month.( ABC News: Georgia Lenton-Williams )

A spokesperson for the Bass Coast Shire Council said beach safety planning with relevant agencies was ongoing.

“Signs are currently compliant and if there is future advice we will update signage accordingly,” the spokesperson said.

The council is also providing more comprehensive print and digital communications about beach safety.

Mr Jacobsen said the Australian standard for signage was implemented “right across the country”.

“The challenge is trying to make people aware … sometimes it’s just that they’re not reading the signs,” he said.

He said Surf Life Saving Australia was using technology to make people aware of dangers and to help raise the alarm if needed.

“Part of that is rolling out some emergency response beacons at those beaches that are unpatrolled, looking at technology such as Bluetooth beacons and geographic tagging,” he said.

Many patrolled areas on Gold Coast

Anthony Lunney says it’s important to only visit patrolled beaches when they’re open.(ABC News: Jessica Lamb)

In Queensland, where drowning deaths rose by 57 per cent, signage directing people to swim between the flags is displayed in seven different languages at popular tourism hotspots like Surfers Paradise.

Gold Coast City Council acting chief lifeguard Anthony Lunney said there were about one million monitored beach visits in the city over summer and he was unsure why most of the drownings occurred late in the season.

 “We almost got away with the whole summer of not getting any drownings, even though we had a lot of people and lots and lots of bad conditions,” Mr Lunney said.

“I think that [drowning] report probably reflects a lot around the whole of Australia. New South Wales and Victoria had quite a number of drownings, because they have a lot of isolated areas where people do go swimming.

“We’re lucky on the Gold Coast because we have such a big lifeguard service that we can have that spread of patrolled areas.

“I’m not saying we don’t get a lot of preventions and rescues but fortunately, we can offer a lot of safe places for people to swim.”

Mr Lunney said lifeguards were rescuing people of all nationalities over summer, not just foreign tourists who were unaware of coastal dangers or perhaps less skilled at beach swimming.

“We just want to keep that message out that if we can’t see you, we can’t save you,” he said.

‘We can always do with more lifesavers’

Surf lifesavers and lifeguards delivered 25,000 first aid treatments at coastal locations this summer. (Supplied: Surf Lifesaving Australia)

Longer-term data shows a 26 per cent decrease in Australia’s drowning rate over the past 20 years, but reducing beach drowning rates has been a major challenge.  

Mr Jacobsen said authorities needed to look to practical solutions to reduce the number of coastal drownings.

“No matter which location it is, we can always do with more lifesavers but … we can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said.

“We’ve also got to look at the other avenues that are available to us — education being that key driver.”

Mr Jacobsen encouraged beachgoers to visit their Beachsafe website and to always take precautions.

“If you’re continuing to go out in the aquatic environment … check the weather. We know it constantly changes,” he said.

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