riptides

The riptides, the darker channels between sandbanks, is where most people drown. Photo Rob Brander

What kills more people in Australia than bushfires, floods, and sharks—combined? Riptides. These are the strong, narrow seaward flowing currents that return to sea much of the water brought to the beach by breaking waves. Around 30 to 40 Australians are killed each year and many more die on the beaches of the U.S. and Hawaii every year. A recent pilot study by the University of New South Wales with the support of the Australian Research Council and Surf Life Saving Australia has attempted to understand how rips works and educate the public on how to avoid becoming part of these deadly statistics. The findings of the study suggest that if you simply remain in the riptide, you will find yourself back on shore within a few minutes instead of swept out of sea, meaning you should never fight against a riptide if you want to survive it.

[Related: How to get out of a riptide]

One of the methods the study used, as reported by Australia's ABC's Science, was to release a purple dye at Sydney's Tamarama Beach. The dye, which is made from Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate) and is harmless to the marine environment, shows the location and speed of rips. The dye took just 2.5 minutes to move past the breaking part of the waves before then returning to shore.

dye

The dye is released near shore and travels quickly seaward. Photos Rob Brander

riptide

riptide

The speed of the rips flow peaked at about 0.5 to 1 m/s. However, most people caught in rips are unaware of the speed as they are simply going with the flow. Photo Rob Brander

The fact that rips recirculate, rather than head out straight out to sea, was shown by another dye release, seen here in Dixon Park, Newcastle.

riptide

The dye first heads out to sea, but quickly circles back to shore. Photo Rob Brander

This was further proved a by using devices, called drifters, which were designed to float as a person would. Each drifter had a GPS unit attached to track where it went and how fast. The vast majority of the drifters re-circulated.

Drifters

Drifters, accompanied by study volunteers, at Bondi Beach. Photo Rob Brander

While this is just the start of an extended three-year study, the results show that most rips only flow as far offshore as breaking waves. So if you’re caught in one, never swim against it; simply stay afloat and don’t panic. There’s a good chance you’ll end up back in shallow water in just a few minutes.

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