Swim Wild, Stay Safe: 8 Essential Swimming Safety Tips You May Not Have Thought Of
December 17th, 2015
SWIMMING OUTDOORS, LIKE MOST SPORTS ACTIVITIES (AND LIKE MOST LIFE EXPERIENCES) CARRIES POTENTIAL RISKS. KNOWING THE RISKS AND MAKING INFORMED CHOICES BASED ON YOUR PERSONAL LIMITS IS THE BEST WAY TO ENSURE SWIMMING SAFETY AND HAVE A GREAT WILD SWIMMING EXPERIENCE.
Wild swimming itself is not a high risk activity. In Australian waterways in 2014 there were only 65 drownings where victims were swimming or recreating immediately before the incident. In the context of the tens of thousands of people visiting beaches, rivers and lakes throughout Australia each year this is a minimal, although still tragic, figure.
We can’t promise that the information we provide through Wild Swimming Australia will keep you completely safe 100% of the time, but we hope that your own common sense will.
However, we’ve put together this little list of things to bear in mind whilst exploring swimming holes or contemplating a swim to give you a starting point for evaluating the risks.
So what do you need to bear in mind when deciding if a particular wild swimming adventure is safe for you?
1) Foreign Objects
Jumping from cliffs or rope swings can be incredible, almost irresistible fun but always check what lies beneath the surface before jumping. Rock formations are unpredictable and there can often be one large boulder in the middle of an otherwise deep pool. Logs or other large pieces of debris can wash down from upstream meaning that what was safe to jump into yesterday can be hazardous today. The same goes for swimming beneath waterfalls or in strong currents where floating debris may wash onto the unwary swimmer.
One of the most awesome things about immersing yourself in a wild environment is the potential for close encounters with plants and animals outside of the experience of your average city-dweller. Australia’s unique flora and fauna is awe inspiring and every wild swimming location will have its unique combination of wildlife surprises. Animals and birds congregate around water and so as a wild swimmer you will be better placed than most to come across some of the most sought-after Australian wildlife sightings such as platypuses, turtles, lizards, kingfishers, dolphins, whales and so many more.
However, some of these encounters may be more welcome than others. Its a good idea to wear long pants and long sleeves as well as sturdy footwear when trekking to bushland swimming holes to avoid unwanted advances from leeches, mosquitoes or ticks etc. This will also protect you from scratches and skin contact with poisonous plants as well as eliminating the need for any bug spray, which may not be so good for you or for the more desirable water creatures when you swim. Walking quietly, using your senses and staying aware of your surroundings will mean you will see more animals and birds and will be more likely to spot anything you’d rather avoid in advance.
In areas where crocs are found there will probably be a crocodile management plan in place. This means that some swimming holes will be actively managed to try to prevent crocs from entering the area and any crocodiles spotted will be removed. More info about staying safe in crocodile areas in the Northern Territories can be found here, for Western Australia here and for Queensland here. The main over-riding advice about swimming in crocodile areas is: unless there is a sign saying that swimming is safe, don’t swim.
3) Wild Water
Water is incredibly powerful and can be unpredictable. That’s one of the things we love about wild swimming. That freeing feeling of not quite being in control, the excitement of jumping into the unknown. However knowing your limits and swimming well within them is a major factor in staying safe. Each aquatic environment has its own particular ways of behaving and it pays to become acquainted with the workings of the places you are going to swim.
In the ocean, rip currents are the major cause of drowning and near drowning, however this is exacerbated by the fact that 60% of Australians (not to mention all the overseas tourists that swim at our beaches) do not know what a rip current is. Rips do not drag floating objects underwater, contrary to popular belief. And perhaps the best way to deal with being caught in a rip current is to relax, float and allow the rip to bring you back into an area of breaking waves over a sandbank. From here it will be much easier and less energy-consuming to make your way back to shore. The Bold and Beautiful ocean swimming squad in Manly have published two excellent articles on their website, one about rips and another about ocean swimming safety.
Currents are also a major concern in rivers and large creeks during times of high water volume, when swimmers may be washed against rocks or other debris. Thought should also be given to entry and exit points as once washed down a fast-flowing stream it may be impossible to return to the original point of entry and river banks further downstream may be steep, overgrown or slippery.
Lakes, dams and small enclosed swimming holes such as those commonly found above or below waterfalls are generally less prone to strong currents. However, heavy rainfall upstream or anywhere within the river catchment can cause flash flooding which may heavily affect the behaviour of the water as well as the level of floating debris. Information on river conditions can be found on the Bureau of Meteorology website.
4) Water Quality
Water quality varies from area to area and day to day, however there are some fairly obvious things to look out for such as sewage outfalls, industrial sites nearby and swimming holes downhill and downstream from agricultural land, which may become contaminated by runoff, particularly after heavy rainfall. Many beaches also have warning signs stating that entering the water after heavy rainfall may not be safe. This is usually due to flash flooding overloading sewer systems and pollution from road, urban and agricultural runoff and leakage from septic tanks. In NSW the Beachwatch program provides an annual report on water quality at many beaches.
Wildlife in the water can also be a good indicator of water quality. For example Stoneflies, Mayflies and Caddisflies are usually only found in unpolluted fresh water. Larger animals such as turtles are also a good sign as they will not survive in heavily polluted water. We are always reassured by signs indicating a healthy wildlife population in the water. If it’s good enough for platypus, it’s good enough for us!
5) Wild Weather
The unpredictability of the weather becomes more of a concern in the wild where shelter may be harder to find. However it is also one of the many factors which makes wild swimming so exciting and fun. Getting caught by an unexpected downpour can add a delightful new element to your swim as your whole world becomes watery and the interaction between raindrops and bodies of water mesmerizes the senses. But heavy rain for prolonged periods can mean stronger currents and increased debris floating down rivers and even out to sea.
During a thunderstorm swimmers are among those at the highest risk of being injured by lightening. Even a storm in the distance can produce lightening which strikes up to 10km away, and a strike on water close to a swimmer could travel through the water and electrocute them as well as producing sound and heat waves which would seriously damage the human body. So if you hear lightening its time to leave the water and seek shelter. For more detailed info on staying safe during lightening storms download the Swimming NSW recommendations.
In sunny weather the usual hats, long sleeves, staying hydrated and seeking shade to guard against sunburn and sunstroke are, of course, the go. However, think twice about using sunscreen before a swim as the chemicals in most sunscreens can be damaging to some of the fragile plants and animals in river ecosystems.
With the right preparation and frame of mind wild swimming can be an awesome winter activity too, as members of the Brighton Icebergers and many other Australian ocean swimming clubs who swim year round will tell you. There are also numerous health benefits associated with bathing in cold water on a regular basis. But the possibility of hypothermia is a real and cold water swimming is best done with a buddy or two to assist with cramps or the other debilitating effects of cold in an emergency. Warming up well before a swim, starting small and gradually raising your tolerance to cold water, and having some warmer clothes and a hot drink ready for when you get out will all help to make your cold-water swimming experience so much more pleasurable and safe. There is some excellent information on the medical effects of cold water on the body and how to acclimatize on the UK Outdoor Swimming Society website or check out our article on Winter Wild Swimming for more detailed info.
6) Wild People
It’s always good to swim with someone. For one thing they’ll make the experience a lot more fun and you’ll probably spur each other on to swim even if you’re feeling cold or lazy. But it also means you can look out for each other and there’ll be someone there if you get into a tight spot.
It goes without saying that kids should never be left unattended near water and this is doubly true in the wild. Although we think that experiences of getting into the wild, exploring, learning new physical skills and playing in water are an awesome part of a happy childhood, the extra hazards of rocks, currents etc mean that kids need a watchful eye and reminders of safe behaviour.
When swimming near other water users such as fisherpeople, boats, jetskis and surfers etc, make yourself visible by wearing a brightly coloured swimming cap and try to understand the way in which they use the water so you can stay away from potential collisions. It is generally best to avoid swimming near boat ramps or in boating areas.
The final person to beware of in the water is ourselves. Our own behaviour will largely determine how safe we are in the water. There is nothing to prove by scaling a cliff that is unsafe, or jumping from an untested rope swing. True bravery means sticking to your own sense of what is right for you. Unsafe behaviours at popular swimming spots also lead to the closure of the spot for other swimmers, as has happened at Natural Bridge in the Springbrook National Park.
Using alcohol or drugs whilst swimming also increases risk. The CDC states that “alcohol use is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation”. Alcohol and drugs impair judgement and slow reflexes meaning that we are more likely to have accidents when under their influence.
7) Wild Landscapes
A huge part of wild swimming is the wild part. The desire to swim somewhere new and perhaps more natural, isolated or adventurous will inevitably lead the wild swimming explorer to places which are not managed or restricted, and how much freer it feels to swim without a railing, fence or information board in sight. However, it doesn’t hurt to learn from the past and several potential swimming holes have restrictions on them due to past accidents, a notable example being Purling Brook Falls and Natural Bridge in Queensland. Common risk factors are slippery rocks on the edges of pools, particularly at the tops of waterfalls, where people have fallen in or over. If the current is strong, figure out if you will be able exit the water safely further downstream as steep, muddy or overgrown banks may be difficult to climb. muddy banks if carried downstream.
It is also a good idea to check the legality of access to the place you plan to swim. Where a swimming hole is on private land it can legally be accessed via the stream itself but not by walking across private land without permission. Luckily there are hundreds of beautiful swimming holes in Australia’s national parks, forests and reserves which are freely accessible to anyone, often at no charge.
8) Don’t forget to have fun!
Now, if after reading all that you’re too nervous to even dip a toe in the water, remember that thousands of people go swimming in the wild every day and have a fabulous time, and you’re more than likely to be one of them. The secret is to use your senses and common sense, swim well within your limits and be well prepared. And most of all, have fun!