Cooling off in a natural swimming hole is one of life’s greatest pleasures. But as natural swim spots aren’t regularly maintained, there can be quite a few potential dangers when it comes to wild swimming. Before you head into the water next, be sure you know how to stay safe!
Swimming Can be Risky Business
Summer is the time to be found drifting gently in quiet lagoons, splashing in ponds and dams, and chilling under magnificent waterfalls. Sadly, behind the scenes, this perfect summer image is tainted. Statistics tell us that every year visitors to our waterways are drowning.
According to Royal Life Saving Australia’s 2020 National Drowning Report, 248 people drowned in Australian waterways last year.
Check out these stats:
- 80% were male aged
- 25-34 age group saw the largest number of deaths
- Only 18% of drawings were at the beach
- Rivers are the most deadly waterway
- 15% of people had fallen in
This year, let’s change the statistics – take care of yourself and your mates when you’re in or near the water. Here are a few simple ways to stay safe at swimming holes, while still having fun!
Swimming Hole Safety Tips
1. Know How to Swim
If you don’t know how to swim, don’t go to a swimming hole. It’s as simple as that. Swimming holes often have viewpoints which are safe to access, but anywhere close to water is risky. Slippery rocks, algae and moss might mean you inadvertently slip into the water (check the stats, 15% of people who drowned last year just fell into the water).
2. Bring Your Mates
NEVER swim alone. Having someone there might be what saves you when something goes wrong. Swimming holes and rivers are unpredictable so going alone is very risky.
3. Don’t Drink And Swim
There’s a reason they don’t let you drink and drive – your judgement is impaired, your balance is off and you can’t act as quickly as you might need to. Same goes with swimming and rock jumping – lay off the drinks, it’s not worth it.
4. Know Your Rescue Equipment
Even after a 000 call or activating a PLB, it can take emergency services hours to get to you in remote areas. In the meantime, you need to manage the risks as much as possible.
- Bring an Inflatable: They can pack down pretty small so they’re not that hard to bring along, but if you need it they’re an invaluable rescue device.
- Take a Rope: This can be used to tow in a struggling swimmer. Practice your rope throws (keep holding on to one end, throw the other end as far as you can) before you go out.
- First Aid Kit: A solid first aid kit should have what you need to stabilise a mate until emergency services arrive. Drowning isn’t the only danger, it’s best to be prepared for cuts, falls and bites when you’re far from help. Make sure you know how to use everything in your kit!
- Take a PLB: Personal Locator Beacons are essential if you’re going anywhere with a lack of phone service.
Have a Swim Safety Routine
You’re a confident swimmer, you’ve rallied a group of friends to go with and you’re super keen to hit up a new swimming hole. Here’s a simple routine to check that the water is safe to swim in.
1. Check The Weather
If a storm is forecast it’s time to make other plans. Water is a great conductor for lightning and swimmers stick up above the surface ready to be zapped. Flash flooding is a major danger as heavy rain upstream can turn a safe spot into a raging torrent in minutes. Even strong winds can affect currents and make the surface of the water harder to read.
2. Check The Depth
Water at swimming holes is often murky and the depth is hard to visualise. Poke a long stick into the water to check the depth. Never jump or dive in.
3. Gently Wade in
Never enter the water for the first time with a jump. You can complete all the checks, but these don’t guarantee safety. Wading in slowly allows you to judge the water on a much better level. Get out if the water is pulling you around, the bottom is snaggy or unpredictable, or you feel unsafe.
4. Check The Water Speed
Fast flowing waters or the areas just above or below a waterfall are very dangerous. Here it’s difficult to swim against the current and you can easily be swept away or sucked into hydraulics. Throw a short log into the water and observe what happens, if it’s pulled under or swept quickly downstream, don’t swim!
Safety Tip: Don’t swim under powerful waterfalls. They can push and hold you under!
5. Check The Water Quality
Water quality can become an issue in a normally swimmable waterway when there’s been a lot of rain creating runoff from surrounding land. Swimming holes next to agricultural land may get pesticide or fertiliser runoff, which creates a pretty unpleasant soup to swim in, as do overflowing septic tanks. Eww!
There’s information on water quality for some spots available online, but not a lot. If you don’t fancy bringing along a water-testing kit on your day out (who does?) you can look at what’s around and what the weather’s been like and make an educated guess.
Noticing which insects are present can also be a good indication of the level of pollutants in the water. If you’re wanting to satisfy your inner biology geek you could download these handy charts and make Caddis Fly Larvae spotting the game of the day!
6. Check For Crocs
Whilst crocs aren’t an issue in a lot of Australian swimming holes, if you’re swimming in northern Australia then you’ll want to know how to be crocwise around water.
Many popular swimming spots are patrolled and cleared of any dangerous crocs when they’re sighted. Generally speaking though, if a swimming hole in a croc area is not signposted as croc-free then it may not be.
Some areas will also be safe at certain times of the year or if they’re inaccessible to crocs, such as at the top of a waterfall. Here’s more info on where to watch out for crocs in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Rock Jump Safety
Rock jumps are fun – there’s no way we’d tell you to stop jumping into water from a height – but they’re inherently dangerous so it’s essential to do these checks before jumping.
1. Check The Depth of The Jump Site
Wade out to the landing zone and check the depth. Position yourself in a standing position with your hands up and submerge yourself upright until you feel the bottom with your feet. If your hands are above water – it’s not safe to jump.
This is only reliable for jumps up to about 5 metres, most jumps higher than this are only undertaken by experienced jumpers in very deep water: dams or naturally occurring deep pools.
2. Check For Submerged Rocks or Branches
In the same way as you checked the depth, move around the site checking the landing zone. Use a stick instead of your feet if you can to avoid snagging.
You should be able to see submerged shapes from the jump site; if the water’s too murky you should probably reconsider the safety of the jump. Finally, never assume that things haven’t changed since your last visit, swimming holes are constantly changing.
3. Check The Takeoff Site
Having a good takeoff means you are more likely to be able to control your jump. Never jump from slippery surfaces or attempt to jump over another feature to reach the water.
4. Know How to Jump Safely
The safest way to jump is landing feet first in the water. Once you’ve hit the water, gently bring your feet forward to slow your landing. When jumping tuck your elbows in, keep your legs close together, slightly bend your knees and look out (not down, you’ll tip forward). You’ll want to avoid bellyflops at all costs, right?
Swimming holes are dangerous and wild. Even if you follow every single piece of advice on this list there’s still a chance that things will go wrong. Don’t let that discourage you!
A good day of wild swimming will give you memories for life (or at least until the next weekend). Just remember to trust your gut – if it feels or looks unsafe speak up and keep yourself and your mates safe.
Feature photo by @pearce_m