Rip currents are the biggest hazard on beaches during rainy season. If you swim outside the area marked by red-yellow flags, there is a chance you will get caught by one.
Rips are very strong and narrow currents of water, moving directly from the shore cutting through breaking waves. The key is spotting the hazard. Rips often look like a safe spot, a dark gap in the line of breaking waves. Don’t let it mislead you: what looks like a safe place is actually a dangerous trap.
If caught in a rip, the main thing is not to panic; the rip won’t pull you under the water. Don’t try to swim against the rip directly to the shore. The rip is too strong even for a trained swimmer. Instead, swim sideways, parallel to the shore, to get out of the current and only then turn to the beach. If other people are present on the beach, raise your hand to give a signal of being in trouble.
Waves in Phuket can reach up to three metres during low season. Unlike the rips, waves are easily visible, but this doesn’t prevent some beachgoers from entering the water without checking whether it’s safe or not. Remember to spend some five minutes watching the sea before proceeding further.
The main hazard is huge plunging waves that curl over and powerfully collapse on the beach surface. Dumping waves are the leading cause of spine injuries on Australia’s beaches. If caught in a wave, stretch your arms forward to protect your head and spine.
Also dangerous are sneaker waves that can form once in a while in some areas. They look like sudden rushing waves that reach far further than others. The waves are powerful enough to overwhelm a person and carry them into the ocean. Thus, never turn your back to the sea and always take some time to check the wave pattern.
Nearly every year rock fishing results in one or more deaths in Phuket. Rocks are exposed to high waves and are very slippery. If you fall off a rock, getting out of the water can be extremely difficult.
All the recommendations provided for waves apply to rocks as well: check the wave pattern before coming close to the water; never turn your back to the ocean (waves can come out of nowhere); and mind every step you take.
Remember that some rocks are covered by water and can thus pose a danger to unsuspecting swimmers or a person willing to dive from a cliff. Note that diving from a cliff in Phuket is a bad idea at any time of the year.
Sharks sometimes hit the headlines of local news websites, but in real life they never appear anywhere near Phuket’s beaches. This doesn’t mean that the local fauna is all friendly. At least two types of creatures can pose a threat to a swimmer here: the jellyfish (including box jellyfish) and the bluebottle (a poisonous siphonophore also known as the Portuguese man o' war).
Don’t forget sea urchins and other organisms can also be quite nasty, though not lethal.
The best piece of advice is do not touch any marine life and watch your steps on the shore and in shallow water. If stung by something, see a specialist as soon as possible.
Recognising an emergency
In an aquatic emergency, survival depends on a quick response. A drowning person goes through two stages: aquatic distress and actual drowning.
A swimmer in distress realises that his life is under threat, and as he is capable of intentional actions, he shouts, splashes, tries to attract attention or tries to grab a lifesaving device.
Don’t think that the person is just playing or fooling you. The distress stage doesn’t last long. If not helped, a swimmer in distress will soon become a drowning victim. The second stage presupposes loss of conscious behaviour: all actions are uncontrolled and instinctive.
Thus, real drowning – unlike distress – is silent and fast. It takes from 20 to 60 seconds and doesn’t look like a struggle at all due to what experts call Instinctive Drowning Response (IDR).
This is how IDR was described by Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia Ph.D. for On Scene, The Journal of U. S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue:
1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are silent. They are physiologically unable to call out for help.
2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. This time is enough only to exhale and inhale quickly before submerging again.
3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water for one breath.
4. Drowning people cannot control their arm movements and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving or grabbing a lifesaving device.
5. Drowning people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.
In cases of both aquatic distress and drowning, the best way to find out if everything is okay is asking. If the person cannot answer, it is time to react – and do it swiftly.
Responding to an emergency
In an aquatic emergency, every second counts. The first step is alerting surrounding people. Shout for help, call for lifeguards (if present), wave your hands – informing goes before any actions and the more people alerted, the better.
Lifeguards are professionally trained to respond to emergencies, but around you there can be other people with relevant skills, such as divers, surfers or rescue volunteers. Even if you have undertaken water-safety training in the past, don’t rush to help without informing others about what you are doing.
Always carefully consider the whole situation before going into the water yourself. If you are unable to swim, find a lifeline or any improvised lifesaving device that you can throw to the person and call 1669. Remember that a person can be brought back to life even after some 5-10 minutes under water.
And if you haven’t done so yet, enroll in water safety, first aid and CPR courses to learn what to do.
If you are in danger
If you find yourself in threat while swimming, try to calm down and suppress panic. Rescue will come and your main objective is to call for help and live to see it. Stay calm and don’t panic.
To increase your buoyancy, inhale as much as you can and slowly exhale. This will help you float and at the same time calm you down. Then try to attract attention by raising one hand and waving it. Don’t try to shout for help before you are stable in the water as this can result in you inhaling water.
Try to search for floating objects that can serve as improvised lifesaving devices and reach for them.
And always remember that prevention of emergency is the best form of survival. Swim only in the designated areas. Don’t go into the water where red flags and signs prohibiting swimming are posted.
‘Beach hazards’ information provided by Dr Rob Brander from the University of New South Wales, referencing material from www.scienceofthesurf.com