As Beach Season Opens, a Focus on Israel’s High Drowning Rate

Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On
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Dani Bar On
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The swimming season officially opens Thursday, but as in previous years, the pleasures of swimming will most likely be marred by numerous drownings.

According to Interior Ministry data, 26 people died by drowning last summer. At least that was lower than the 12-year average of 43 drownings per year.

While the ministry doesn’t publish data on drownings that take place outside the official swimming season, data compiled by Haaretz shows that between the end of the last season and the start of this one, at least nine other people drowned, including three brothers from Kseifa who died last month off the coast of Ashkelon. That brings the total for the year to at least 35.

By comparison, only 55 people died off the coast of Australia from July 2011 to June 2012, even though Australia’s population is almost three times the size of Israel’s and its coastline is many times longer.

Of the 26 deaths included in the ministry’s statistics for last year, 19 occurred in either the Mediterranean or the Red Sea, while the rest occurred in Lake Kinneret and the Dead Sea.

The ministry said that 80 percent of last year’s drownings occurred when no lifeguard was present − meaning either that they occurred on a beach where swimming is forbidden, or outside official swimming hours. Two other swimmers suffered a heart attack, one had an epileptic seizure, two died after swallowing water in the Dead Sea, and the cause of the final drowning is unknown.

The message is clear: If you swim without a lifeguard, you are taking your life into your hands.

But even during the official season, there’s no guarantee that a lifeguard will actually be present. This year, for instance, many Tel Aviv beaches are expected to remain closed due to an ongoing dispute between the municipality and the lifeguards’ union. Haaretz reported recently that this year, lifeguards will man only eight of the city’s 13 beaches on weekdays and Saturdays, and only four on Fridays.

Moreover, even on beaches that do have lifeguards, the guards aren’t present throughout the day. Currently, for instance, sunset falls at about 7 P.M., yet this month, Ashkelon’s beaches will have lifeguards only until 4:30 P.M. on weekdays, making it difficult for families with children to swim during the week. The lifeguards will stay on duty until 5:30 P.M. in May and 6:30 P.M. in June, but sunset will be later then as well.

Similarly, lifeguards in Haifa go off duty at 6 P.M. throughout the season. This is particularly problematic because the Israel Cancer Association recommends swimming only after 4 P.M., when the sun is weaker. Thus swimmers are faced with an unpleasant choice between swimming without a lifeguard or increasing their risk of melanoma.

Nevertheless, the lack of lifeguards clearly isn’t the sole source of the problem, since Australia also posts lifeguards on only about 3 percent of its beaches, and many Australians admit that they sometimes swim without a lifeguard despite the government’s efforts to raise awareness of the dangers.

Dov Rosen, an engineer from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, said the main cause of drowning is rip currents. These are narrow channels of water that flow out to sea from near the shore at high speeds, sometimes more than three meters per second, and can suck a person out with them even if he has his feet firmly planted on the seabed.

Rip currents can occur almost anywhere, but are particularly common near breakwaters − a fact that has led some environmentalists to oppose breakwaters on the grounds that they significantly increase the risk of drowning. The currents are also highly variable, capable of going from complete calm to high speed with a few minutes, and can thus easily catch a swimmer unawares.

The best advice on dealing with rip currents is to try to avoid them − which, since most people lack the specialized training needed to detect them, means swimming only in areas marked as safe and with a lifeguard present.

But if that fails, the best tactic is to wave and yell for help, but resist the temptation to fight the current. Instead, let it carry you beyond the breakers, at which point the current will usually die down.

Then, if no help arrives, you can try to swim back to shore between the rip currents.

The black flag and ribbon mean: NO SWIMMING. Note the two entering the water in the background anyway.Credit: Hadar Cohen
A Tel Aviv beach during the summer.Credit: Ariel Shalit