Lifeguards save thousands of lives on Australian beaches each year, but it turns out that quick-thinking surfers may be the unsung heroes of ocean safety.
In 2015, Professor Rob Brander of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – aka Dr Rip – published a study suggesting that surfers rescue as many people as volunteer lifesavers, and that 63% of surfers feel they have saved a life. Now, Bander and colleagues are kicking off a new study to quantify the number of good Samaritan surfers worldwide.
“It’s estimated that over 35 million people regularly participate in surfing – that’s a lot more than the entire population of Australia,” says Brander.
“In Australia alone there are an estimated 2.5 million surfers, which is about 10% of the population.
“So we are really interested to see if we can get stronger data about surfers and how many rescues they might make each year at Australian beaches, and whether this is consistent the world over.”
Dr Amy Peden of UNSW, who will be part of the study, says the study will also gather data about women in the sport.
“Surfing is rapidly growing in popularity with women and girls, so what we’re really interested to know is how many of them are now involved in the sport,” she says.
“We’re really keen to hear from lots of women surfers and find out all about rescues they may have been involved with and what surfing means to them.”
The researchers believe this type of data could inform surf-lifesaving programs and organisations that educate board riders about surf rescue and CPR skills, as well as highlight the important place surfers have in beach safety.
“Participation in surfing has been growing rapidly, and surfing is truly a global activity, as evident by its inclusion for the first time in the recent Tokyo Olympics – a tribute to its global popularity,” says Brander.
“What we hope to gather from the survey is a new, detailed understanding of what the world’s surfing community looks like in terms of demographics, type of surfers, how often they surf, as well as their contribution to rescues.”
The researchers also hope to gather information about surfers’ involvement with the spotting of sharks and shark management programs.
As part of the observational study, which is being launched today, interested surfers around the world will be asked to complete a 15- to 20-minute survey that is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.
Are you a surfer with a spare 15 minutes? Add your voice to the global surfing community by completing the Global Surfer Study survey.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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