The spotlight on drownings must be shifted from Australian beaches to its rivers before more lives are lost, according to a search and rescue expert.
Captain of the Albury-based River Rescue Team, Stuart Dye, who has pulled body after body from rivers in his region, said attitudes towards safety in fresh water must change.
State and Federal governments need to spend more money on educating young people about the dangers of rivers, and the need to wear lifejackets, he said.
Mr Dye has retrieved more than 50 bodies from rivers in New South Wales and Victoria, including the Yarra, during his 40 years as a volunteer.
He said many drownings of children occurred because parents were not aware of the dangers of rivers.
The most traumatic of his experiences was the recovery of a dead three month-old baby, Mr Dye said.
“When I was diving for the child I was saying, ‘if there’s a God, let me find this baby so I can take it back to its parents and give them closure’,” he said.
Also extremely traumatic was the recovery of a drowned six-year-old boy, Mr Dye said.
“His father was sitting in his car reading a book and his son was standing in the river. The current was so strong he was just sucked in, right under his father’s nose,” he said.
“I’ve seen so many toddlers with $2 floaties on their arms and I think, is that all their child is worth?”
Mr Dye said many of the drownings he had been called to – both in the Yarra and other rivers – were caused by ignorance and misjudgment.
He had even seen a teenage boy drowned, after being peer pressured by his mates to swim a dangerous river.
“We need designated swimming areas around rivers … you’ve got snags, shifting sandbanks, floods… you can go half-a-metre underwater and not see a thing,” he said.
“Unlike beaches, what you swam in today is not what you will swim in tomorrow. I’ve had two instances where I’ve found that bodies have traveled upstream instead of downstream in a drowning.”
A bartender at Melbourne’s Wharf Hotel is also calling for improved safety measures around rivers, in the wake of a near drowning in the Yarra last year.
Matthew McKiernan said he heard a man screaming for help while working his usual shift at Dockland’s Wharf Hotel about 11.30pm on November 20.
Being a trained swimmer and surfer, Mr McKiernan stripped off his uniform and immediately dived into the Yarra River to rescue the man.
“I was genuinely shocked at how fast the currents were. When I got to him he was already underwater. He was completely unconscious and had no pulse,” Mr McKiernan said.
The man was revived at the scene by staff also working at the Wharf Hotel.
Mr McKiernan said he was shocked there had not been a dramatic change in attitudes towards river safety since the incident.
“Everything stems from water knowledge and safety, not just reading about these things but actually teaching them and practising them,” he said.
“A river changes when it rains. You can be a local and be in as much danger as a foreigner. Education and awareness campaigns are absolutely needed on river safety.”
A Royal Life Saving report shows 2892 people drowned in Australian rivers between 2002 and 2012.
There has been a five percent increase in river drownings from 2015 to 2016, the report reveals.
Mr Dye said rivers were deadly not just because of their unpredictability, but also because of their lack of visibility.
“How well do you know your bed? Get a five cent piece and turn the lights out in the middle of the night, then try to find it,” he said. “That’s what it is like trying to find a body in a river.”