Surfers Run Deep!

Research shows that these ocean thrill seekers really care.

Group of Gen Z friends walking with surfboards by the ocean.

(wavebreakmedis /

Surprising new research from New Zealand contradicts the commonly held view that surfers are hedonistic folks only focused on fun. Instead, they often play a critical role in saving lives. The study, “The unexplored role of surfers in drowning prevention: Aotearoa, New Zealand as a case study”, as Surfer reports, reveals that these thrill seekers selflessly save people they see struggling in the ocean as swimmers or after boating incidents, and so actually reduce fatalities from drowning, playing a key role in making beaches safer.

Bystander superheroes on the frontline of drowning prevention
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 236,000 people drown worldwide each year, with drowning the third leading cause of unintentional death.

However, according to this research from Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Hakai magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems, lifesaving acts of heroism by surfers who save others in difficulty in the ocean waters around them, are surprisingly common. In fact, based on the sample of 418 surfers, according to Scoop, respondents reportedly rescue an average of three people drowning or struggling in the water over the course of their lives, and some even report taking part in 10 to 20 rescues. This makes surfers the under-recognized guardians of the beach rather than the stereotypical self-centred adrenaline junkies depicted in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Point Break.

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Over 70 percent of these rescues happened when there was no lifeguard on duty. According to the study, almost half of these bystander rescuers believed that they had saved the life of the person they rescued.

In addition, the survey at the heart of the research found that in almost 90 percent of rescues, people aided by the responding surfers required no further treatment after the incident, making their help unlikely to be reported and so recorded. As one of the study’s co-authors from AUT, Jamie Mead tells Hakai magazine, “We need to get surfers the recognition they deserve and do more research to accurately quantify how many rescues they’re actually doing.”

Significantly, as RNZ details, almost half of the surfers involved in the study, had at least 21 years of surfing experience behind them, with almost 85 percent rating themselves as advanced to professional in ability.

Surfers can be guardians of the beach worldwide
According to Surfer, there’s a long, documented history of the relationship between surfing and lifeguarding. Some of the first surfers in California were also lifeguards.

Mead writes in his paper, as quoted by Hakai magazine, that organizations involved in drowning prevention “should work closely with surfing communities on ways to reduce fatalities at coastal beaches.” Equipment such as stretchers and automated electronic defibrillators can be made more readily available in surfing clubs near the water, for instance.

Since this research was published, there has been a growing interest in the training of surfers in lifesaving skills. Taking to Scoop, Sonia Keeper, an experienced surfer and instructor, explains that the insights provided by the survey have motivated surfing organizations to expand their reach and connect with an even broader community of surfers. For instance, a course she is involved with, Surfers Rescue 24/7, first rolled out in Australia, “empowers the surfing community by giving them the skills and knowledge to respond effectively in emergency situations while prioritizing their own safety,” Keeper says.

The development office for the International Surfing Association headquartered in California, Andy Joyce, is quoted in Hakai magazine. He reveals that a recent survey conducted by his association of 169 surf coaches echoes the impressive findings of the New Zealand study. In his organization’s survey, the respondents reported having rescued an impressive 938 people in total, with almost half of these rescues performed by 27 surfers, each saving about 16 people. He notes that these super rescuers tend to be very experienced in the water, and are also trained in delivering first aid. 

Another study of surfer bystander rescuers, looking at the responses of 569 French surfers taking part in a global survey, found that 55.9% of French surfers self-reported having previously conducted a rescue. It is interesting that 88.4% of the respondents were willing to take part in a course aimed at lifesaving and rescue skills for surfers, whether freely provided or not.

Joyce believes that trained surfers could be especially valuable in developing nations lacking coordinated drowning prevention programs such as swimming education for children and lifeguard services.

If lifesaving skills are rolled out to the broader coastal surfer communities around the world, this preparation can help ensure that a good day at the beach doesn’t turn into a tragic one.

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