A global, online survey has been launched to see whether surfers are the unsung “guardians” of the beach, rescuing people who might otherwise have drowned.

Dr Rob Brander, a coastal geomorphologist at UNSW, said surfers are often closest in the water to swimmers who get into difficulties or caught in a rip, as well as being present at beaches where there are no life savers or life guards.

“I have always had a feeling that surfers might be the real heroes and guardians of the surf, whether they want to be or not,” said Dr Brander, who is also known as Dr Rip for his research on the science of the surf.

“They could make the difference between life and death for someone on an unpatrolled beach, which most beaches in Australia are. But we just don’t know, because no-one has asked surfers about their experiences making rescues before.

“We could be talking about tens of thousands of rescues per year in Australia by surfers, which would be staggering.”

The anonymous survey is available at https://www.research.net/s/SurferSurvey. It includes questions about the type of people rescued, how they got into trouble, the weather and surf conditions at the time, and how the surfer felt afterwards about being involved in the rescue.

Dr Brander said the research would help establish the number of people who get into trouble around the coastline and whether they are local people, or international or domestic tourists. It could also identify unpatrolled beaches around the world where swimmers frequently get caught in rips, and how and why this occurs.

“This could help us develop better safety information to target different types of swimmers and identify beaches where life guards are needed,” he said.

Dr Brander is the author of a popular book, Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book: Everything you need to know about Surf, Sand and Rips. He has improved understanding of the science of surf hazards significantly through his Science of the Surf program (http://www.scienceofthesurf.com/drrip.html), which includes a series of videos produced by UNSWTV.

Rip currents are strong, narrow currents flowing out to sea which extend from close to the shoreline, through the surf zone and out past the line of breaking waves.

Dr Rob Brander: 9385 2899, 0401 420 962, rbrander@unsw.edu.au

UNSW Science media contact: Deborah Smith, 9385 7307, 0478 492 060, Deborah.Smith@unsw.edu.au