The toughest beach rescue Wollongong lifeguard Pete Orchard was involved with was due to an ignorant couple trying to get the perfect Instagram pose, something he hopes will not be repeated this summer.
Council lifeguards are bracing for a busy beach season with the temperature predicted to soar, which translates to swarms of people on Illawarra beaches and out boating.
Mr Orchard has been on patrol for two decades and said many people "ignore" the messages and the signs, even when the beaches are closed.
On the day of the Instagram-worthy rescue it was 10-foot hazardous swell, he said, a woman was taking a photo of her partner while he posed under a giant wave towering above his head.
"I knew this wasn't going to end well," the lifeguard told the Mercury.
The wave knocked the woman off her feet and swallowed her photo subject whole. Mr Orchard eventually spotted him in a difficult spot so he dived.
"I grabbed him and another set was about to come through, so I said 'whatever you do, don't let go'," he recounted.
They both got "bashed" about by the ocean and the rocks, sustaining cuts and bruises but they also made it out alive thanks to Mr Orchard.
Nearly one million people were recorded as visiting beaches from Stanwell Park down to Gerroa during the last swim season, from September 2022 to April 2023.
I grabbed him and another set was about to come through, so I said 'whatever you do, don't let go
Council lifeguards across Kiama, Shellharbour and Wollongong conducted thousands of preventative actions, made nearly 1000 rescues (the majority at unpatrolled locations) and attended more than a dozen critical incidents.
Meantime, the season was one of the "most challenging on record" for volunteer surf lifesavers (who patrol beaches on public holidays and Sundays), who were responsible for thousands of rescues along the NSW coastline.
Between July 1, 2022, and June 30 this year, 48 people had drowned in NSW coastal waters, many at unpatrolled locations or outside of patrol hours.
"We get quite a lot of bigger families with multiple people swimming [in Puckeys Lagoon] and usually when they get into trouble, it's a number of people that are getting into trouble," lifeguard Holly Lane said of the unpatrolled trouble spot.
"You paddle out there and you've got three, four, five people hanging onto your board, waiting for back-up to come and help you. They're probably the bigger rescues that I've dealt with."
Saving people from overturned boats was another part of the job, while Ms Lane said great swimmers could get into trouble, too, as the ocean could change "in the blink of an eye".
"A lot of people have grown up around water and in the ocean and they can swim ... but it's things like body surfing and hitting the sandbank or you've got surfers that could run into you," Ms Lane said.
"We've got flash rips which just appear ... that's when people panic the most because they can touch the bottom and then all the sudden they can't. You'll see the lifeguard always moving the flags throughout the day. Sometimes you move them every half an hour because the ocean changes that quickly and we need to change with it."
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery said they don't have the budget - nor do volunteer lifesavers have the manpower - to extend day patrols to locations outside of the 17 patrolled beaches, instead people need to take responsibility for their own actions.
"We're in a society that we outsource a lot of our risk to others, but I think ... [people] need to be responsible, not only for themselves, but to their children and family."
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