Bright dye maps dangerous ‘rips’

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The non-toxic and harmless fluorescein dye was deployed at Kogel Bay last month.
The non-toxic and harmless fluorescein dye was deployed at Kogel Bay last month.

Three local beaches are part of a study aimed at promoting safety of swimmers ahead of the summer season.

Kogel Bay, Strand Beach and Dappat se Gat have been earmarked to form part of a cutting-edge experiment by the National Sea Rescue Institute’s (NSRI) drowning prevention team and the City of Cape Town. The other Cape beach selected for the project, which focuses on rip currents, is Blouberg.

According to Andrew Ingram, the NSRI’s drowning prevention manager, the institute has teamed up with the municipality’s Recreation and Parks Department for the research project to study rip currents and develop educational content based on aerial footage to be filmed in False Bay and Table Bay. This after the NSRI was, for the first time in Cape Town, granted a research permit by the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (Deff) for the deployment of a dye that will highlight and visually expose the flow of rip currents in the ocean.

In a statement, the NSRI said the dye is non-toxic and harmless to the environment and people, and the footage captured will be used as part of a focused rip-current and beach safety public awareness campaign in preparation for the hotter months. The deployment of the fluorescein dye, which is commonly used by scientists and plumbers in water tracer experiments as well as carp fishermen, is being used in accordance with global best-practice ocean research.

“Rip currents are the single biggest danger that people face when entering the water to swim at many of our beaches,” Ingram explained. “For most people they are hard to identify and many do not know what to do if they are caught in a rip, or if they see someone else caught in a rip. We hope to change this by constantly teaching people that, most importantly, they should swim between lifeguard flags, how to recognise rip currents, what to do if they are caught in a rip and what to do if someone else is caught in a rip. This way we will save lives.”

frequent occurrence

The first part of the project was executed at Kogel Bay last month, while the research team planned to conduct work at Strand Beach yesterday (Wednesday 20 October).

Ingram said all three Helderberg beaches were chosen for the experiment as these are areas where rip currents frequently occur. Strand Beach was specifically selected after the NSRI installed a camera monitoring activity on the shores last December. The camera system allows the rescue organisation to spot rip currents and people who may find themselves in difficulties in the water.

“There have been many rescues and preventions over the past year at Strand since our beach safety camera was put in place, and anecdotal evidence of rip currents being a real danger in the area is overwhelming,” he pointed out, adding that the NSRI has built a body of research since the mechanism’s installation.

“Lifeguards at Kogel Bay regularly help people in difficulty because of rip currents and the Pink Rescue Buoys at Dappat se Gat have been used a number of times to help someone who has been pulled out by a rip. Strand lifeguards are always vigilant as the rip currents on that beach are a constant threat to people who swim there. It really is so important to swim only when lifeguards are on duty and to swim between their flags.”

Knowledge is key

Ingram added that they hope to have a better understanding of rip currents and means of creating awareness to beachgoers through the study, which the researchers hope will deliver good data in time to release educational material by the start of the December holidays. “For example, we have found that flash rip currents occur at Strand Beach, and we now know where the flash rips mostly occur and have learned to see the build up of a flash rip,” he said.

“We can then warn the lifeguards as the forming of flash rips is very hard to see from beach level. It’s a great example of how different organisations are working together for beach safety.”

When asked how the research results will be used in practice, Ingram said the team is working with the South African Weather Service, which is using the cameras to validate its rip current forecast model. “The City will use the footage recorded to make beach safety campaigns and the research team will publish the data to help professionals and laymen better understand rips – where they form on our beaches, why, when and how fast they move,” he explained.

“After each dye release, we share the findings internally. This will be an ongoing project through to the end of this year, after which we will reaccess the data. The first findings will be released in the form of an easy-to-understand rip current awareness video, filmed at Strand Beach this week, in partnership with the City.”

According to Zahid Badroodien, Mayoral Committee member for Community Services and Health, the municipality and its lifeguards work closely with the NSRI to examine the surf and determine the safest swimming beaches.

“The City is always looking to use technology and experience to find new ways to educate the public on water safety, especially as beaches get busy during the festive season,” he related.

“We appreciate the positive working relationship with the NSRI and look forward to taking advantage of the powerful medium of social media to share the video footage with the public, raising awareness of the dangers of the ocean to encourage swimming in areas clearly marked safe and where lifeguards are on duty.”

V If you see somebody caught in a rip current, don’t try to help them by entering the water; rather throw them something that floats and call a lifeguard or the NSRI on 087 094 9774.

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