Spots of Time

April 29, 2003

The Blue Blobs At Bondi

One minute Al and I were talking about the differences between American and Australian culture – the next, he was ripping off his sunglasses and stripping off his shirt, running as fast as his legs could carry him. I was in mid-sentence and momentarily stunned – but not offended.
Al, an all-American blond haired expatriate, is a Surf Life Saver on Bondi Beach, the most internationally famous of Sydney’s beaches. We’d been chatting about his experiences in Australia when Kate, the patrol captain, heard the call for help. The source was a rotund German tourist who’d been caught in the rip. Within seconds of his call, the guard station was abandoned as Al and another life saver ran into the water. Kate stayed on dry land but oversaw the action from the water’s edge, eyes glued to binoculars.

Despite my many weeks in Sydney, it wasn’t until Easter weekend that I made the pilgrimage to Bondi Beach, a place that conjured up images of hot Aussie men tackling the raging surf of the Pacific Ocean. The recent four-day Easter weekend was a wet one, the rain finally letting up on Monday morning. Despite the still overcast day, I decided to go to the beach.

Walking barefoot along the water I sidestepped dozens of little blue blobs – washed up jellyfish ranging in size from a silver dollar to a clenched fist. I’d remembered reading something about some of Australia’s jellyfish being poisonous, but noting the unaffected crowds playing happily in the water I assumed these were safe. Still, better safe than sorry.

I marched up to one of the life guard stands and, not one to beat around the bush, said, “Excuse me, but are these the jellyfish that can kill you?” The five life savers there tried hard to conceal their smiles and laughter. Well, all but Al – his grin was six feet long. They quickly assured me that these jellyfish, called Blue Bottles (similar to a Portuguese Man-of-War), were relatively harmless. While their sting was somewhat painful, it was not fatal – unlike that of the Box jellyfish, which makes the waters of Australia’s north and northeast coast effectively useless for swimming for several months out of every year. Doing some online research later I found out that the Box jellyfish could grow up to the size of a human head and has tentacles that are each up to three meters long. A far cry from the little blue blobs at Bondi.

Curious about the Aussie life saver story, I started chatting with Dazza, a layed back native with long brown hair who’d been a surf life saver for eighteen years. He was the first to inform me that in Australia, he was called a surf life saver, not a lifeguard as in the US. I asked him what made Bondi Beach so famous. Dazza reckoned that Bondi and its surf life savers became famous in the late 1930’s – during what is known in Australia as Black Sunday.

“First, you have to remember, back then going to the beach was a regular activity for people – there was no television or computers,” said Dazza. “Spending the day at the beach was entertainment and the beaches were always crowded.”

February 6, 1938 started out as a usual summer day, the beach crowded with nearly 35,000 people. All of a sudden, three freak waves hit the beach in quick succession, pulling over 200 panicked people out to sea. Chaos ensued.

As luck would have it, 60-80 surf life savers were on the beach at that time, many preparing to compete in a surf race for the club. According to reports from the day, the life savers were in the water within seconds, pulling out as many as three and four people at a time. After twenty minutes everyone was out of the water and the tally stood at an incredible 250 people saved – an amazing feat, especially considering the lack of modern-day life saving equipment. Only five people lost their lives that day. The hero image of the Australian life saver was born.

Back in the 1930s, surf life savers used reels and lines in addition to surfboards and surf skis, to rescue individuals that needed assistance. This is a far cry from the modern equipment, including an inflatable boat with motor, that today’s life savers have at their disposal. Though the beach at Bondi was considerably less crowded that Monday during my visit, the presence of the surf life savers was vital nonetheless. Just seconds after the German tourist cried for help, Al and the other life saver were in the water at his side, assisting him as he held onto a surfboard. Two additional life savers joined them, in the inflatable motorized boat.

What makes the commitment and bravery of Australian’s surf life savers even more amazing is that they are all volunteers – a fact that frankly shocked me. In fact, they are required to paying dues to belong to one of the hundreds of Surf Life Saving Club all along the coasts of Australia. Clubs bond together and participate in a variety of club competitions, testing their skills against others in the area. Rivalries are strong and loyalty is high. During my time with the North Bondi club the camaraderie between the life savers I spoke to was noticeable.

To be a member, one must pass the mandatory Bronze Medallion class. The class is given on a regular basis and involves learning, among other things, First Aid, how to send signals from the water, Resuscitation (CPR) and much more. Members must also be able to run 200 meters, swim 200 meters, and then run 200 meters – in only eight minutes. There are quite a few surf life savers in each club, so most only get a shift every few weeks. Since being certified and joining the North Bondi club in December, Al had only worked three or four shifts.

I asked Kate if there were a lot of women life savers on Sydney’s beaches – during my visit with the North Bondi club she had been the only female on duty. “It’s still male dominated,” she said, “though that is changing – you have to remember that women were only allowed to join 20 years ago.” Tall, with long brown hair in a braid down her back, Kate looked fit enough to bring in even the most well-fed tourist. When I asked if requirements were different for the female life savers, she shook her head and said the requirements were the same regardless of sex.

The average age of a surf life saver varies. In the North Bondi club, most of the life savers are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. But, just down the beach at the Bondi club, the average drops. Kate said some clubs are run mostly by life savers in their late teens and early 20’s. Dazza’s 18 years of service was impressive, but not unique. According to Kate, after 10 years of active duty, a life saver becomes a long service member, continuing to enjoy the benefits of membership without the required beach duties.

Before I took leave of the group, I asked them what “stupid” questions they received from visiting tourists. They were hesitant to answer, at first, though Dazza did say he was frequently asked if the kangaroos ever came on the beach. Al smiled widely and said, “Well, this one American came up and asked if the jellyfish on the beach were the kind that killed people.” Ouch – didn’t see that one coming. I laughed gamely but inside I was torn regarding another question I wanted to ask. I hesitated, unsure if my query would be added to the list of “stupid” questions.

A few years back the American sitcom “Friends” ran an episode in which Monica was stung by a jellyfish while walking on the beach with Joey and Chandler. Far from help, one of the guys recalled an article that said urine was the best way to alleviate the pain of a jellyfish sting. Since Monica was unable to alleviate the pain herself, the guys stepped up to help. Since seeing the episode I’d been a bit curious to see if urine was really an affective weapon against the pain of a jellyfish sting.

I asked Dazza, as a professional life saver, what was the best way to stop the pain caused from a sting. “Ice,” he said, “And, you gotta give it time.” I paused, waiting to see if he would offer up any other “methods.” When he didn’t, curiosity got the best of me. I relayed the “Friends” story and asked him if this was a true technique.

“Well,” he said, unable to hide his smile, “It’s not in our manual.”