Heroic Drowning Raises Ethical Dilemma

George Dowling and fellow Surf Rescue life savers

The tragedy that struck a Wollongong beach at the beginning of the month with one man sacrificing his own life for the safety of another family, makes us wonder what is the right thing to do if you see someone in distress at the beach. With summer quickly approaching, it is an important question that needs to be addressed as it seems the national drowning rates don’t seem to be decreasing.

Google Maps image of Wollongong in relation to Sydney

Melbourne man, Shaun Oliver, was on a work trip in Wollongong when he found himself risking his own life to save a family in peril at a surf beach just south of Sydney. 

Satellite image of where the tragedy took place.

The 32-year-old man from Noble Park who comes from a family of firefighters and SES workers, did what most of us would do and instinctively responded to the cries of four children who had been swept out into the treacherous ocean after playing on the shore with their parents. Mr. Oliver, who has been rightfully dubbed a hero, unfortunately lost his life during the rescue, leaving his own wife and three kids without a father. The family of six that Oliver risked his life for, had recently migrated to Australia from the Middle East, and were enjoying their first trip to the beach when disaster struck.

Unpredictable rough waters

The east coast of Australia is known for its wild and unpredictable oceans with big waves and strong rip currents, and although the beach was closed due to dangerous conditions and there were no flags present, the family from the Middle East did not know any better.

The tragedy that unfolded on the 10th of September at City Beach in Wollongong, raises a couple of questions as summer approaches. Firstly, relating to the actions of the family who had to be rescued, and secondly about what you should do if you see someone in distress at the beach.


George Dowling- Surf Rescue

24-year-old life saver from Victoria, George Dowling, has been involved with Life Saving Victoria since he was 8 years old. Growing up on Phillip Island, a popular surfing destination known for its rough seas, he was educated on the dangers and hazards of the ocean from a young age. Dowling explains that although he was lucky to have been taught about the ocean, many Australians and migrants have not been given the opportunity, and do not know how to interact with the ocean safely.

“I have been around the ocean my entire life. Growing up in Phillip Island it was integral that local children were taught the skills needed to stay safe in the water. The ocean can be so unpredictable, and many people from the country, or even inner-city Melbourne where the beaches are flat, just have no education on how to read the surf or what to do if they find themselves in any form of danger,” said Dowling. 

George Dowling- Surf Rescue

Although some schools around Australia provide short surf awareness courses for students- usually ones near heavy surf beaches- often it is up the parents to enrol their children in programs such as “nippers”, the junior surf life-saving sector. The ideal level of education for children in relation to surf safety, is completing a season of “nippers”, however for many Australians this is completely unrealistic largely due to their proximity to the beach among other factors.

Dowling admits that unfortunately 50% of people rescued from the surf lived more the 50kms away from the beach, which suggests the victims didn’t have the appropriate knowledge of what to do when in a difficult situation at the beach.

“It’s difficult because so many Australians don’t have access to educational programs in relation to surf safety. Although Australia is known for our beaches, many people only get to visit the beach maybe once a year, and they just have no idea what they’re getting themselves into sometimes,” said Dowling.

Young man jumps from tree on the Murray River, Tocumwal

Another potential danger to be conscious of as we make our way into summer, are rivers, creeks, and streams. Surprisingly, according to the “2017 Drowning Report” (produced by Royal Life Saving), of the 291 water related deaths over the past year, 23% of them were in freshwater waterways such as rivers and creeks. The main issue here is the fact that rivers are usually in remote areas with limited timely assistance available when there is a problem, so as it starts to warm up it is time to start thinking about what you would do if faced with a rescue.

Often logic goes out the window when you’re placed in a stressful situation requiring a fast reaction, so it’s important to be prepared when it comes to water safety. Hearing the cries of children being swept away into treacherous waters as Mr. Oliver did in Wollongong, is heartbreaking and challenges one’s rationale as human nature is to help. However, self-preservation is the most important thing to remember when attempting a rescue, and statistics show that it is usually the rescuer that ends up in more danger than the person being rescued, so it is important to take all precautions.

  • Only attempt a rescue if you are a strong swimmer, and preferably trained in rescue.
  • Raise the alarm before you attempt a rescue. Call 000, or have someone else call 000 for back-up asap.
  • A flotation device is extremely important. It is extremely difficult to keep afloat above rough waters and strong currents, remember that not only do you have to swim out to the person in trouble, but you also must swim back to shore with another person’s body weight. People in trouble in the ocean often grab onto rescuers in a panic, which can be life threatening for rescuers.
  • Stay calm and do not try and swim against the rip current, you will only end up exhausted unable to complete the rescue successfully.
  • Expand your skills by completing a Bronze Medallion safety course, or First Aid/CPR course for the future. To find out more about the Bronze Medallion, including information on training providers, click here

Remember to commit these crucial tips to memory as you enjoy Australia’s beautiful waterways this summer, as you never know when you might be in Shaun Oliver’s situation.

Family member, Nathanael Oliver, has set up a GoFundMe page to help support Shaun’s wife and three young children he left behind. To donate, click here


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here