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Surf Scientist

Rob Brander put his specialized knowledge at the service of Australian surfers, and now a grateful nation calls him “Dr. Rip”

Photo: Anthony Warry
Photo: Anthony Warry

Cool job: Surf scientist
Yes, Rob Brander (BSc 1989 UTSC, MSc 1991) is a professor of coastal geomorphology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. But he’s best known as Dr. Rip, the expert warning people around the world about the perils of rip currents through his bestseller Dr. Rip’s Essential Beach Book and popular YouTube videos.

Did you grow up by a beach?
I grew up in Bay Ridges, a suburb of Pickering, and the beach was just down the road – but so was the nuclear plant! The water was cold and polluted, and my real love of the beach came from our yearly family holiday to Cape Cod.

How did you go from studying geography to saving lives?
Shortly after I finished my PhD on rip currents, I witnessed several drownings that could easily have been avoided if the victims had had even a basic knowledge of rips. It really bothered me when I realized I had that knowledge and it wasn’t helping anybody, so I started the Science of the Surf program to educate people about rips.

What are rips?
Rip currents are like rivers of the sea. They are strong, narrow currents that typically flow at speeds faster than people can swim.

To avoid rips, you need to look for green gaps, like paths, heading out through the surf. It’s good to think of green as mean because it signals deeper water that could be over your head and may be a rip current. White is nice because white water means it’s shallow; you can probably stand up.

What should you do if you get caught in one?
Don’t panic. Rips won’t pull you under. They just take you for a ride and will often bring you in a semi-circle back into shallow water in just a few minutes. It’s panic that drowns people, not rips. Just go with the flow, relax and signal for help if there are lifeguards or surfers around.

Photo: Courtesy of Rob Brander
Photo: Courtesy of Rob Brander

Sharks get a lot of press. Are rip currents more dangerous than sharks?
Absolutely! The media loves sharks – shark attacks sell papers, and shark hysteria preys on primal fears. Worldwide, the average number of shark fatalities is about five per year. Globally, hundreds of people per year drown in rips, but they don’t generate media attention. In Australia, the average is 20 rip drownings per year and in the U.S. it’s about 100.

Do Toronto swimmers need to worry?
There are rips in the Great Lakes, particularly next to piers and similar structures, but usually only during storms when conditions aren’t great for swimming. For Canadians, rips are more of an issue when they go on vacation. Plenty of beaches in the U.S., Caribbean and Mexico have rips and, unfortunately, there are many instances of Canadian tourists drowning in rips while on holidays.

Do you live by a beach now?
There’s no way I’m going to be in Australia and not live at the beach! Hands-down, we have the best beaches in the world. I’m passionate about bodysurfing, which I think is the purest form of surfing. And with two young girls, building sandcastles is making a comeback in my life, and it’s just as much fun as it was when I was a kid.


Watch: Dr. Rip’s award-winning How to survive beach rip currents:


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