How to Spot a Rip with Dr Rob Brander

Article | Issue: Oct 2023

Inside Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book Australia’s best-known surf scientist, Rob ‘Dr Rip’ Brander, takes you on a fascinating and entertaining journey to uncover how our beaches form and behave, the science of waves and currents, how beaches respond to storms and climate change, as well as some of the hazards to watch out for, from tsunamis to the (unlikely) event you find yourself swimming with a shark.

Whether you’re a surfer looking for the perfect wave or enjoying the beach with friends and family, this book is a must-read for all ocean lovers.

In this extract we learn how to spot a rip.


Dr Rip's Essential beach Book by Dr Bob BranderThe best way to spot a rip current is from an aeroplane. While that advice is not going to be of any help to you, it has a message – it’s much easier to spot rips

from above. Looking down at a beach from a higher vantage point, like a headland, sand dune or even the carpark behind the beach will definitely help. Even the back of the beach is a bit higher. Having a pair of polarised sunglasses also helps ‘see’ through water. Being able to consistently and accurately spot a rip takes time and practice and can be difficult because there are different types of rips and rip flow can change quite quickly. But it’s definitely possible to learn. When you go to the beach, don’t just run into the water; spend a few minutes checking out the conditions. Asking lifeguards or surfers to point out rips every time you go to the beach is also a great idea. Here are the most common visual clues that give rips away.


Most rips sit in deeper channels between sandbars. Not only is deeper water always darker, waves don’t break as much over it. On the other hand, waves break in shallow water over sandbars. So look for narrow dark gaps, typically from 5 to 30 metres wide, that extend offshore between areas of breaking waves and whitewater . Remember that ‘white is nice’ because whitewater means waves are breaking over shallow water and ‘green is mean’ because those green gaps are deeper and could be rip currents. Also remember that rips – the dark green gaps – can flow straight offshore, or at angles to the beach, and may even meander.


Rips move water offshore while waves bring water onshore so there is always a bit of interference between the two, creating a slightly bumpy, disturbed water on the surface of the rip. Not all dark gaps in the water are rips so look closely at the water surface texture. A rip will have a slightly. rougher texture.


Very strong rips, like flash rips, which tend to occur during large and messy wave conditions, can carry large amounts of suspended sand and flow past the line of breaking waves into deeper water. Look for pronounced rip heads full of sand and turbulent white, streaky water extending seaward off the breakers. These usually don’t last for more than a minute or two and can pop up all over the place.


Rips move anything that floats, including seaweed, jellyfish, bubbles and people! If in doubt, throw a piece of driftwood or seaweed into the water and see where it goes. If you look carefully for a few minutes, you should be able to see the thrown object moving offshore.


It’s always a lot harder to spot rip currents from the shoreline, but it does help to look sideways along the beach, preferably from a bit of elevation. Often rip currents can remain in the same location for days or weeks and can carve out mini-embayments along the shoreline that are shaped like scallops. If you look along the beach and the shoreline is nice and straight and suddenly there’s a pronounced mini-embayment, check to see if there’s a narrow dark gap between whitewater heading out from it. If so, chances are it’s a rip!


The more you go to the beach and ask people, like lifeguards or friends who are experienced surfers or beachgoers, how to spot a rip, the quicker you’ll learn. Seeing rips in real-life is always the best method. However, there are a lot of pictures and movies of rips out there on the internet, although the quality and accuracy can vary. I hate to plug my own website, but if you go to <> not only are there links to videos of rip currents, but there’s a Rip of the Month feature that I started way back in 2009. Every month I post a picture of a rip current and talk about it. That’s a lot of rips! In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the largest collection of rip current pictures in the world. Somebody needs to alert the Guinness World Records.



Dr Bob Brander scientist authorProfessor Brander is a beach safety researcher who combines elements of coastal geomorphology and hazards with an understanding of social and demographic aspects of beachgoers.

The overall goal of his research is to understand the physical-social interaction of beach hazards in order to reduce the incidence of drowning and injury on beaches and other coastal environments.

His research interests can be divided into 3 areas: Beach Hazards, Beach Safety and Science Communication.

Follow Dr Rob Brander on X (formally Twitter)

Author: Rob Brander

Category: Reference, information & interdisciplinary subjects

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: NSW Uni Press

ISBN: 9781742238074

RRP: $34.99

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