August 2019

The Nation Reviewed

On the rocks

By Drew Rooke
Illustration
People are risking their lives for a selfie at Royal National Park’s Figure Eight Pools

“I personally don’t understand the craze,” Peter Pearce says. “It’s good that people are enjoying the outdoors but it’s not good that some people are losing their lives or hurting themselves to see a hole in the rock.”

Pearce is the secretary of the Burning Palms Surf Life Saving Club in the Royal National Park, just south of Sydney. The beach he patrols is the main access point for Figure Eight Pools, a series of spectacular intertidal rock pools weathered into a coastal sandstone shelf over thousands of years. The shelf extends 50 metres out from the base of a sheer cliff face before dropping sharply into the ocean. At high tide it is underwater and even at low tide large waves frequently wash over it.

From when Pearce started patrolling Burning Palms in 1965 up until a few years ago, very few people made the hard trek for more than an hour from the ridgetop car park, down through the bush, across the beach and out to the pools. “We’d be lucky to see two or three people walk around there on a weekend,” he says. But in the summer of 2015–16 everything changed. Word spread on social media about the local secret, and hordes of tourists started visiting every weekend.

Now on Instagram, #figure8pools has more than 24,000 posts and there are new images posted using the hashtag nearly every day. According to recent figures provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), there are 90,000 annual visitors to the pools. Pearce says that on some weekends the track down from the car park is “like a conga line”.

He has witnessed many strange sights since the pools became famous on social media. He once saw a young woman struggling down the steep bush track in high heels and a wedding dress, and the last time he visited the pools to clean up rubbish he watched as people queued to jump in and pose for a photo even though the water was filthy with dirt, oil and sunscreen that had washed off the bodies of those who had swum earlier in the day. “That’s how desperate some people are to get a picture,” he says, laughing. “It’s very strange behaviour.”

More alarmingly, Pearce has also seen an increasing number of injuries at the pools, largely because, he believes, “a lot of people who come don’t really understand or respect the ocean nor how dangerous the pools can be”.

According to NSW Ambulance figures, since 2013 paramedics have responded to 138 incidents in the Royal National Park and at Figure Eight Pools. Responding to these incidents is, as the director of NSW ambulance helicopter operations, Superintendent Cameron Edgar, says, “challenging” and “risky” even for specially trained paramedics because of the remoteness and unpredictability of the location. “You obviously can’t just drive an ambulance in,” he says.

One of the worst incidents to date occurred on a warm Saturday afternoon in January 2016. The pools were packed when a large wave struck the shelf. Many sightseers were distracted and oblivious to the danger. They were swept off their feet by the surging white-water and dragged across the rocks. More than 100 people were injured. Three had to be airlifted to hospital.

The mounting injury toll prompted the NPWS to erect signs along the walking track warning visitors about the dangers of the pools. In December 2018 the state government also launched an online wave-risk rating tool that uses clifftop cameras and offshore buoys to predict wave conditions up to four days in advance. As the then NSW environment minister Gabrielle Upton explained, “it works like a fire hazard warning: the higher the risk rating, the more dangerous the wave conditions and the more likely that visitors may be injured”.

But even this new safety tool hasn’t been able to prevent tragedy.

In February this year, five friends visited the pools despite the wave risk being deemed “extreme” and warnings from lifeguards that they should not go. A large wave swept two of them off the rocks and into the ocean. One was able to clamber onto the shelf to safety but the other, a 22-year-old man, did not resurface. An extensive rescue operation failed to locate him. Over a month later, a bushwalker discovered a body believed to be that of the missing man wedged between rocks near the pools.

One recent study found that between October 2011 and November 2017, 259 people across the world died while attempting to capture a selfie in dangerous environments. The authors said this toll was likely an underestimate because many cases are not reported.

Pearce is deeply disturbed that a person lost his life and many more have been seriously injured at the pools. Although he isn’t sure what can be done to prevent further tragedies, he is sure that closing the pools, as some have advocated, won’t be successful.

“You can’t just close the track. The people are going to keep coming. There’s no way to stop them.”

Drew Rooke

Drew Rooke is a journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.

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