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The birth of surf lifesaving

The lifesavers represent the very highest class. They are the Samurais, the oligarchs, the elite. They strut the beaches with superiority that is insolent, yet at the same time, tolerant ... of lesser breeds — a gladiator class, envied by all the men, adored by all the women.

Lone Hand, 1 January 1910
Two surf lifesavers standing on the beach looking towards the surf at Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006.
Surf lifesavers, Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006.Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Surf lifesaving began on the beaches of Sydney then spread around the country, first to Western Australia and Queensland then later to the other states. The Royal Life Saving Society, which originated in Britain, placed lifelines on beaches and held classes. Manly Council was among the first to protect surf bathers, employing two fishermen, the Sly brothers, to patrol offshore and, in 1905, a lifeguard, Edward 'Happy' Eyre.

Mostly, surf bathers had to look after themselves but some organised training sessions to improve their lifesaving skills. Local businessmen and councillors, often surf bathers as well, saw the economic benefits of providing safe beaches. The first surf lifesaving club was founded at Bondi in February 1907 and several others followed soon after. In October that year, the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales was formed to regulate and promote surf bathing. Australian surf lifesaving was born.

Patrolling the beach

Surf lifesaver patrolling the beach at Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006.
Surf lifesaver, Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Surf lifesavers are volunteers who have qualified for the surf bronze medallion. They patrol the beach on weekends and public holidays. Lifeguards are employed by local councils to patrol the busier beaches.

Surf lifesavers had to qualify for the Royal Life Saving Society's proficiency certificate or bronze medallion until the Surf Bathing Association introduced the surf bronze medallion.

Today, anyone over the age of 15 can qualify as a surf lifesaver. First, you must pass a series of tests including a first aid exam and a simulated rescue. You must also complete a 200-metre run, a 200-metre swim then another 200-metre run in less than eight minutes.

Video iconListen to what lifesavers have to say about patrolling the beach (QuickTime movie 1.3mb) duration: 57 seconds
(download QuickTime)

Women and surf lifesaving

Members of the Neptune Ladies' Lifesaving Club marching on the beach, Tallebudgera, Queensland, 1957. The leader is carrying the Neptune club flag.
Neptune Ladies' Lifesaving Club, Tallebudgera, Queensland, 1957. National Archives of Australia. NAA A1500 K26776.

Arguing that women were not strong enough to operate the equipment or swim in heavy surf, the Surf Life Saving Association banned them from qualifying for the surf bronze medallion and therefore from patrolling.

Despite this, many women worked behind the scenes or were valuable fundraisers. Others formed ladies' surf clubs and competed in carnivals, especially outside Sydney, where clubs were less concerned with the rules and more focused on their immediate community.

The Surf Life Saving Association finally admitted women as full members in 1980. Since then, the number of active surf lifesavers has almost doubled.

Video icon Listen to comments from lifesavers on women and surf lifesaving (QuickTime movie 1.5mb) duration: 1 minute, 6 seconds
(download QuickTime)


Nippers are junior surf lifesavers aged between 7 and 14. They learn about surf awareness and safety, and compete in swimming and beach events.

Surf lifesaving clubs began Nipper programs for boys and girls in the 1920s and 30s. These programs operated differently at each club, with some only accepting boys while others ran Nipperette or Mermaid programs for girls.

With falling memberships and some clubs facing closure, the Surf Life Saving Association established a national Nipper program in the 1960s. The program expanded rapidly after 1980 when girls were eligible for full membership. The parents of many Nippers also joined up. There are now nearly 40,000 Nippers training to be future surf lifesavers.Video icon

Hear more about young people and surf lifesaving (QuickTime movie 1.7mb) duration: 1 minute, 18 seconds
(download QuickTime)

Junior lifesavers on the beach with their surfboards at Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006.
Mollymook Nippers, New South Wales, 2006. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Red and yellow

Two surf lifesavers putting a red and yellow flag on the beach at Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006.
Surf lifesavers, Mollymook, New South Wales, 2006. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

In 1855, an International Code of Signals was introduced for ships at sea. The letter 'O' signalled 'man overboard' and was represented by a red and yellow flag divided diagonally. This was probably the inspiration for the surf lifesaving flags introduced in 1935. Before then, patrol flags were blue and white. Red and yellow caps became standard in 1939.

Acts of bravery

Lifesavers rescuing a young girl struggling in the surf at Kirra, Queensland in 1948.
Rescue at Kirra, Queensland, 1948. Photo: Fred Lang. Gold Coast City Council Local Studies Library.

In 1919, the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales introduced meritorious awards — a silver medal, a bronze medal, and a certificate of merit — for acts of bravery in the surf. The medals are awarded only when a surf lifesaver has exceeded his 'ordinary duty' and displayed exceptional bravery and resource. To date only 37 silver medals have been awarded and only one since the late 1960s.

Black Sunday

In February 1938, three huge waves rolled into Bondi Beach. The receding water swept many into a rip and panic erupted. Fortunately, a surf club race was about to start and there were plenty of lifesavers on the beach. They swung into action, swimming out to those in trouble. Frantic swimmers grabbed at the lifesavers and surf lines. Over 200 people were rescued that day. Remarkably, only five lives were lost.

Outstanding bravery

Surf lifesaver Leo Ryan was attacked by a shark at Burleigh Heads on 25 November 1950. Although the shark was still nearby, Gavan Horsley put on the belt and swam out. Ryan had lost his left hand and was swimming feebly, leaving a trail of blood. Horsley brought him safely to shore. A shark believed to be the culprit was caught three days later. Leo Ryan still owns its jaws. For his bravery, Gavan Horsley was awarded the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia's silver medal.

Bears on the beach

In the 1940s, trainee Royal Australian Air Force pilots wore flying suits with fake fur on the inside. After the Second World War, the linings were available from war surplus stores. Surf lifesavers wore the linings with the fur on the outside. Known as bear suits, they were a cheap and comfortable way to keep warm while on patrol. Lifesavers also wore them to dances and on road trips.

Safe from stingers

Lifesavers in northern Australia need protection from venomous box jellyfish and other marine stingers. In the 1970s, they wore pantyhose while on patrol. This led to the development of the tight-fitting lycra stinger suit. Bathing areas surrounded by stinger nets provide a safe place to swim. Lifesavers drag the enclosure with a net each morning to make sure no stingers have drifted in.

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