This year, Bondi Rescue will have been on the air for 15 years and for this milestone season, Australia’s most iconic lifeguards will not only brave the regular rips, sharks, and bag thieves on Australia’s busiest beach, but for the first time ever, work through smoke haze — the effects of the recent bushfire crisis.
In 2004, Ben Davies, a Bondi local, former lifeguard and producer, created the hit series, which has now become one of Australia’s most successful TV exports, playing in the US (on Netflix no less), in Europe (on Nat Geo), and across 100+ countries worldwide.
After working on the beach as a lifeguard, Davies realised the perfect pitch to a television show was “sitting under everyone’s noses”, something that hadn’t been seen before.
“I shot some interviews and did some research and developments and spoke to the council and went to the Networks,” Davies told TheLatch— during an interview ahead of its 15th season.
While the show has seen some huge success, it also has been exceptionally important as an education tool and here, Davies tells us why.
Anita Lyons: 15 years on Australian television is a huge milestone. Congratulations! Why do you think the show is such a resounding success here and overseas?
Ben Davies: There’s a multitude of things. I think the key to it though, is that the lifeguards are characters that we know by name. When people watch Bondi Rescue, they say, ‘Oh yeh, I know Hoppo and Jules and Harries’, and whoever else. I think there’s now a relationship there between the audience and what are effectively returning characters.
Beach culture is synonymous with Australia. There are probably only a few places like this. Hawaii, Brazil, California and Australia that have that archetypal beach culture. And for that reason, it’s an aspirational place that people have the aspiration to one day visit themselves and see it, and Bondi epitomises that beach culture. It’s on par with probably about three or four beaches in the world that have the volume of people that come through with this kind of surf, so it is symbolic of the sort of ultimate beach and rescue culture.
AL: When the show first started all those years ago, did the lifeguards see an influx of applications to join?
BD: Not really. It’s more that if people leave and they replace them, then they put a notice out. And it’s just whoever qualifies for the job. There’s a new trainee every season. There’s always a new trainee, sometimes two and those trainees eventually convert into fully-fledged lifeguards. That’s usually how they replenish the staff. Occasionally they’ll advertise for professional lifeguards to come in but I don’t know if it’s more or less as a consequence of the show being on TV. It’s just more of an organic process.
AL: How has the coronavirus affected beach use?
BD: I was at Bondi last night, I took my two sons down for a quick dip in the water lake, and it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen Bondi in March. I’ve grown up at that beach and I spent much of my life on that beach, so I know it intimately, and that was the most crowded March afternoon I’ve ever seen in all my life. And it was because so many people are either supposedly working from home or they are isolating so-to-speak or not going into the city, or they’ve lost their jobs.
A couple of days ago the lifeguards did 25 rescues in the day. So it shows the crowds are still there. Consequences of the coronavirus.
25 is not an unusual amount of rescues to do in a day. On a crazy day they can do two or 300 just on a jetski alone, but there are days when there are none and for March mid-week, that’s a lot.
Even in heatwave conditions in late March, it’s unseasonal for those sorts of crowds, and it’s all due to the coronavirus.
NB: This interview took place before the major beaches were closed by the Federal Government. We received an additional comment on March 24, after these measures came into play.
BD: The lifeguards are now busy keeping people off the beach. It’s the first time since WWII that the beach has been cleared like this.
“The lifeguards are now busy keeping people off the beach. It’s the first time since WWII that the beach has been cleared like this.”
AL: The beach gets 50,000 people a day in summer, has it always been this nuts?
BD: Bondi, whilst is very crowded now, it’s not as crowded as it used to be like in the 1950s. And the reason is that there was a time when people didn’t have the money to go and do a lot of other things, so they will all go to the beach. People would come from all the neighbouring suburbs and Bondi would just be absolutely rammed. Occasionally you get days like that now, but not as much. But the through-point is quite extraordinary.
AL: I don’t love big waves myself and you certainly won’t find me in them, however, watching the show all these years, I have learned a lot about what not to do whilst at the beach. Is this something you often find?
BD: Lifeguards do less rescues now than they used to do, largely because of awareness from the show. University of New South Wales did a study on Bondi Rescue and the impact that it has on people’s understanding of the dangers of the surf and surf awareness, and it was unequivocally clear that the number of drownings and rescues had diminished.
Recently, we had a story where we’re we interviewed two brothers who came to the lifeguard tower and spoke to the lifeguards and talked about how they were out surfing and one of them had been struck by lightning and he didn’t know CPR, but he’d seen Bondi Rescue, so went to work on his brother and revived him.
“Lifeguards do less rescues now than they used to do, largely because of awareness from the show.”
AL: The guys do 1000s of rescues, but are there any that stick out in your memory?
The ones that I remember most are the ones that don’t have a positive ending. We’ve had a number of deaths in the series and there’s one this season.
There are probably a number of [memorable] rescues — I think it’s the ones that are in big surf. They’re the ones that take place around rocks because they’re the most difficult to negotiate. But probably the most dramatic ones are where they get pulled out from underwater by their hair. We’ve had a few of those.
There have also been some where lifeguards have to get off the board and dive down and pull the person up.
I can’t think of a specific one but the more the tragic ones, you never forget.
AL: I can imagine they would be harrowing to watch.
BD: Yeh, anytime someone cannot be resuscitated in front of their families, it’s just awful. The lifeguards do everything they can but sometimes the odds are against them.
We had one this season where two people stood on the headland at Ben Buckler, and there was enormous surf and a huge wave came and washed them both into the ocean and one of them died. And in that instance, there’s nothing the lifeguards can do. They found the person and had to pull him off the bottom. It was a husband and wife from Russia, and they pulled him out of the bottom of the water, wedged between rocks and tried to resuscitate him and it’s beyond to bring them back. Those are always extraordinarily tragic.
AL: As lifeguards and as crew, that must be extremely difficult. What type of counselling is offered?
BD: We offer counselling services for the crew and they’re all warned at the beginning of the season that these types of things are a possibility and that you might see some pretty full-on situations and it’s up to them whether they want to take the job. And then at the end of it, if anything comes up, we offer counselling services. Separate to us, the lifeguards have their own counselling services.
AL: Your lifeguards are a really tight-knit group and as you said before, most of these guys are recurring characters. This might be like choosing your favourite child, but is there one, in particular, you cannot do without?
BD: Yeh, Hoppo [Bruce Hopkins]. He doesn’t appear on the show that much anymore but it’s pretty hard to see Bondi Rescue without Hoppo.
AL: Being on air for 15 seasons, I can imagine a lot has changed. What has surprised you with how the series has evolved?
BD: The technology around how we capture it has brought the audience’s closer to the action over the years. So in the beginning, we used to rig up — it was pre-GoPro years — and we used to rig up really complicated and convoluted board cams that would often not get the action because they’d take water or they would overheat. I think now the coverage is pretty amazing that you actually get to see and hear it up close as those rescues take place.
I think a big feature of the show is that unlike most other series, you actually get to see the moment. Like if it’s a paramedics show, you get there after the event. The person’s already been in trouble and been injured and then the ambulance turns up, but in this, we’re actually there and the cameras are rolling. There was an instance where you see a man walk up, and he said, “I’m having heart trouble” and then he sat down and he had a heart attack in front of the lifeguards and then next thing they were resuscitating him. It’s quite extraordinary that moments earlier the lifeguards were talking to him and then they’re resuscitating him. And that’s the difference between a show where they usually get there after the event. New technology has allowed us to capture that.
AL: These guys are heroes, that’s for sure! So, coming into the 15th season, what can we expect?
BD: So, it’s been an interesting year because it was drought and bushfires and the guys had trouble at some point on a few days of being unable to see people in the water because of the smoke haze.
The other thing that is unique about this season is that we have three new faces, two trainees and one new rookie and we follow their travails, if you like, throughout the season.
There’s always something that we’ve never seen before and it could be funny. A guy turned up and said, “I’m the driver for a bunch of monks and they’ve gone missing on the beach, can you help me find my monks?” and we also had a woman whose car drove off a ledge and then turned upside down on one of the busiest walking tracks in Australia. So there’s always these things you’ve never had before, and they just come out of nowhere.
Bondi Rescue returns Wednesday, 25 March At 7.30pm. Only On 10 And Win Network.