Bondi Rescue “seems more dangerous” than it really is, says lifeguard.

AT2P3856Bruce ‘Hoppo’ Hopkins has done all 9 seasons of Bondi Rescue and believes the show has done much to educate us about water safety, but its popularity is also a double-edged sword.

And with 22 years of aiding those who are unfamiliar with basic ocean skills, he should know.

“The show helps but it makes out that Bondi is a really dangerous beach because there’s so much that happens here all the time,” he admits.

“North Bondi is probably the safest place along the east coast. And even Bondi is a ‘soft’ wave. It’s not the dangerous wave you have around ‘Bronny’ (Bronte) and Tamarama which we look after as well. It’s just the volume of people.”

That’s something of an understatement. In the peak of summer Australia’s most famed beach can have up to 50,000 people. As Chief Lifeguard, ‘Hoppo’ (pictured, front) is employed by Waverley Council as a fulltime, professional lifeguard.

The 1km stretch of sand attracts visitors from around the world on a year-round basis. Even in winter it can be a magnet for those from the cooler northern hemisphere climates. Despite signage and flags, history has shown that miscommunication, bravado and ignorance can lead to critical incidents.

“For tourists coming here in our winter it’s like their summer. So you get people from the UK when it’s 17 degrees, but the water only drops to about 16 so it’s created us having to be here all year round,” he explains.

“As soon as the bus stops they hit the beach and walk straight down into the dangerous end.

“80% of rescues would be backpackers and foreigners. 20% would be locals.

“The rips are in between where it looks nice and smooth.

“They take one or two more steps and next thing you know they can’t stand up, the water starts pulling them and they go into a mass panic.”

According to Hopkins, Bondi Beach tends to divide itself into three socio-groups.

“North Bondi is more locals and families. The middle of the beach tends to be have a lot of people from the western suburbs and the backpackers seem to go down south,” he says.

Visitors from the western suburbs include those from suburbs such as Parramatta and Penrith, some of whom have English as a second language and limited swimming experience.

“It’s a whole range of people who haven’t got the background of growing up around the beaches. They may have been born here but their families have never really been beach people,” says Hopkins.

The Waverley Council lifeguards monitor them all, 52 weeks a year, with several summer months used as the backdrop for TEN’s hit observational series.

Filmed by Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, the Logie-winning show is broadcast internationally and has turned its best-known participants into something of celebrities.

“It’s been a pretty good ride, really, and opened up a lot of doors for things outside here. We have a lot more speaking gigs and functions, or the Logies, endorsements. It’s been a little extra that has helped and it wouldn’t have happened if the show hadn’t come along,” he says.

“The other good thing is it gets the safety message out there and it shows what professional Lifeguards do. There is a confusion between that and the Volunteer Surf Lifesavers.

“They do about 4 hours once every month but we do 38 hours.”

While he acknowledges the beach’s reputation has changed since the series began in 2006, the benefits easily outweigh the negatives.

“A woman in the Northern Territory had her son fall in the pool and she’d never done any resuscitation. But because she’s watched the show she gave it a go and did enough until the Paramedics arrived. Another 5 year old had his sister fall into the pool at an Aquatic Centre and he knew from watching the show to run a grab a lifeguard to get her out.

“That’s probably why, at the end of the day, we do the show.”

The show is filmed with up to 24 cameras, most of which are tiny ‘go-pro’ camera attached to bikes, jetskis, and surfboards. Microphones are attached to lifesaver armbands to capture dialogue in the water. Two manned crews follow lifeguards on the beach. It is absolute that filming never interferes or takes priority over rescues.

While early seasons were narrated by Andrew Günsberg, these days the lifeguards themselves are used for storytelling.

“They’ll have the footage of a story and whoever was involved with it will do an interview. So we basically narrate it ourselves to set it up,” Hopkins notes.

“The interviews aren’t scripted. They know what they want so they throw a question at you and you just say it in your own words.

“There have been some critical incidents here but I think they’ve been put together well. There have been a couple of deaths but they’ve explained the story and really put the show together in the most-professional way possible.”

Has the show ever come in for its share of criticism?

“The police might say something sometimes, or the volunteer movement as well. But there hasn’t been a lot of negative stuff. A lot of positives have come through.”

This year the male-dominated crew includes Nicola Atherton, the first female lifeguard in around 5 years.

“It’s a physical job so it’s a lot harder for the girls. The other thing is with girls you have to work with a whole bunch of guys –and we’re not the easiest to work with,” ‘Hoppo’ admits.

“Nic has travelled the world on the surfing tour so she has the experience of different oceans, and mixing with the guys on the Pro Tour.

“She grew up at ‘Bronny’ too so a lot of the guys knew her growing up there.”

This year Bondi’s Trent “Maxi” Maxwell and Jesse Polock will also appear in a special documentary The Ride:East Coast navigating Australia’s East Coast on jetskis as ambassadors for Headspace, the national youth mental health foundation.

‘Hoppo’ who says he will keep going “as the body keeps up” has the best job in the world.

“We get paid to be here. The lifestyle is probably one of the best lifestyles in the world.

“Other people are coming home on buses and trains from offices in the city. It’s a nightmare. But there’s not a lot of frustration here. The most would be when we get the resuscitations, but thankfully it doesn’t happen every day.

“There are plenty of good days in between.”

Bondi Rescue airs 8pm tonight on TEN.

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