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Last month I had another amazing opportunity to attend and speak at the Association of Aquatic Professionals Conference in Florida USA.

Over 4 days, 520 delegates had six streams to choose from; a possible 80 sessions all up.

If you’re a seasoned conference goer, you know that sitting through endless sessions, even good ones… can be a hard slog.

When I think back, and try to pick a favourite presentation I don’t always remember content, what I remember is how it made me feel.

At AOAP I definitely had some big learning moments; stuff that really blew my mind. But I’m going to give my gold star sticker to the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA).

In the US there is little delineation between open water and still water; if you’re a lifeguard, you’re a lifeguard. So, it’s not unusual to have ocean lifeguards presenting at a conference predominately about aquatic centres.

Some of you will know Dr Justin Sempsrott who presented in WA a couple of years ago. He’s an ocean lifeguard (with ISLA too). He’s also the medical director of the Starfish Aquatics Institute, a predominately still water training company. The cross over is highly advantageous to the industry, the lifeguards and saving lives.

So, I sat their waiting for the ISLA presentation, not knowing what to expect. I’d seen ISLA on Twitter a few times but not really understood who they were or what they did. An hour later I was almost in tears… no, I was.

Olin Patterson, a co-founder and Director of ISLA, finished his presentation and moved off the stage. I moved quickly across the room in the hope of catching him. I stood there in front of him a bit lost for words. Then I said ‘I never knew… I never knew it was that bad. I never knew what you guys did. He didn’t speak, he just nodded. It seemed like telling his own story still produces strong feelings in him.

Not really knowing what to say, I asked him ‘do you get scared’? I felt scared just watching. He said he did. I thought about this, and the story I had just heard. ‘You are a brave person’. I said. And, he is, they all are.

So, who, what is ISLA? They exist to advance professional lifesaving development to areas in need around the world.

It all began after one guy returned from a trip to Nicaragua where he witnessed the alarming drowning rate of over 70 people in 4 days along a 200 km stretch of coast. Wanting to do somthing that would bond their friendships and encompass their passion for ocean safety, he and 3 mates decided to form ISLA; The International Surf Lifesaving Association.

They started with just seven lifeguard instructors from Huntington Beach, California. What they didn’t foresee was the vast amount of people from other lifeguarding agencies who had the same idea, who subsequently joined ISLA. Now the organisation is a dynamic team of lifeguards, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, & military personnel from various agencies around the world.

Their AOAP presentation centred around their recent work in the Aegean Sea, when the 2015 Syrian Refugee Crisis prompted an SOS from Lifeguards Hellas in Greece; people are dying by the boat load on our shores and we need to do something.

ISLA responded with volunteers and equipment. The stories Olin told, the footage shot from his GoPro, the images I’d been seeing on the nightly news, all there now; first hand.

The ISLA lifeguards in the black of night, wearing thick wetsuits and booties, wade into the ocean as a boat approaches at high speed and crashes into the shallows. Its human cargo pours into the freezing ocean wearing just t-shirts, shorts and a fake life jackets sold to them by people smugglers. One image showed a 800,000 seized fake life jackets. They look like the real thing, only packed with waste, and the wetter they get the more they don’t float. It’s an unspeakably evil.

The rocks are sharp and as the families hurriedly jump from the boat they cut their feet. The injuries start, children are crying, adults calling out, and the panic escalates. The situation just goes from bad to worse and all the while this team of volunteer lifeguards works feverishly to manage the situation the best they can. They’re working in the dark, armed with a only a few words learnt of the local language.

These are brave people. People who make you think long and hard about what you do; what your life means. What you can do about the things you don’t like.

They do much more than I’ve described here. If you want to know more go here

If you want to join them like Aussies Simon Lewis and Grace Hamilton or the Kiwi lifeguards of Bethells Beach, then go here






We are ISLA.