‘In their happy place’: Little nippers slip back into the water

When COVID-19 first struck in 2020 and lockdowns followed, Portsea beach became a largely desolate strip of sand.

Now, on the eve of 2023, it’s bustling again: families are returning to the water and the buzz has returned to the Mornington Peninsula hotspot.

Portsea nippers (from left) Maya McQueen, Pia Rowe and Isabella Fox take part in the surf lifesaving program.Credit:Yanni Dellaportas

Still, not everything can be so easily returned. The children of the area have lost two years’ worth of water safety education and experience in the sea.

Portsea Surf Life Saving Club has made its mission to correct this – and it turns out nippers aren’t quitters.

Some 650 children of all ages will take part in Victoria’s largest nippers program, where over six sessions they will learn how to stay safe and gain confidence in the water.

“Having been away from marine environments for a long period of time, the kids just need to reacquaint themselves with the water and the dangers of swimming in an ocean beach,” said Brett Croft, vice president and junior development director at the club.

Led by volunteers, nippers participate in activities through early January such as swimming, sprinting and longer distance running. There are also activities with boards, water signals and flags to learn rescue techniques and improve reaction times.

While it is serious stuff, there’s always fun to be had.

For Isabella Fox, a nipper in the under-11s category, the game-like activities with flags are where she shines.

“You have to run to get the flags, but they will remove one every time, so one person gets eliminated each time,” Isabella said. “It teaches you about fast responses and reactions.”

Victoria has just suffered its worst spate of fatal drownings over the Christmas period in almost two decades. Life Saving Victoria says there have been 232 rescues since November 12, and more than half (122) were between Christmas Day and December 30.

On Friday, lifesavers at Venus Bay were so overwhelmed with rescues they had to temporarily close the beach.

COVID-19 lockdowns have exacerbated fears over people’s wellbeing in and around water, particularly children who missed swimming lessons and taking part in programs such as nippers because of state-mandated restrictions.

But the Portsea club wanted to provide more for children than an understanding of the risks of swimming in open water, Croft said. Nippers programs are an opportunity to build confidence and improve youngsters’ mental health – a valuable bonus given the toll the pandemic has taken on young people’s stress and anxiety.

“[Nippers] builds resilience, it builds confidence, all those characteristics you want to see in young people,” Croft said. “I think that’s probably one of the factors we saw through lockdowns – the resilience of our young people really took a hit.

“By participating in the program, they can start to build that confidence back. You can see it when they hit the water in terms of the smiles on their faces. They’re in their happy place.”

Under-11s nipper Maya McQueen was certainly in her happy place on Saturday morning as she waded into the ocean under a sunny sky, surrounded by friends.

“It’s very fun. I’d say just give it a go,” she said. “You’ll probably end up liking it because it’s just lots of fun, and you can make new friends.”

Improved water safety, confidence and mental health are the benefits for nippers such as Portsea trio (from left) Maya McQueen, Pia Rowe and Isabella Fox.Credit:Yanni Dellaportas

Nippers are also taught about the bigger picture – how fragile both the marine and land environments are and how people can care for them. Croft said the positive ripple effect was nippers took what they learnt back to family and friends.

Life Saving Victoria state agency commander Kane Treloar said it was more important than ever for parents to ensure they and their children had access to safe and controlled time in the water.

“Lockdown has impacted everyone’s opportunity to be in and around the water … everyone’s still a little bit unprepared coming into summer,” Treloar said.

“We want everyone to be in swimming lessons from as young an age as possible, and there were two years when that wasn’t available for parents to take their kids to swimming lessons.”

Isabella and other nippers are now making up for lost time.

“They have lots of fun activities that you rotate every day. You meet lots of new people, and you feel much more confident in the water after doing it,” she said.

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