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When Byron Bay Lifeguard, Amber Whipple pulls on the iconic red and yellow, there’s one word that comes to mind.

“Pride. I’m very proud to be a lifeguard, proud to be a part of it all,” she says, enthusiasm brimming from every syllable.

The 23-year-old Australian Lifeguard Service employee lets her actions speak louder than words, meaning that pride manifests itself on the sand every summer, grinning from ear to ear and ready to act should the situation require it.

In fact, Amber’s dedication to patrolling on the Far North Coast bore tangible rewards this year, when she was recognised for her years of service and excellent attitude with the coveted title of Lifeguard of the Year at the 2021 Surf Life Saving NSW Awards of Excellence.

While the title and accompanying award were appreciated, they aren’t the be all and end all. Not in Amber’s world, at least. For her, there are much bigger factors at play as she prepares for her seventh season servicing the Byron Shire Council lifeguard contract.

“I’ve always been very independent and found myself in male dominant jobs, not on purpose or anything like that, it’s just how it has gone,” she muses.

“It sometimes feels like that at the beach, so being a lifeguard, beyond the enjoyment I get, it’s a job I’d like to stick with and prove what I’m capable of.”

Despite being a relative newcomer when compared to many of the long-serving lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers who patrol the coastline, Amber’s experience is without question.

From humble beginnings as a youngster in Victoria, participating in her local Nippers program, Amber has grown into a saltwater addict – she loves the beach, the people she meets, and the learning curve that comes with a dynamic working environment.

In her own words, she’s ‘in her element’.

Not only that, but she patrols in a region leading the way for the development and participation of females. This summer, an even split of male and female lifeguards will patrol the Far North Coast Branch beaches.

“I didn’t even know that,” Amber says, jovially.

“It’s so exciting and fantastic it’s getting to that. It obviously depends on the person how long they stay but it’s great to see more equality in lifeguarding.

“I feel like there has been a shift, whether it’s in my area or not, but I feel like there’s a lot more females interested than there has been.

“In a blunt way I felt like we were swimming upstream, and the support wasn’t always there to push further and go higher, so you feel like what’s the point?

“There’s a lot more encouragement now, more interest from females and more pathways to success. I think everything is shifting. It’s not about being the strongest or making the most rescues, it’s about encouraging people to step up and take charge, male or female.”

With easing restrictions across the state and international travel remaining limited, beaches up and down the NSW coastline are expecting big numbers over the summer.

On the Far North Coast, 25 new lifeguards will be on patrol this summer and the region’s highly proactive councils are working round the clock to ensure the safety of beachgoers.

Unfortunately, Amber will have to sit it out this year – she tore her achilles tendon just days after she was announced the NSW Lifeguard of the Year in late August. The irony of it is, she hadn’t even had the chance to respond to her congratulatory messages before the condolences began rolling in.

She looks back on it with a laugh now, though, and as she works towards rehabilitation – she is currently in a moon boot – she is looking forward to joining her fellow lifeguards on the beach in 2022.

“I love what I do because I think, with the ocean and lifeguarding in particular, you never stop learning,” she says.

“You can if you want to, but there’s always room to grow.

“At times it feels like you’re on the edge of medicine, then there’s factors like why erosion happens, or why the ocean does certain things. It’s like a bit of a lesson every time I go to work.

“Sometimes you walk away, and your brain is so fried, and it might not have even been a busy day, but it’s because you’re constantly analysing situations.

“I wouldn’t change it though, for anything.”

Thursday 14 October 2021