The announcement came at 2 p.m. sharp, crackling over a loudspeaker at what would usually be a peak time for the popular beaches of this Tel Aviv suburb: "All bathers, let it be known that the lifeguards have finished their duty and bathing is now dangerous."

And with that, the bronzed, hard-bodied crew that surveys this stretch of sand locked the door of their shack and marched away, leaving the public to fend for itself during a work-to-rule action that has left mothers nervous about their children and bureaucrats nervous about a rash of drownings this summer season.

"We should work from 7 to 7 this time of year, but we are only working 8 hours, just like everyone else in Israel," said lifeguard Haim Steinfeld. "That's it. No overtime."

Although seen largely in the United States as a seasonal profession, lifeguarding in Israel is not only a year round job--because of the weather, beaches are staffed from 9 to 12 months a year--but a career choice that comes with benefits and union membership.

Lifeguards form a national force of as many as 500. They are stationed around the Israeli coast, overseen by the Interior Ministry and paid by municipalities like Herzliyya.

Although their base salary is around $2,000 per month, the lifeguards working in several smaller beach towns north and south of Tel Aviv complain that their pension formulas are unfair because they do not account for the overtime that guards routinely work--hours that supplement their pay and are also critical to keeping the beaches staffed during summer afternoons.

As a result, they are leaving promptly after what is considered a full day's shift.

"We are not striking, we were put on strike," said Etzik O'Hion, 56, who has patrolled the beaches more than three decades. "According to our pensions we should only be allowed to work eight hours."

Israel's beaches are popular with nationals and tourists alike because of their fine-grain sand and warm Mediterranean currents, but this year a note of anxiety has intruded on the usually laid-back beach scene. Not only are the guards on strike, but people apparently are dying because of it.

After three people drowned over the past weekend, including one Romanian worker here, the Interior Ministry ordered several dozen guards back to their usual hours in an effort to improve safety.

In all, 33 people have drowned on Israel's coast since mid-April, compared with seven during the same time a year before--a "serious increase," in the words of a ministry statement.

"There is a great danger to the lives of bathers," the statement said. "There is a broad opinion that some of these incidents could have been prevented" if lifeguards had been present.

Currents and surf here and in Tel Aviv are gentle compared with, say, the Atlantic coast of the United States.

But lifeguards say there is nevertheless plenty to keep them busy as they survey the beach with binoculars from elevated lookout shacks.

As his colleagues sipped cappuccino in their station, one Tel Aviv guard explained that the relative calm of the sea is deceiving: Kids still stray too far and too deep, older people gulp salt water and start to panic, and adults get too ambitious for their skill and strength.

"The problem in Israel is everybody thinks they know how to swim," and so sometimes misjudge their own stamina, said the guard, who asked not to be identified.

"It is not an easy job," said O'Hion, "Day after day, watching all the day, the sun, the sand, it takes a toll."

At water's edge, Fanny Dan, 36, watched her 15-year-old son with a worrying eye. She had set a firm limit which he was not supposed to pass, but, without the lifeguards in the shack she felt compelled to keep watch.

"We don't always trust them--a mother is a mother, after all," she said. "But it is comforting to know they are there."

CAPTION: Etzik O'Hion is one of the lifeguards at the Herzliyya beach not working overtime to protest pension formulas.