New Zealand’s fatal drowning rates shame – the most deadly beaches revealed

More than 300 Kiwis have drowned in New Zealand over the last decade. Our drowning rates rank us poorly worldwide – some 70 per cent higher than beach-mad Australia, and trending upwards. Mostly men are victims, too often they are Pasifika. Why? The Herald has examined 10 years of drowning fatality data to reveal the deadliest beaches – and speak to experts about how to enjoy the water, and stay safe, this summer. Kurt Bayer reports.

The numbers are officially a national disgrace. Between 2009 and 2019, 320 people dead in the water.

Sheridan Bruce of Water Safety New Zealand knows the impact each and every one has had. A life cut-short – often a young life – leaving families and communities devastated.

“Our drowning toll is something every New Zealander should see as a national disgrace and one we all have a responsibility to address,” Water Safety NZ says in its official literature.

Those figures over the last decade are staggering. Most of the horrifying incidents happen at surf beaches, around 39 per cent, and almost a quarter of the time it’s just from people out swimming. Next worst are rocky foreshores (15 per cent) and harbours (14 per cent).

And according to data obtained by the Herald, Auckland is by far the deadliest region, with 96 fatal drownings over the last decade. Nine people have died at Piha alone.

Many factors come into play. Our island nation’s expansive coastline, high participation rates, and cold water, which impacts survival chances.

Water Safety NZ and Surf Life Saving NZ have campaigned tirelessly to get people to make smarter decisions, and take precautions before entering the water, and yet nobody appears to listen. The numbers are going in the wrong direction.

There has been an alarming 37 per cent jump in beach and coastal fatal drownings over the last five years.

Over the decade 2009 – 2019, Surf Life Saving NZ performed 11,065 rescues, made nearly a million (948,130) preventative actions, involving 3.6 million members of the public.

Drowning is now the number one cause of death among fatal recreational accidents. And with water incidents, Bruce says, there’s not many second chances.

“If I have a skiing accident, it may not be life-threatening,” she says. “But if I have an accident in the water, it can lead to drowning. That’s why we all need to be super-vigilant, prepared, and know all the risks, because you don’t really get a second chance.

“We’re pretty much at the coal face here, we see what happens, and that’s why we want people to take personal responsibility.”

A staggering 89 per cent of those who die in drownings are male.

In 2016, Water Safety NZ started targeting young males, aged between 15 and 34, through its Swim Reaper campaign. Using dark humour and mockery, the confrontational character is an attempt to grab the attention of young males who generally aren’t interested in safety messages on social media.

It’s part of the safety group’s desire to change behaviour from a systemic perspective and teach school children water safety skills that they can take through life.

“It’s all very well doing campaigns at the time, but if we can change people’s knowledge, attitude, and behaviour around water from a young age, that will ultimately help bring down our drowning stats,” Bruce says.

Wearing lifejackets is also a key message and Bruce hopes that if kids are taught from an early age their importance then they will become second-nature like the wearing of seatbelts in cars.

Olympic Kayaker Kayla Imrie grew up in the water.

But she knows almost better than anyone just how much you have to respect the sea.

“I’ve had many close calls and also done many rescues – so many I can’t even recall them all,” says Imrie, who once nearly drowned at Muriwai.

The Wellington-born 28-year-old started out as a swimmer before joining her local surf lifesaving club at 14.

Surf lifesaving gave her a “huge respect” for the ocean and showed her how quickly conditions can change.

It also helped her read the ocean and judge conditions, checking for rips and currents.

She soon got first-hand experience on just how quickly things can turn serious.

As a 15-year-old, with just one year’s experience of surf lifesaving, she was catching waves on kneeboards with her younger brother at Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast when she was spurred into action.

She noticed two older men – in their 30s – mucking around on boogie boards, without any fins or flippers.

There were big waves and a strong offshore wind, with a wide lagoon.

Imrie soon saw them kicking hard and trying to get back to shore.

When she looked again, they had disappeared from view, swept out into the open ocean by a rip.

Imrie and her brother paddled far out to sea, putting their own lives at risk, to rescue the men.

Her brother stayed with one of them while Imrie paddled the other to safety – before returning and getting the second one to land.

“I’d only just got those skills to be able to rescue people and if we hadn’t been there that day having fun in the water, you wonder what would’ve happened to them,” she says.

She also had her own major scare at Muriwai.

Huge 3.5m waves meant she could not swim through the surf and get back to the beach and she ended up needing to be rescued by an Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB).

“It just goes to show that no matter how strong a swimmer you are, the ocean is always stronger.”

Her main advice for beach safety is for people to be prepared before they enter the water.

Wear appropriate clothing, check beach and surf conditions online, speak to lifeguards, swim between the flags where possible, and either swim with others or else let someone know where you are going.

“The beach is such a wonderful place to be and you have to enjoy it. You just have to be prepared and understand the environment you’re about to enter and make some smart choices,” Imrie says.

Water Safety NZ says there are several steps beachgoers can take before hitting the surf.

People are urged to check the weather forecast, observe warning flags and signs for the safest spots to go, and look out for yourself and others, especially parents and caregivers of children.

Divers should always venture out with a buddy. Alcohol should be avoided.

And Bruce urges Kiwis to know their limits.

“If you can’t swim out to a floating raft that might be 200m out, don’t do it,” she says.

“It’s going to be a busy season and we’re just pushing the message: Look out for yourself and others. And if in doubt, stay out.

“We’re really hoping people employ common sense and be prepared for any eventuality.”

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New Zealand fatal drownings 2009-19 by region:

Auckland – 96
Northland – 55
Waikato – 34
Wellington – 27
Bay of Plenty – 23
Canterbury – 18
Hawke’s Bay – 16
Otago – 13
Southland – 10
Taranaki – 8

-Source: SLSNZ

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Auckland's killer beaches – coastal drownings at the region's beaches between 2009-19:

Piha Beach (including Lion Rock) – 9
Bethells Beach – 5
Muriwai Beach – 3
Karekare Beach – 3
Judges Bay, Karioitahi Beach, O’Neill Bay, Takapuna Beach, Whatipu Beach – 2

-Source: Water Safety NZ

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