The Government is being urged to stump up the cash for surf lifesavers and Coastguard operations, as figures show New Zealand has the third highest drowning rate in the developed world.
New Zealand trails only Brazil and Finland, and more adult males drown here per capita than in any other OECD country.
Senior lifeguard Jonathon Webber believes the Government should better fund survival skills in our waters to decrease the drowning toll.
Mr Webber, who is also a senior clinical tutor at the University of Auckland's department of anaesthesiology, said at the moment Surf Life Saving New Zealand and Coastguard have to fight every year for funding from the Lottery Grants Board.
He said without that funding, the drowning toll would be four times the road toll in New Zealand.
Provisional statistics released by Water Safety NZ showed nearly 90 per cent of those who drowned in New Zealand waters were male, and 90 per cent of those who drowned were aged over 15. Our high rate of adult male deaths bucks the global trend which sees under-5-year-olds as the main victims.
Water Safety NZ launched a campaign aimed at adults through 43-year-old comedian Oscar Kightley learning to swim. He nearly drowned at a beach when he was 20, and had an ongoing fear of the water.
Hilton Brown Swimming manager Andrew Brown, who instructed Kightley on swimming, said it was important for adults to learn to swim but there had been stigma attached.
He said publicity had helped break that down.
Mr Brown said about 60 per cent of adults who learned to swim were immigrants.
Despite our high rate of adult male drowning fatalities, Government funding is focused on children learning to swim.
And that is the way it must be, according to Water Safety NZ general manager Matt Claridge. "Adults learning to swim is not a silver bullet for reducing drowning."
Surprisingly for an island nation of 11,000km of coastline, 525,000km of rivers and 3820 lakes, seven out of 10 New Zealand children still can't swim, he said.
Water Safety NZ figures show 70 per cent of 12-year-olds can't swim 200 metres. Earlier surveys found a quarter of 10-year-olds couldn't float, and half couldn't swim 25m.
Schools were traditionally the primary venue for children learning to swim but swimming is now only a nominal part of the education curriculum.
A leading reason for this change was the Tomorrow's Schools reforms in the 1980s, which shifted responsibility for managing school pools to individual boards, along with less funding to maintain school pools in operating grants.
Mr Claridge said some schools received only $500 a year to maintain their pools, so many of the pools were closing.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said no specific funding was allocated for schools to implement a learn-to-swim programme.
Non-mandatory aquatics skills are outlined in the health and physical education curriculum, and schools are expected to provide opportunities for all students to learn basic aquatics skills by the end of Year 6 (ages 9 and 10).
However, "Schools can't meet the requirements of the curriculum due to a lack of resourcing," Mr Claridge said.
He estimated it would cost $28 million to implement an effective, nationwide learn-to-swim programme for all primary school students.