The drowning death toll will rise if school swimming lessons aren't made compulsory, the Government has been warned.
Thirteen people have drowned since Christmas Eve - a toll on par with the high drowning deaths of 2004 and 2008. And, with another 10 reported near-drownings, Water Safety New Zealand said sheer luck prevented deaths in the water from surpassing the road toll for the first time since the 1980s.
The warning came as a 32-year-old man died during a safety drill on an international cruise ship in Lyttelton Harbour. Port Company divers recovered a body about 7pm yesterday.
Two crew were dropped into the water alongside MS Volendam when a cable holding a lifeboat snapped. It is understood neither man was wearing a lifejacket and both were dressed in overalls, harnesses and work boots.
At least 12 of the 13 people to have drowned since Christmas are thought to have been New Zealand born and raised.
Labour MP Maryan Street said: "I can't understand why those basic survival skills are being neglected. Most of these drownings were avoidable."
Water Safety NZ general manager Matt Claridge said: "The Ministry of Education has tried to remove themselves from any responsibility and I think it's bollocks.
"They take responsibility for kids achieving numeracy and literacy standards and it needs to be the same for swim survival skills. It's got to change."
Education Minister Anne Tolley avoided repeated requests for an interview yesterday by the Herald on Sunday.
In a three-paragraph statement released through her press secretary, Tolley said primary schools were required to provide "opportunities" for students to learn basic swimming skills. "Teaching water skills is not a job for schools alone, but for families and communities as well," she said.
Among the close calls was little Hanya Hennessey who almost drowned at the Mt Maunganui Hot Saltwater Pools this week.
She spent two days recovering in hospital.
Hanya was pulled from the water "coughing and spluttering and turning blue", said her mother Vanessa.
"I would say to parents if you go in a big group, make sure that you allocate who's looking after who." It had been traumatic, she said.
In the two decades since compulsory swimming lessons were phased out in schools, Claridge said, an entire generation had missed out on the opportunity to learn to swim.
- Additional reporting BOP Times