The drowning toll reached an eight-year high last year, with experts describing it as a tragic increase on the previous year's record low.
Figures released by Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) today showed 123 people drowned in New Zealand last year, up 41 per cent on 2010.
It was the worst toll on record since 2003, and up on the five-year average of 111 drowning deaths a year.
WSNZ chief executive Matt Claridge said an increase of such magnitude was extremely disappointing.
"To go from a record low in 2010 to an eight-year high in 2011 is a tragedy and we will continue to do everything we can to inform and educate people about water safety to ensure 2012 is a better year."
Last year, there were 66 recreational drownings, making up 54 per cent of the total, as well as 24 occupational drownings and 30 due to other causes, which includes suicides, homicide and vehicle crashes.
Men made up a significant 80 per cent of all those who drowned last year.
The largest number of recreational drownings occurred while swimming, with 17 deaths, followed by scuba diving and snorkeling, with 13 deaths.
Shore-based fishing and power boating both led to 11 drownings.
Mr Claridge said it was difficult to determine the reason for last year's high toll, but added New Zealand has an ongoing issue with a casual attitude to water safety.
"Many of the drownings that occurred during recreational activities could have been prevented if people remembered the safety basics. Wear life jackets, check the weather forecast, stay within your limits, don't swim alone and avoid alcohol.
"These and other simple precautions could save your life."
The number of preschooler drownings was up 75 per cent on the previous year, with 14 children under the age of five drowning last year.
Mr Claridge said the high proportion of young children that drowned was a tragedy for the nation.
"Young children are extremely vulnerable around water and caregivers need to be reminded to provide active supervision - that is, keep the child within arms reach at all times."
Maori were over-represented in the statistics, accounting for 20 per cent of all drownings despite making up 15 per cent of the population.
Last year also saw a significant increase in the number of people of Asian descent drowning, with 18 deaths - three times the average between 2006 and 2010.
WSNZ was developing a safety campaign specifically targeting people of Asian descent.
Beaches overtook rivers, which are historically more dangerous, in last year's statistics. There were 29 death at beaches compared with 27 at rivers.
Mr Claridge said this year was already off to a poor start, with 15 drownings to date.
Yesterday, a 44-year-old man was swept out to sea while trying to swim across the Mokihinui River on the West Coast. His body was later recovered.
The body of Aucklander Zebedee Pua, 15, was also found yesterday after he was swept out to sea while trying to save a younger girl on Thursday.
He went missing O'Neill Bay, 1km north of Bethells Beach, and his body was found last night by the police Eagle helicopter at Kirikiri Bay.
Also caught in a rip was Albert Alapati, 24, who was swept out to sea at Titahi Bay north of Wellington on January 14.
His death was one of three on the water that day, after two men in their 50s died at Lake Taupo and Welcome Bay.