A body seen floating in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour was ignored, joked about and photographed, but few people were willing to help.

A sociologist says the reaction from the public wasn't surprising, because the immediate response in the digital age is to take pictures for your friends rather than to act.

Brett Taylor, from Beachlands, East Auckland, came across the body floating face-down beside Princes Wharf on Monday morning. He and his wife stopped, made sure police were called, and waited for the body to be picked up by the police launch.

The number of people who took pictures on their mobile phones and walked away was upsetting, he said.


But University of Auckland sociology lecturer Ronald Kramer said it was just a sign of the digital times.

"I definitely think living in cities and within our media-saturated environment, you do become desensitised. It may be that people thought, what could they do. I think people's default is to get an image so they can have something to use as a basis for communicating with their friends.

"The first thought might be that this is going to look good on Facebook ... and in some ways that excludes moral considerations."

Mr Taylor was staying in the city for his 46th birthday and was going for a walk around the wharf when he spotted the body.

In about 30 minutes, he estimated "30-odd" people walked past and saw it. Nobody asked if the police had been alerted, he said.

"It was amazing. There were girls jogging; they stopped and looked, jogging on the spot, then jogged away.

"There was one man smiling as he took photos. [And] the man who sat down and had his lunch and watched, that really got me. They just didn't seem to care."

Police pulled the body from the water about 11.30am and said the death did not appear suspicious.

The apparently blase attitude of the passersby was something echoed elsewhere in society, Dr Kramer said.

Like at a concert, people were more intent on filming the performers than enjoying the show, he said. And people would photograph their dessert at a restaurant before considering tasting the dish.

"The technology allows us to distance ourselves from the event. You don't have to think about it in the moment ... We think, how can we communicate this to someone else. And I think there's something in that a little disturbing."