The man who died while swimming at Narrow Neck beach last week was a leading Asian studies academic who held several high-profile positions over a three-decade career at the University of Auckland.

Guests at a nearby function pulled emeritus professor of history Nicholas Tarling from the water on Saturday afternoon, but he could not be saved. He was 86.

University professor of Chinese Paul Clark described his former lecturer and colleague as "extraordinary", both in his many contributions during his time at the university - half as Dean of Arts - and his influence on New Zealand's changing focus towards Asia.

Tarling's appointment to the university in 1965 came at a time of increasing awareness about the need to "turn to Asia" as the United Kingdom moved to join the European Economic Community, Clark said.

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"Auckland, in particular, has come so aware of being part of the Asia-Pacific region ... Nick was there leading the change in helping us understand those changes."

Nicholas Tarling, pictured in 2001. Photo / Supplied
Nicholas Tarling, pictured in 2001. Photo / Supplied

Tarling was a popular lecturer for the thousands of students who took his classes, which were captivating because they were structured like a play and because of Tarling's use of his whole body - from gestures to dramatic pauses - while speaking.

His first research - later shared with students - was on pirates in pre-colonisation South East Asia, which he argued were a rational response to economic and political opportunities in places where states didn't have extensive control.

He remained involved in the university following his retirement in 1997 and continued to write books - penning up to 70 over his life, many on South East Asia, but also on subjects as wide ranging as the history of opera in Auckland, musical organisations and university reforms, Clark said.

He was also involved in a wide range of work outside the university, including as a radio presenter of classical music, a founder of Mercury Theatre and a trustee of numerous arts organisations.

Tarling, who never married or had children, studied at the University of Cambridge in his native United Kingdom, but had lived at Narrow Neck since the 1960s.

He swam at the beach every day until recent years, when he swam only in the warm months, Clark said.

"He died on a beautiful mid-autumn day doing something he loved."