A local watched in horror as a group of tourists were engulfed by big and potentially dangerous swells off Napier's southern coast.

Christina Leuteritz was walking along the Napier coastal path between Napier and Clive, just south of the Awatoto Rd and SH51 intersection, when she noticed three people in the water.

"At first I thought they were in trouble because the sea was rough and you hardly ever see people swimming there because it's such a dangerous spot," she said.

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She said they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and were attempting to surf, but the waves got too strong for that.

Locals know never to swim off Napier's south coast on a big swell day. But it's not getting through to visitors. Photo / Supplied
Locals know never to swim off Napier's south coast on a big swell day. But it's not getting through to visitors. Photo / Supplied

"They looked like they were having the time of their lives," she said.

Leuteritz said she overheard them as they made their way back to shore and said they sounded as if they were from America.

Warnings were sent out last week by Surf Lifesaving NZ urging swimmers to respect the "swim between the flags" mantra on the East Coast, with big swells bringing dangerous and unexpected rips that could catch swimmers unaware.

MetService meteorologist Andy Best said that the big swells along the Hawke's Bay coast had hit as expected. They were caused by the tail end of Cyclone Tino which has hit the Pacific Islands, he said.

Swells were on Wednesday between 2-2.5m, but this was expected to drop to below a metre by Friday.

Westshore Surf Life Saving Club patrolman Reid Barker said the stretch along Marine Parade through to Clive was fine for confident swimmers when calm, but not this week.

"When the swells get up that stretch is definitely a 'no-go' to swim because of the deep drop off and strong undertow," Barker said.

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"For locals it's a spot they tend to avoid anyway.

"But visitors and tourists need to check the conditions, or pick a more suitable spot."

A Napier City Council spokesperson said a summer water safety brochure has been available from the Napier i-SITE, accommodation providers, NCC main reception and libraries since December 2017.

The brochure includes Surf Lifesaving NZ's top tips for keeping safe in the water, information on which beaches within NCC's boundaries are patrolled, and information on swimming water quality tests.

There are also 18 safe swimming reminder signs on Marine Parade, from just north of Magnet Café, to Waitangi Regional Park. The signs are at the busiest access points to the beach.

"This is a good opportunity to remind people of those top tips, that is, know your limits, never swim or surf alone, always have an adult watch over children, call 111 if you see someone in trouble, be smart around rocks, and watch out for rips.

If anyone wants to swim on Marine Parade, the best place is between the flags in front of the Pacific Surf Lifesaving Club but they must listen to lifeguards' advice."