With a small drop in the number of drowning fatalities in Northland, water safety experts are urging beachgoers to stay safe as the number of holidaymakers taking to the waters swells at this time of the year.
Figures from Water Safety New Zealand show eight people have died in Northland waters so far this year— one less than for the whole of 2020.
Of the 74 preventable drownings in New Zealand last year, 12 per cent or nine were in Northland, which was quite a drop from 16 confirmed cases in 2019.
Preventable fatalities include recreational and non-recreational drowning deaths. They do not include those fatalities classified as "other", that arises as a result of road or air vehicle accidents, homicide, suicide or of unknown origin as they are not considered applicable to the prevention and rescue efforts of the water safety sector.
Whangārei Heads Surf Lifesaving Club patrol captain Temiko Esser said beachgoers in Northland this festive season should swim at patrolled beaches and between the flags.
He reminded them of the three Rs if they got into trouble — relax and float, raise your hand, and ride the rip — while waiting for help to arrive.
A majority of swimmers knew what to do while safety messages were getting through for others.
"Surf Lifesaving is doing a lot of work around water safety, a lot of people are becoming more aware of the dangers and a lot of them come to patrolled beaches," he said, referring to a decrease in drowning fatalities last year and so far this year.
Esser said Ocean Beach, where he's a paid lifeguard, has not been busy so far this summer but he expected an influx of people from Christmas Day.
"The surf is rising, offshore winds are picking up so people on inflatables should stay within their depth."
Four paid lifeguards will patrol Ocean Beach for the next six weeks before volunteers take over through to the Easter holiday weekend.
Water Safety NZ (WSNZ) chief executive Daniel Gerrard said unfortunately, too many Kiwis were still drowning and there have been five preventable drowning deaths on average over the past five summer holidays in New Zealand.
On a per-capita basis, he said New Zealand's preventable fatal drowning rate was 1.62 per 100,000, which has been steady for the past five years and was higher compared to Australia.
"Too many lives are needlessly lost, and families devastated. It doesn't need to be this way.
"Our frontline rescue services Surf Lifesaving NZ and Coastguard NZ are bracing themselves for a busy summer, but everyone can play a part by thinking about water safety. People just need to remember some key water safety rules for safe play in the water."
Those going away for the weekend should research water risks or ask locals, he said.
Gerrard said underestimating the risks and overestimating their ability were the biggest mistakes people made when they were in the water.
At three cases each, scuba diving and swimming featured most highly in Northland 's drowning deaths last year, with single cases being related to a fall, an attempt to rescue others, and snorkelling.
Beaches and offshore areas were the places with the most drownings (three each), while others were in a spa and home pools, ponds, tidal waters and rivers.
More males (seven) than females (two) drowned, with the 45- to 54-year age group recording the highest fatalities.
Māori and New Zealand European were tied at four each in terms of ethnicity.
On Christmas Day, shortly after 10am Mangawhai Heads lifeguards responded to a boat-breakdown incident in the harbour with five people aboard. All were wearing lifejackets and they were towed safely by IRB to shore.
Water safety tips from WSNZ
• Be prepared – Check the weather forecast, marine conditions; know the local environment, safe swimming spots; set rules for safe play; use safe and well-maintained equipment.
• Look out for yourself and others. Always supervise children around water and keep children under five years within arm's reach; never swim alone. Swim between the flags at the beach and make sure everyone on board the boat is wearing a well-fitted lifejacket.
• Be aware of the dangers. The water will be cold. If it's a surf beach, it's a rip beach.
• Know your limits. Challenge yourself within your abilities and skill level; know what you can and can't do in the water.