Middle-aged Northland men are being urged to know their limits and not underestimate the water, with the region having the highest drowning rate in the country.
And middle-aged men, those aged 45 and over, are the ones dying most, John-Michael Swannix, Surf Life Saving Northern Region search and rescue supervisor, said.
The Beach & Coastal Safety Report, issued by Surf Life Saving NZ (SLSNZ), released today
shows that Northland - with eight deaths - had the highest drowning rate in the country last year at 4.22 fatal drownings per 100,000 people. This compared with the national average of 0.85 per 100,0000 people and 0.77 for Auckland.
Last year's drowning rate in Northland was higher than the average for the last 10 years of 3.04 per 100,000 people. Over that decade 81 per cent of the 57 drownings were men and about half were men aged 45 and older.
Within the Northland Region during 2010-20, the majority of beach and coastal drowning fatalities occurred while swimming/wading (13), followed by using watercraft (11) and net/shell fishing (10).
While the figures may not be too surprising, given that Northland has around 3200km of coastline and the water is such a big part of life in the region, most of the deaths were preventable and Northlanders "need to do better", SLSNZ says.
Swannix, who is based at Ocean Beach, Whangārei Heads, said the sea is so important to so many in the region - with nobody more than about 30 minutes from the ocean - but one of the big issues in Northland was middle aged men overestimating their abilities, or underestimating the sea.
"It's basically a bit of complacency. Another issue with this age group is they are getting into trouble while taking on new activities. We recently had to rescue two new divers at Ocean Beach who had to be rescued off the rocks because they went out in very big swells and they were very inexperienced. We had another man relatively new to kayaking, who went out at Waipū and forgot to put the bung in - he needed to be rescued.
''Another one is jet skis. People who are inexperienced will sometimes not know how to really handle them and fall off - or run out of fuel - and need to be rescued.''
Swannix said the water is for having fun, but people need to know their limits and not over-extend themselves.
''And never underestimate the ocean.''
He said people should only really swim at one of Northland's six lifeguard patrolled beaches - Ocean Beach, Ruakākā, Waipū, Mangawhai, Ahipara and Baylys Beach.
Swannix said if coastal communities wanted their surf beaches patrolled they needed to make representations to their local authorities.
Nationally, on average, 36 people drown every year on New Zealand's coastlines and that figure is on the increase.
SLSNZ chief executive Paul Dalton said the new findings are deeply upsetting, both for loved ones of the deceased and for volunteer surf lifeguards who are at the coalface of the issue.
"The number of fatal beach and coastal drownings in New Zealand has actually increased by 18 per cent over the past five years compared to the previous five years… and our fatal beach and coastal drowning rate is 48 per cent worse, per capita, than Australia's," he said.
"Every person who dies on our beaches and coastlines is someone with a whānau and a community who loves them and misses them. What's particularly gut-wrenching is that, as with the road toll, most fatal drownings are preventable."
Dalton says the vast majority of fatal beach drownings occurred on non-lifeguarded beaches, or outside of patrol hours. Swimming (22 per cent), boating (17 per cent) and falls (17 per cent) made up the majority of activities being undertaken at the time that someone fatally drowned. A staggering 87 per cent of victims nationally were male.
Pasifika, Māori and Asian community members were the most over-represented in fatal drowning figures.
"It's time for us to think seriously, as Kiwis, about prevention and education when it comes to beach and coastal safety. We can't have surf lifeguards everywhere, so how are we going to approach this? Who's responsible? And who's going to pay for it?"
How to stay safe
Water safety tips:
1. Choose a life-guarded beach and swim between the flags.
2. Read and understand the safety signs - ask a lifeguard for advice as conditions can change regularly.
3. Don't overestimate your or your children's ability to cope in the conditions.
4. Always keep young children who are in or near the water within arm's reach.
5. Never swim, fish or surf alone.
6. If caught in a rip current, lie on your back and float, put your hand up and call for help.
7. Be smart around rocks. When fishing, never turn your back towards the sea and always wear a lifejacket.
8. If in doubt, stay out.
9. If you see someone in trouble, call 111 and ask for Police.