A Whangārei woman says she will never forget her partner's whispered first words, "I love you", after she pulled his lifeless body from the surf at a notoriously dangerous Northland beach.
A relaxing family outing turned into a terrifying ordeal when Felicity Bidgood, 32, dragged an unconscious Aaron Marais, 27, from rough waters at Ocean Beach in Whangārei Heads last Thursday.
"If I hadn't been standing there watching him, it would've been a search and rescue for his body," Bidgood said. "He would've died that day."
Marais' survival has the pair, alongside Whangārei Heads surf lifeguards, advocating for greater water safety awareness amongst the public.
The near-drowning is the seventh major incident in the waters at Ocean Beach since October. Water Safety NZ has recorded seven drownings in Northland this year.
And local lifeguards are braced for coastlines laden with holidaymakers over the festive season.
Bidgood and Marais, with her daughter and sister, ditched the city for their favourite beach.
During the 45-minute drive the weather cooled and Bidgood decided it was too cold for a dip. Keen swimmer Marais, however, was determined to get in the water after such an effort to get there.
He said the 3m waves undeterred him as he had been swimming since he was a child both in New Zealand and his home country South Africa.
The group chose a spot in the middle of the beach, where Marais said it was safest to swim, and the chef jumped into the water.
"By the time I looked up I was on the right side of the beach by where the rocks are."
In a matter of minutes Marais had been swept 500m towards the large rocky outcrop at the southern end of Ocean Beach - the opposite direction from the single surfer who could have helped.
Bidgood said it was "absolutely terrifying" watching Marais move down the beach, out of his control.
Marais said he knew when people were stuck in rips the last thing they should do was struggle against the current.
"I really didn't want to get smashed into the rocks but I still forced my body to relax and not fight it. I was freaking out at the time though."
But the surf proved relentless and Marais was stuck in an unstoppable cycle where a wave would wash him onto the shore and instantly drag him out again into the break.
"I wasn't able to breathe," he said. "Each time I got up another wave would hit me again."
Marais said his breathing became laboured as his lungs filled up with water.
Bidgood said her adrenaline kicked in as the plight of Marais' struggle unfolded in front of her.
"As I looked back at him and saw him unconscious on his back floating in the shallows as a big wave crashed over him, I was in pure shock running towards him..."
Bidgood saw as the waves rolled a lifeless Marais face down in the water.
"I ran up to my waist fully clothed and grabbed him and dragged him in as fast as I could while yelling for help," she said. "It was the most terrifying, horrific thing to see my partner's lifeless and unconscious body floating in the sea."
Bidgood rushed to put Marais, who was spitting water, in the recovery position.
The only sign her partner was still alive were three simple words.
"After what seemed like forever, he finally quietly spoke the words 'I love you'," she said.
In the back of her mind, Bidgood was aware those words could have still been Marais' last.
"He then went unresponsive and unconscious. Not long after the surf lifesavers arrived with medical supplies and oxygen but that was an absolute lifesaver," she said.
John-Michael Swannix, Whangārei Heads emergency call-out squad co-ordinator and long-time surf lifeguard, said he and three other off-duty lifeguards were staying at the Whangārei Heads Surf Club for a training day when a member of the public ran towards them asking for help around 2.45pm.
Swannix said lifeguards put Marais on oxygen for around 30 minutes.
The Northland Rescue Helicopter and Fire and Emergency New Zealand arrived about 20 minutes later, Swannix said.
He was taken to a waiting ambulance, then driven to hospital to check for water inhalation, Swannix said.
The pair agreed if Marais had been alone that day, there would be an empty seat at their dinner table.
"I thought I was strong enough," he said. "It was due to Felicity and all of the amazing emergency services that I was able to survive that day."
The event has made Marais more fervent about sharing water safety messages.
"It is so important to not swim alone, have someone with you they could be the saving point," he said. "Know the conditions and where you are swimming, even Ocean Beach has changed so much in six years."
Swannix said conditions at Ocean Beach were deceptive and people tended to get in trouble on an outgoing tide.
"The swell is the most deceptive thing at Ocean Beach. When the surf doesn't look to be that massive there are still currents that can be really serious."
Surf Life Saving Northern Region chief executive Matt Williams is predicting a continuation of previous season trends which showed more Kiwis were visiting Northland's "wonderful beaches".
"It's great people want to explore their backyards. If you're wanting to explore the coastlines make sure you do it safely."
SLSNZ chief executive Paul Dalton said the organisation is anticipating their busiest surf lifesaving season on record this summer.
"The fact that Kiwis can't travel overseas means many families will head to the beach. We encourage people to pick patrolled beaches and always swim between the flags."
How to stay safe
The best beach safety advice from Whangārei Heads Surf Life Saving Club lifeguard and emergency callout squad co-ordinator John-Michael Swannix.
* If you spot someone in trouble in the water, call 111 and ask police for the surf lifeguards.
The off-duty lifeguards are alerted via a pager system to their phones. The squad is made up of 12 lifeguards and another four emergency callout supporters.
* Always choose a beach patrolled by lifeguards:
Weekday lifesaving patrols started at Ruakākā, Waipū Cove and Mangawhai Heads on December 14.
They start at Ahipara, Baylys Beach, and Ocean Beach - Whangārei Heads on December 21.
* Always have someone on the shore and never swim alone
Ocean Beach is regarded as one of the most dangerous beaches in New Zealand and there have been seven major incidents since October.
December 10 - Swimmer Aaron Marais was pulled unconscious from the water by his partner, Felicity Bidgood.
November 14 - A male diver died after he was found unresponsive in the water off the Old Woman.
November 1 - Two young women were rescued from a rip by a surfer.
October 31 - A lifeguard rescued a man on a body-board was swept out of the flags into a rip.
October 18 - Off-duty lifeguards in an IRB rescued two inexperienced divers being swept out to sea past Tarakanahi Island in big swells.
October 10 - Off-duty lifeguards rescued two male surfers stuck in a rip.
October 3 - Off-duty lifeguards rescued two children aged 11 and 8, who were swept out in a rip.