Police have defended their actions and procedures following criticism levelled at them through social media following the drowning and recovery of a man at Whangārei Falls.

The officer in charge of the Northland police Search and Rescue team, Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, with 26 years experience with the squad and body recovery, was also in charge of the incident at Whangārei Falls.

Metcalfe was at the falls soon after reports of a man seen struggling in the water at the base of the falls about 4.30pm last Friday. Other police staff were at the falls only minutes after the alarm was raised and tracked down and spoke with eye witnesses about the last location the man was seen.

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But tragically Filipino Kent Espinosa, an international student, could not be saved and the operation became one of recovery.

"We had ambulance and a fire rescue rope team there but it soon became obvious the man had failed to surface and had drowned," Metcalfe said.

Kent Espinosa drowned while swimming at Whangarei Falls.
Kent Espinosa drowned while swimming at Whangarei Falls.

The area around the falls became a crime scene with members of the public pushed back and cordons put in place.

Officers searched the area but after failing to see the body in the water the decision was made to call in the specialist police dive squad, based in Wellington.

Metcalfe said the squad were booked on the earliest available flight to Whangārei which was on Saturday morning.

Security guards remained at the scene over night and were instructed to contact police immediately if the man's body surfaced.

However, Metcalfe said that would not have been likely. In his many years with the squad bodies surfaced many days later.

Once the dive squad arrived they were briefed, a dive plan created and then they deployed into the water. It took about 30 minutes before the divers found Espinosa's body. The recovery operation was all filmed on underwater cameras and showed a number of large boulders and logs beneath the surface, Metcalfe said.

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"These are standard operating procedures. Based on the facts it became a recovery operation. We can't just use any divers for these operations. They have to be commercial divers authorised by the police or the police dive squad because of the risks involved."

There was criticism from members of the public about the way the operation was handled.

Comments appeared on the Northland Police Facebook page following a post by police at 6.38pm stating the Whangārei Falls were closed and the search had been suspended for the night but there were guards in place and the police dive squad were attending the following morning.

A person named Rowena Marie posted: "Man looked distressed before 4.50pm and stopped the search at 6.30pm? WOW! Your fault if he's dead by morning."

"They barely looked for 2 hours, I have respect for everyone involved and the police but no respect for how they handled the search for the man.

"Others commented: "What were they meant to do? If he'd been under the water for nearly 2 hours chances are he's already passed away."