Two people drowned in separate incidents yesterday, marking a horror start to the holiday season.

A man died on Christmas morning after getting into difficulty while crab fishing at Uretiti Beach, south of Whangarei. His body was pulled from the water at midday.

Then close to 3pm, a second person drowned while snorkelling at Kai Iwi Lakes north of Dargaville.

Their deaths came on top of the 71 preventable drownings recorded across New Zealand in 2019 as of December 20.


Reports of the man getting into trouble while crab fishing at Uretiti Beach, just north of Waipu, along State Highway 1, were first given to police at about 10.10am yesterday.

It triggered a search operation in which Police Search and Rescue, Coastguard, a rescue helicopter and Ruakaka Surf Club lifeguards were all scrambled to the scene.

"A comprehensive co-ordinated water search was conducted for around an hour before the missing man was spotted in the water by the helicopter crew," Surf Life Saving said.

"The man's body was picked up by Ruakaka volunteer Surf Lifeguards in an IRB (inflatable rescue boat) at 11.55am.

He had been crabbing at a non-life guarded beach.

The coastline near Waipu is popular with swimmers, surfers, fisherman and especially crabbers.

Brent Cooper co-founded a group of about 12 volunteers, who drive a buggy along the 9km beach handing out safety brochures to crabbers and urging them to wear lifejackets.

The group formed about four years ago after a wave of drownings of crabbers in the area.


Cooper said hundreds of cars carrying families can pull up at low tide to go crabbing along the coastline.

While locals knew of the rip tides and other hazards, many of the out-of-towner crabbers didn't. Some were also new migrants to the country and not confident swimmers, Cooper said.

Cooper's volunteers also had safety brochures in Chinese and some rescue equipment on their buggy.

However, the volunteers were all at home with their families for Christmas yesterday.

"Unfortunately, we can't be out there 24/7," said Cooper, who does plan to be back out there patrolling on Boxing Day.

The second tragic drowning involved a snorkeller at the Kai Iwi Lakes, near Northland's west coast, police said.


The snorkeller was found unresponsive in the water and taken ashore but could not be revived, police said.

Police were providing support to the families of both people who drowned, while their deaths had been referred to the Coroner.

A local kaumatua will attend the scene of the drowning near Waipu to provide a blessing.

Water Safety NZ chief executive Jonty Mills earlier also warned Kiwis to know their limits around the water this summer.

The safety advocate's plea came after it was revealed 74 elderly people had died in preventable drowning incidents since 2014.

As of December 17, there had been 12 people aged over 65 who had drowned.


"In the last four years, the over 65s have really increased quite dramatically," Mills told the Herald.

"There are two reasons people drown: predominantly, they don't have the skills to get themselves out of trouble, but in most cases people make bad decisions."

Further south in Auckland's Orewa Beach was twice closed on Christmas Eve after a two-metre long shark was spotted gliding through the azure waters.

Surf Life Saving Northern Region duty officer Dan Short said the beach was closed as a precaution because the shark was just 500m from the shore near swimmers.

However, the shark had not been breaching the water's surface, splashing or feeding, he said.

"The water is their home," he said.