The woman at the centre of a dramatic rescue in the Hokianga has been left battered and bruised after being dragged under a sea cave which felt "like she went through a washing machine".
Rebecca Hessell was knocked over by a massive wave on Thursday while walking on rocks with her family at south head near Omapere.
She was twice sucked under water through a blow hole before being rescued by an off-duty Coastguard volunteer on a jet ski.
The 37-year-old was taken to Rawene hospital, and transferred the same day to Whangārei hospital, where she was treated for water on the lungs and abrasions. Her sister Harirewa Hessell-Shearer said she also suffered severe bruising and eye damage.
She was discharged on Friday.
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Harirewa said Rebecca had a near-death experience.
"She feels like she went through a washing machine. She saw Tangaroa [the Maori god of the sea]. She felt like he was pulling her up from the water."
Harirewa said she and Rebecca were walking on the rocks with their five children about midday.
Rebecca ran over the rocks near the blow hole and was knocked over by a wave on the way back, tumbling into the cave and whacking her head.
"She disappeared into the water and came out the other side... then went under a second time. She was under for about 40 seconds all up.
"It was terrifying when she went under, I was screaming. I climbed onto the rock to try and see where she was and kept getting bashed by waves myself. But I couldn't reach her. It was very traumatic."
Auckland-based senior Coastguard volunteer Chris Griggs, who was holidaying at Omapere, was fishing on his jet ski with his eight-year-old son when he heard the unfolding drama over the marine radio.
He followed the Hokianga Express charter boat, which had police on board, out to the site.
With the boat stationed nearby in deeper water, Griggs offloaded his son and fishing gear before making his way over to the rocks where there were big swells and "six to seven-foot waves".
"She'd climbed onto the rock and was sitting there in a huddled position. She was pretty scared and distraught. There was big white-washed water crashing around her.
"I had to back away for a moment and reassess the whole situation. The noise of the waves was horrendous, there were rocks coming out of the water and disappearing again. I was struggling to communicate with her."
Griggs reassured the fully-clothed woman, coaxing her to the water's edge.
Because of the large swells, he initially thought she would have to swim out to the jet ski but "she was horrified at the thought of getting back into the water".
Griggs noticed a sheltered spot and got the jet ski close enough so she could jump on to the rescue sled attached to the rear of the vessel.
"The sea was calm for a second and I yelled at her to jump. She said 'I can't', but I said 'you've got to'.
"I don't know the area so there was a fair bit of risk there. I was putting all my skills at Coastguard for 11 years to work."
Griggs transferred Rebecca to the boat which took her to shore to a waiting ambulance. She was "exhausted and cold" and treated for hypothermia at Rawene hospital.
Rebecca, from Auckland, and Harirewa, from Te Awamutu, are looking after their parents' house in Pakanae for a couple of weeks.
Harirewa said the family are incredibly grateful to Griggs for saving Rebecca. The area has also claimed other lives.
Over the years her dad - Kaikohe-Hokianga Community Board member Alan Hessell - has helped recover four bodies from the "exact same spot" while helping out at Coastguard, she said.
"He [Griggs] was very brave, she's really thankful that he helped her. She thought for sure she was going to die there."
Hokianga Express Charters owner Peter Clark said Rebecca had "an angel on her shoulder" on Thursday.
"She's very lucky to still be with us."
Griggs said he has been told by locals that, though the area looks safe and inviting, and the caves are beautiful to explore, they can suddenly become engulfed with water without warning.