A volunteer firefighter has recalled the anxious moments as he and his team rushed to the aid of a baby who had nearly drowned after "tumbling" around in the sea at Bay of Plenty.

It is a situation, a water safety expert warns, that can be deadly in just seconds.

Fisherman Gus Hutt miraculously pulled the tot from the water at Matata Beach on October 26, at first believing the floating boy was a doll.

The baby had crawled along the beach after pulling up the zip on his parents' tent while they were asleep.

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Matata Volunteer Fire Brigade deputy chief fire officer Mark Hofert was one of the people who rushed to respond to the report of the near drowning.

When a follow-up call said it was an 18-month-old, everybody went quiet, said Hofert.

His daughter Lily Hofert, a second-year paramedic student as well as a Fire and Emergency volunteer, immediately started running through the protocol for paediatric resuscitation.

They were preparing for a worst-case scenario, Hofert said.

People waved them down as they arrived at Murphy's Holiday Camp.

"As soon as I opened the door I could hear a baby crying."

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Hero fisherman Gus Hutt with his wife Sue where he saved the baby's life at Matata Beach. Photo / Troy Baker, Whakatane Beacon
Hero fisherman Gus Hutt with his wife Sue where he saved the baby's life at Matata Beach. Photo / Troy Baker, Whakatane Beacon

It was a giant moment of relief because it meant the baby was still breathing, he said

"The baby was already hypothermic, he was cold, he was still in wet clothes," Hofert said.

The 18-month-old was put into dry blankets, he said.

"He definitely had cuts on his forehead and the like, he had been tumbled around in the waves quite a bit - he had taken a little bit of a beating.

"We listened to his lungs and heard fluid in the lungs. We made sure we gave him oxygen."

They alerted the ambulance team that the infant was in a serious condition, he said.

The little boy reportedly recovered well, with the parents later returning to thank Hutt for his heroic actions.

"At the end of the day its a beachside town, and there's huge numbers of young local kids that are always swimming down there, pretty much unsupervised," Hofert said.

There were plenty of good swimming programmes for kids in the community and there were rarely any drowning incidents in the area, he said.

A big take-away lesson from the incident was that tent zips needed to be kept out of reach of children, he said.

Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Jonty Mills said it could take less than a minute for a child to drown.

"Any amount of water presents a hazard," Mills said.

Children can drown in less than 400ml of water, he said.

Mills said it was never too early to familiarise kids with basic water skills.

Sadly, seven under-5s drowned last year and there have been three so far this year, he said.

"The only foolproof solution around that was that constant adult supervision is needed at all times.

"We know, we are parents or family members, we know how easy it is to get distracted particularly with modern-day technology."

Once a toddler is mobile they can disappear pretty quickly, he said.

"One of the risks, particularly at family gatherings, is the expectation that someone else is looking after the child or toddler."

The really strong message there is that an adult had to take responsibility for that constant supervision, he said.

"We know summer is heating up and we want all Kiwis and tourists who visit this country to enjoy any waterways they want to enjoy, because that's part of being in New Zealand.

"But we want to ensure everyone comes home safely at the end of the day."

According to Water Safety New Zealand, there were 92 preventable drownings last year.

Drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death in the country – after motor vehicle accidents and falls.