Sunday, January 3, 2010

Keeping our heads above water

New Zealand has shocking drowning statistics every summer. Kiwis (and our visitors) are far too casual when swimming from our highly tidal beaches with swift currents and fearsome rips.

Piha_and_Lion_Rock Piha, west coast black sand beach, north Auckland. Photo from Wikipedia.

Water Safety New Zealand states that on average 119 people drown in New Zealand waters every year. Only road crashes kill more people accidently. There is a chilling physiological explanation of the drowning process there too if anyone has a morbid curiosity.

All major beaches in New Zealand are patrolled by surf lifesavers through summer but on any given day you’ll see most people swimming well away from the patrolled areas – I think it’s got something to do with the fact that we don’t like being told what to do. The lifesavers do an admirable job of keeping an eye on the whole beach and mostly they’re successful but they’re fighting an uphill battle; we New Zealanders think we’re indestructible because we grew up swimming in the sea.

In the last two days a grandfather and a father have drowned in two separate incidents when they were trying (successfully) to save young children swimming with them. In both cases some foresight about the conditions might easily have prevented them getting into trouble. A teen also drowned jumping from a waterfall.Piha LifeguardsPhoto from 

What’s really sad is that our visitors die too. Our beaches are beautiful and look harmless so people just run into the water at the closest spot to their towels and umbrella rather than checking out where the rips are. I was pleased to see yesterday when I was at Piha beach that there were lifesavers handing out pamphlets in different languages explaining about currents and rips and what swimmers should look for before choosing where to swim.

New Zealand beaches are safe as long as we’re all sensible, know what to look for, supervise our kids PROPERLY (always use flippers with boogie boards) and stay out of the water after drinking. With little children always head to the safer east coast Auckland beaches. Maraetai_231209_4 Maraetai, east coast inner harbour, Auckland (15 minutes drive east from my place)

EDIT: I just did some research and found that Australia’s latest figures (the year to June 2009) make our figures look even worse. Australia lost 302 people to drowning in that year when of course their population is more than 5 times ours (4m here vs 21m there).

I also note that another person (35 year old male) is missing and now presumed drowned from Piha at about the time I was publishing this post yesterday.


  1. Couldn't agree more. Alcohol and (consequently) overconfidence in our skills is much to blame.
    In Sweden the numbers of drowning victims has been cut from over 1000 a hundred years ago, till about your numbers now. I'd say we owe that to an increased awareness of the problem and, most of all, the introduction of public swim schools. That's why it's sad to see where some politicians tend to do their budget cuts. Haven't they learned anything?

    I think the numbers of NZ are a bit high actually, I mean our population is twice the size and we have just about the same number of casualties. But then we don't have high tides, currents and stuff. Maybe that's why?
    But the ice takes a lot of lives... I don't know. Just a thought.


  2. Yes I agree Daniel our numbers are excessive based on our small (4m) population. We're a nation of risk takers on the whole and some of us die as a result. Our road deaths are ridiculously high too per capita.

  3. Best thing my parents ever did was enroll my brother and I in a swim team as kids. Best thing I ever did was enroll my children in our local swim team.

    We live on a very large river and two rivers empty into this river. We have yearly drownings also. It astonishes me that people will wade in the river, step off a shelf and they are gone. They don't know how to swim and they drown.

    There is no public swimming program in the states. There was none in Canada. Many of the people that drown here are migrant workers from Mexico.

  4. Our problem here in NZ is more about not understanding the way the ocean changes when the tide does - it appears that most people who drown here can actually swim. Our main group of drownings are in males aged 18-35 which is the 'risk taking' group.

  5. As you said a lot of it is the "don't tell me what to do" attitude. I believe that Piha was one of my son's favourite surfing beaches. I remember being down there in 2001 and he was chasing the surf - when we were on the east coast the waves were on the west and vice versa. He finally got a tiny - very tiny chance at the Mount on our second to last day.

  6. Noted. When I come for a visit, no running with wild abandon into the ocean's water.


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