The second highest number of drowning fatalities last year occurred on beaches; one more compared to 2015 and three more than the five year average. With 21 beach drownings in 2016, it is the highest beach toll since 2011.
Surf Life Saving New Zealand CEO Paul Dalton says last summer was one of the worst in many years with 19 beach drownings between Labour Weekend and Easter- up 36% (five drownings) on the previous summer, despite the poor weather keeping many people out of the water.
"From these grim statistics, people clearly need to take their own safety at beaches far more seriously," he says.
So as the country's thousands of volunteer lifeguards prepare to put up the red and yellow flags, they are urging people to choose a patrolled beach and swim between the flags in an effort to break the trend.
The Surf Life Saving season officially begins this Labour Weekend with patrols beginning in parts of the upper North Island and continuing to roll out across the lower North Island and into the South Island as the weather warms up.
Since 1910 volunteer lifeguards have been committed to making New Zealand's beaches safer for everyone to enjoy and today, there are nearly 5,000 lifeguards patrolling over 80 locations nationwide.
Mr Dalton says it's disappointing to see the increasing drowning rates but one statistic remains the same year on year; zero drownings between the flags.
"While we may sound like a broken record, there is a very important reason why we urge people to choose a patrolled beach and swim between the flags. The fact is, it is always the safest place to swim," he says.
Over the 2016/17 summer season, Surf Lifeguards around the country rescued 612 people from life-threatening situations and assisted another 1,184 back to safety.
Mr Dalton says there are two important risks that people need to keep in mind when heading to the beach this summer.
"So often, the people we are rescuing have overestimated their ability and underestimated the risk and before they know it, they are in trouble. Take a moment to stop and think before entering the water and if in doubt, stay out," he says.
Rips are also a major problem along our coastlines and every year around 80 percent of rescues are the result of someone getting caught in one.
"Lifeguards will always assess the beach conditions and put the flags in the safest place and move them about as conditions change throughout the day. Don't be fooled by calm patches which are a sure sign of a rip being present," he says.
Anyone who finds themselves caught in a rip should lie on their back and raise their hand to signal for help. Try to fight the urge to swim against the current; this will use up energy that you need to stay afloat while the emergency services arrive. Most people can float for a lot longer than they can swim! If you spot someone in a rip at an unpatrolled beach, ensure your own safety and call 111 and ask for Police.
Key safety messages:
• Choose a patrolled beach and swim between the flags (www.findabeach.co.nz)
• Keep children within arm's reach at all times. Don't overestimate you or your children's ability to cope in the conditions.
• Never swim or surf alone.
• Watch out for rips- calm, deep patches of water close to shore that can sometimes have waves breaking to the side. Rippled, discoloured or foamy water with debris can also mean there is a rip present.
• Be smart around rocks: whether fishing or exploring at the beach, rocky outcrops can be very dangerous in large surf. When fishing, always wear a lifejacket. Never stand on a rock outcrop that is already wet (a sure sign waves will be washing over it) and always face the ocean; never turn your back on the sea.
• If in doubt, stay out!
• If you spot someone in trouble at an unpatrolled beach, ensure your own safety and dial 111 and ask for Police.
Lisa Smith, Media & Communications Manager, SLSNZ
Phone 0276 488 823