'Russian roulette'-like behaviour partially blamed as beach drownings up 63% from last summer

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

CEO Paul Dalton joined Breakfast to discuss the 63 per cent increase from the same time last year. Source: Breakfast
January 28, 2020

The death of a person while diving near Whangārei on January 27 has ramped up concerns over our drowning toll.

From Labour weekend to yesterday, there have been 13 beach drownings, compared to eight in the same period last summer – a 63 per cent increase. There are still two-and-a-half months left until the end of the official swimming season.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand chief executive Paul Dalton attributed the large increase in beach drownings to “a combination of bad luck and poor weather”.

“When you have lots more wind, you have lots more waves, you have more rips, you have people making decisions that perhaps weren’t the right ones in the difficult conditions,” Mr Dalton told TVNZ1’s Breakfast.

He said the top three activities this year which are more dangerous than others, leading to more people losing their lives, have been “fishing off the beaches, whether it’s rock fishing, crab fishing", followed close behind by swimming, and diving and snorkelling.

“Those are the three activities where people really need to be thinking about their decisions before they get in the water.”

He advised people getting involved in activities such as rock fishing to “first and foremost" wearing lifejackets.

"So be prepared for that unexpected event where you end up in the water,” he explained. 

Mr Dalton also stressed the importance of being aware of the conditions, so “if it’s going to be rough weather and the tide’s coming in, then really think twice about whether you should actually be out there at all”, he said.

One concern is people swimming in beaches which are not always patrolled and fitted with flags, particularly in the middle of the week as the school holidays comes to an end.

“It can be hard, so those are the times when you really need to be thinking about not swimming alone and staying out if the conditions are there where if you’re not a great swimmer and the waves can knock you over, don’t go in the water," he said.

Mr Dalton also advised against anyone attempting to save someone who is struggling in the water, but to instead call for help.

“First and foremost is just to call for help, so dial 111 and that will sort of trigger a response,” he said. “It’s very tricky. I mean, we certainly see too many attempted rescuers go in and drown themselves, so it’s hard to control emotion, especially if it’s family members or things like that, but first and foremost is to call for assistance.

“If you do choose to go into the water, the most important thing is to take a floatation device, whether it’s a boogie board or a surfboard or something, so when that person has something to grab on to it’s not you.”

He said Surf Life Saving would benefit greatly with an increase in resources to educate people on drowning and the prevention of drowning.

“I think the education of drowning, or prevention of drowning, is a sector-wide issue, certainly would benefit from more resources. The biggest challenge we’ve got is getting through the male mind about risky behaviour.

"Our minds are very quick learners, so if we get away with something once we think it's not risky anymore - whether that's jumping off a waterfall, going swimming alone, going fishing without a lifejacket. We learn very quickly that if you can do it once, you can probably do it twice. But it's just playing Russian roulette.

“The more we can pump into education, that’ll be the fence at the top of the cliff - rather than have us at the bottom...picking up the pieces.”


This article was first aired on TVNZ1's Breakfast show on January 28, 2020.


For more information please contact: 
Melanie Louden
Media and Communications Manager
Surf Life Saving NZ
021 757 433