Whangārei Heads one of 10 most dangerous patrolled beaches in New ZealandWednesday, 1 January 2020
Patrol captain Mikayla Gulick on duty at Ocean Beach at Whangārei Heads. Photos / Michael Cunningham
By: Julia Czerwonatis
Reporter for the Northern Advocate
This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving New Zealand to help save lives. The charity relies on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers, fundraising, grants and sponsorship to keep our beaches patrolled. Here's your chance to help raise money for new equipment and lifeguard training.
A Northland beach ranks amongst the top 10 most dangerous in New Zealand, according to statistics released by Surf Life Saving New Zealand – and rightfully so, local lifeguards say.
With 19 rescues between 2018-2019, Ocean Beach, at Whangārei Heads, is one of the country's most dangerous patrolled beaches ranking among several notorious swimming spots in Auckland and the Waikato.
In one of the most recent rescues on Friday morning, the Northland Rescue Helicopter transported an injured surfer from the beach to Whangārei Hospital.
On Boxing Day, lifeguards rescued a surfer who lost his board near the rocks. The Bream Bay rescue jet ski was at the beach and helped the man to shore.
Ocean Beach is one of six patrolled beaches in Northland, including Ruakākā, Waipū, Mangawhai, Baylys and Ahipara.
Long-standing lifeguard John-Michael Swannix said Ocean Beach was characterised by a number of unique hazards that swimmers should be aware of before going into the water:
"We can have big swells rolling through and cause sudden rips or flash rips. It's also a rocky beach which makes it popular for rock fishing. We recommend that people wear lifejackets when they're out fishing," Swannix said.
Rock jumping is another popular activity that Swannix described as dangerous, and it should be avoided.
If people decide to go jumping, they should not go alone and test the waters below the rocks before jumping.
"Another hazard are inflatables. We predominately get westerlies blowing offshore out at Ocean Beach. People can be easily swept out to sea."
Swannix recommended using inflatables in shallow water to minimise any risks and to always keep children at arm's length.
If someone did get dragged out by wind and currents, Swannix said people should stay on the inflatable and signal for help rather than to try to swim back to shore by themselves.
Mikayla Gulick is one of the regional lifeguards who patrol Northland's beaches during weekdays.
Conditions were fine over the Christmas week, with a consistent three to four foot swell and plenty of people enjoying the sun and surf.
Beachgoer Emma Erceg was out for a swim on Friday and said she liked Ocean Beach for its big waves.
"At the same time, I'm wary of the surf and rips. There are also a lot of people and surfers on the beach which you have to be careful of sometimes. I've always been fine here because I'm a confident swimmer and I swim between the flags, but it can get sketchy for less confident swimmers," Erceg said.
The Ocean Beach swell can quickly become challenging for swimmers who overestimate their abilities, plus ever-changing conditions can cause unexpected hazards and bring swimmers out of their depth.
Swannix encouraged beach-goers to talk to the lifeguards on patrol about current conditions and never to go swimming alone.
"We focus a lot on preventative actions and approach people before they go into the water to avoid rescues."
Friday was a fine day out at Ocean Beach with many people enjoying the surf.
Swannix has been a lifeguard for 18 years, and said volunteering for the club was a great way to give back to the community he grew up in.
He said because the lifeguards were connected to the community, their assistance wasn't just focused on the beach, but they would also help out in emergencies in the area.
Outside of Ocean Beach, lifeguards have been busy across the region over the holidays with three drownings – two on Christmas Day, one on Friday – and 13 lives saved on Boxing Day.
A crabber was swept away at Bream Bay on Wednesday morning; his body was later recovered after a comprehensive water search with Northland Rescue Helicopter.
In a second Christmas Day fatal incident, a snorkeller at Kai Iwi Lakes was found unresponsive and couldn't be revived.
A woman died on Friday after a boat flipped near Houhora in the Far North.
Lifeguards are patrolling between 11am and 5pm every day over the holiday season at Ocean Beach.
Ruakākā lifeguards rescued a swimmer on Boxing Day who was sucked out in a rip near the flags and was returned to shore by one of the lifeguards with a tube. Another two surfers were picked up by the IRB as they were struggling to return to shore.
In a similar scenario, lifeguards at Waipū Cove assisted a swimmer who was sucked out in a rip and couldn't get back to the beach. They also provided first aid to a patient with minor cuts. Mangawhai Heads had a number of minor first aid incidents.
And on Sunday there was an assist at Waipū Cove where an off-duty lifeguard spotted a boogie-boarder in difficulty, drifting offshore and swam out to him and raised her hand. Lifeguards then picked the man up and transported him back to shore.
This article was originally published by the Northern Advocate/NZ Herald on December 31, 2019.