“We need to do better”: Too Many People Drowning on our Coastlines – Surf Life Saving NZ

Monday, 15 March 2021

Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) are saying “we need to do better,” following a report published today outlining New Zealand’s poor beach and coastal drowning rates.

On average, 36 people fatally drown every year on New Zealand’s coastlines, according to the Beach & Coastal Safety Report published by SLSNZ – and that figure is on the increase.

SLSNZ Chief Executive, Paul Dalton, says the new findings are deeply upsetting, both for loved ones of the deceased and for volunteer Surf Lifeguards who are at the coalface of the issue.

“The number of fatal beach and coastal drownings in New Zealand has actually increased by 18% over the past five years compared to the previous five years…and our fatal beach and coastal drowning rate is 48% worse, per capita, than Australia’s,” he says.

“Every person who dies on our beaches and coastlines is someone with a whānau (family) and a community who loves them and misses them. What’s particularly gut-wrenching is that, as with the road toll, most fatal drownings are preventable.”

Dalton says the vast majority of fatal beach drownings occurred on non-lifeguarded beaches, or outside of patrol hours. Swimming (22%), boating (17%) and falls (17%) made up the majority of activities being undertaken at the time that someone fatally drowned.

A staggering 87% of victims were male.

Pasifika, Māori and Asian community members were the most over-represented in fatal drowning figures and, geographically, Northland has the highest fatal beach drowning rate in New Zealand (4.22 fatal drownings per 100,000 people, compared to 0.77 for Auckland).

“It’s time for us to think seriously, as Kiwis, about prevention and education when it comes to beach and coastal safety.  We can’t have surf lifeguards everywhere, so how are we going to approach this? Who’s responsible? And who’s going to pay for it?”

SLSNZ is a charity and, while the organisation does receive government funding towards frontline operational expenses, this funding does not cover public safety campaigns or education.

“Road, fire and boating safety have had significant investment in public education strategies and campaigns, which has reduced deaths and injuries and also raised awareness of the issues. It's now time to do the same for beach and coastal safety,” says Dalton.

“It is no co-incidence that education and training is the first Strategic Priority in the recently launched New Zealand Water Safety Sector Strategy 2025.”

The Beach & Coastal Safety Report also offers a striking insight into the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ role that Surf Lifeguards play in keeping beachgoers safe in the face of a critical lack of public awareness around beach and coastal safety.

In the decade to 2020, Surf Lifeguards rescued more than 10,000 people on beaches and coastlines across New Zealand.  This astonishing figure does not include the almost 1,000,000 preventative actions taken by Surf Lifeguards on the beach, nor the 20,400+ first aid responses conducted by lifeguards over the same time period.

“These are incredibly sobering figures, but they’re just part of the picture,” says Dalton.

“Surf Lifeguards do more than patrol between the red and yellow flags over summer. Through emergency callout squads, they conduct search and rescue operations year round – often in difficult and dangerous conditions. Surf Lifeguards also utilise their skills in non-beach events, such as car crashes or medical events.”

Dalton says the National Beach & Coastal Safety Report is SLSNZ’s way of drawing attention to the importance of more public education as set out in the Water Safety Sector Strategy.

“As a volunteer-based organisation with a 111-year-old focus on beach and coastal safety, we are at the coalface of what could accurately be described as a major public safety problem. What the figures in this report tell us is that, had it not been for our volunteers, more than 10,000 people could have died from drowning on our beaches and coastlines over the past decade. That’s more than twice the road toll for the same period. ”

“Fortunately, New Zealand’s fatal beach and coastal drowning toll over this time period sits instead at 360. Yet, that’s still 360 mums, dads, grandparents and children who died unnecessarily in an environment that should have been a source of joy, relaxation and kaimoana (seafood).”

“We, Surf Life Saving New Zealand, are saying it’s time to do better. We are strongly supporting the Water Safety Sector Strategy in calling for greater investment in long-term, evidence based beach and coastal safety education. We can only do so much as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff -  we need better public education as the fence at the top.”


About the Beach & Coastal Safety Report 

This, the second such report released by SLSNZ, is designed to complement the National Drowning Report produced by Water Safety New Zealand and contributes to the New Zealand Water Safety Sector Strategy. The report in itself does not provide answers, it simply provides the data in such a way that highlights the problem and will aid further analysis to help provide potential solutions. SLSNZ will continue to undertake a comprehensive Coastal Risk Assessment process using information gained from more in-depth studies of each fatal and non-fatal drowning as well as rescues. Using this information, SLSNZ is asking Central and Local Government, key landowners and stakeholders to clarify the responsibility for beach and coastal safety and then, using an evidence-based, collaborative and partnership approach, provide targeted safety interventions at local, regional and national levels that lead towards a safer future for all those that visit and recreate on beaches along New Zealand’s coastline.


SLSNZ is the national association representing 74 surf lifesaving clubs with 18,000+ members, including more than 4,500 volunteer Surf Lifeguards. Our lifeguards patrol over 90 locations each summer and provide emergency call-out rescue services throughout Aotearoa, saving hundreds of lives each year and ensuring thousands return home safe after a day at the beach.

We do all this as a charity and rely on the generosity of the public, commercial partners, foundations and trusts for donations and financial contributions in order to lead and support our incredible front-line volunteer lifeguarding services.

For more information, please contact:

Mackenzie Koppel

SLSNZ Media & Communications Manager

021 757 433