SLSNZ Calls for Greater Investment After Disturbing 2023 Beach and Coastal Safety Report

Wednesday, 20 December 2023

Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) has released its 2023 National Beach and Coastal Safety Report, revealing a distressing toll of 46 fatal drownings along the coastline between June 2022 and June 2023.


Adam Wooler, SLSNZ Head of Coastal Safety and Research, said, “This brings the ten-year total to 424 fatalities, a figure that should be considered a national tragedy.  Each loss of life leaves families and communities shattered and highlights our collective responsibility to address this crisis.”


The report documents incidents along New Zealand’s coastline, shedding light on participation trends, behaviours, and perceptions. 


This year it highlighted a concerning disparity: New Zealand’s per capita fatal drowning rate over the past decade is 57% greater than Australia’s.  Wooler stressed urgent need for effective strategies, stating, “While our island nation’s beaches are beloved playgrounds, there’s no justification for our drowning rate to exceed Australia’s.  We must invest in the right areas and empower beachgoers with the right tools to make informed and safe choices.”


While the report itself doesn’t provide answers, it serves as a critical resource, highlighting issues and guiding potential solutions.


Consistent with previous years, the 2023 National Beach and Coastal Safety Report found Auckland had the highest number of fatalities, followed by Canterbury, Waikato, and the Bay of Plenty. 


Wooler said SLSNZ and Auckland Council are trying to change this narrative.  “One of the biggest challenges is encouraging beachgoers to swim between the red and yellow flags, which is proven to be the safest place to swim.  In 2018 we started working with Auckland Council to develop which provides essential and up-to-date information on lifeguarded beaches, patrol times, safety messages, and warnings.  Our aim is to have every beach in New Zealand on this platform but that can only be done with help from all Councils.”


During the past year, the report found fatal drownings predominantly occurred during swimming/wading (26%) and swimming at surf beaches posed the greatest risk (37%).


It also found rip currents remained the main hazard.  Wooler said, “Most New Zealanders know that rip currents are dangerous however research has found it is extremely difficult for people to identify them when standing on the beach.  SLSNZ is working with NIWA to develop AI technology which would help with this.  We’re also collaborating with the University of Plymouth in the UK to develop a rip current hazard prediction model to warn people when rips are going to be at their most dangerous.”


The report found January was the deadliest month, coinciding with warmer weather and summer holidays. 


“During this busy period, SLSNZ has over 4,500 surf lifeguards from 74 Surf Life Saving Clubs patrol 92 locations around the country.  It’s a massive undertaking, especially for a charity, but it’s critical to ensuring beachgoers return home safely to their friends and whānau.”


Between June 2022 and June 2023 surf lifeguards rescued 1,574 people, performed 31,503 preventative actions to stop people getting into life threatening situations, and carried out 1,226 first aids.


Already this season, surf lifeguards have spent over 50,600 hours on patrol, they’ve rescued 73 people, performed over 5,400 preventative actions, and carried out over 300 first aids.


With January, traditionally the deadliest month, still ahead, SLSNZ is urging everyone to visit to find a lifeguarded beach, and swim between the red and yellow flags.  However, Wooler says more needs to be done and it needs to be come from the top-down.


“We’re calling for greater investment towards a long-term, evidence-based national beach and coastal safety strategy, driven by the Government.  It’s only then can we reverse the upward trend in fatal drownings.”


For the full report, click here.