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Bay of Plenty drowning and ACC water-related injury figures revealed

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Lifeguards are expecting people to continue to head to the beaches this summer. Photo / NZME

Five people drowned in the Bay of Plenty last year and there were nearly 3000 new water activity-related ACC claims costing nearly $10m as of November 1.

Provisional water safety data and ACC figures have been released to the Bay of Plenty Times.

A total of 90 people drowned across New Zealand in 2023, including six due to Cyclone Gabrielle, provisional Water Safety NZ figures show.

Of these, five deaths were in the Bay of Plenty, with three of those being people aged between 55 and 64 years, and one was a child between the ages of 0 and 4.

Two of the deaths were at beaches, two were inland, and one was in tidal waters, according to the water safety agency.

Two were related to falls, two to swimming, and one to a non-recreational activity.

In 2022, – the worst drowning year in a decade – nine out of the 94 fatalities were in the Bay of Plenty, with all in the region being males between the ages of 5 and 64. The beaches were the most deadly spots with four deaths.

Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Daniel Gerrard commended the Bay of Plenty for making “sensible choices” and taking personal responsibility around the water last year.

A busy Mount Maunganui in 2020. Photo / NZME
A busy Mount Maunganui in 2020. Photo / NZME

With the expected El Nino weather system creating dry and hot conditions on the East Coast, Water Safety NZ had been expecting large numbers of people flocking to rivers, beaches and lakes.

“With increased participation comes greater potential risk. Unsurprisingly, approximately 60 to 70 per cent of all fatalities occur during summer months.”

Gerrard said the Bay of Plenty’s extensive coastline exposed it to a wide range of water conditions, from calm bays to treacherous rips and strong currents, with a high level of awareness and preparedness needed from locals and tourists.

“Understanding and respecting the power of New Zealand’s waters is crucial.”

From swimming and boating to fishing and surfing, water is a “playground for many” and water activities form an “integral part of a Kiwi Summer”.

This called for a comprehensive approach to water confidence, starting from a young age, he said, forming a love and “deep respect” for water activities.

There have also been thousands of injuries caused by water-related activities.

As of November 1, (2023 YTD), there were 2099 new water activity-related ACC claims in the Bay of Plenty, with 20,892 in New Zealand.

The most common claim in the region was for water sports, with surfing accounting for most of those with 575.

In the same period, to November 1, 2023, there were 2902 active claims in the Bay of Plenty and these cost $9,878,821. Nationally, active claims cost $80,193,971. Active claims are those for which ACC made a payment in the specified period and these could have been registered or the accident could have happened that year or any period previously.

ACC injury prevention leader James Whitaker said research showed 90 per cent of all injuries were predictable, “and therefore preventable” which he said also applied to activities in and around water.

“We can prevent most injuries … If we take a few seconds to think about the risks involved in our task and make smart choices, we can be injury-free and keep doing what we love.”

Something that Surf Lifesaving NZ Eastern Region manager Chaz Gibbons-Campbell doesn’t want to repeat is the “hectic” 87 rescues in one day last summer.

Or the three deaths on the beaches.

He said the drowning rates were “terrible” and he’s urging everyone to stay safe as he anticipates thousands continuing to head to the beaches to cool off this summer.

Surf Lifesaving NZ eastern region lifesaving manager Chaz Gibbons-Campbell. Photo / NZME
Surf Lifesaving NZ eastern region lifesaving manager Chaz Gibbons-Campbell. Photo / NZME

Gibbons-Campbell said most rescues were when there was an outgoing tide and a small swell as people thought it was safe.

He said there were many ways to keep safe in the water, including checking the conditions and swimming at lifeguarded beaches.

The big message being driven this summer is “know how to float” and stay out of the water if you don’t.

This was also useful when being pulled out by a rip, with Gibbons-Campbell saying the best thing to do was stay calm, let it take you out, and signal for help.

Floatation devices like a surfboard or boogie board were also helpful, especially when helping someone else. He said you were “10 times more likely” to both get out safe if there was a floatation device.

This was in line with the coroner’s recommendation to the Tauranga City Council earlier this year to “urgently” place public rescue equipment and signage on the Moturiki (Leisure Island).

Last year, Reon Wikeepa, a 43-year-old father, drowned on November 12 after he jumped into the water at the island to help his daughter who was having trouble getting out of the water in Mount Maunganui.

A coroner and Wikeepa’s whānau said he may still be alive if a flotation device was available.

Drowning victim Reon Wikeepa, of Tauranga.
Drowning victim Reon Wikeepa, of Tauranga.

Council community services general manager Barbara Dempsey said the three life rings have been installed on Moturiki Island and a warning sign at the entrance informing people of the risk of swimming off the island.

She said the council committed to working with Surf Life Saving NZ to develop a coastal risk assessment and then implement the recommendations from that assessment.

The report is hoped to be completed by the end of January.

Addressing drownings

  • Be prepared: Learn to swim and survive and set rules for safe play in the water. Always use safe and correct equipment. Know the weather and water conditions before you get in.
  • Watch out for yourself and others.
  • Be aware of the dangers: Enter shallow and unknown water feet first and obey all safety signs and warning flags. Do not enter the water after drinking alcohol.
  • Know your limits and learn safe ways of rescuing others without putting yourself in danger.

Source: Water Safety NZ

Beach and coastal safety:

  • Know how to float, and don’t go in the water if you don’t know how to.
  • Find the safest place to swim. Check to find a lifeguard beach and swim between the flags.
  • If in doubt, stay out.
  • Take care of others: Keep children within arms reach and watch out for your mates.
  • Know how to get help: If there are no lifeguards, call police on 111. If you’re the one in trouble, signal for help.

Source: Surf Lifesaving NZ

Cira Olivier is a social issues and breaking news reporter for NZME Bay of Plenty. She has been a journalist since 2019.

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