Staying safe around water

WaterSafe Auckland is educating new New Zealanders about how to have fun and stay safe in and around our freshwater and marine environments.

If Barbara Venville-Gibbons needs to remind herself why her organisation exists, she just steps outside WaterSafe Auckland’s door to where a forest of masts rises over the shining water of Auckland’s Westhaven Marina.

This is part of Auckland’s 3,100 kilometre coastline, an environment that includes everything from rocky, surf-lashed headlands to mangrove estuaries and inner-harbour beaches.

With golden summers and mild winters,  the City of Sails and its surrounding region are a paradise for recreational water users – but paradise comes at a price.

In 2015 there were 16 drownings in the Auckland region, says Barbara: that’s an increase on 14 the year before, but lower than the five-year average of 24 per year from 2010 to 2014.

But any drowning is one drowning too many.

Barbara Venville-Gibbons

This works out to be about 0.8 drownings per 100,000 people, well below the national drowning rate of around two per 100,000. “But any  drowning is one drowning too many,” she says. 

Barbara has worked with water and water safety throughout her career, first as a dive instructor, then as a staff member of the New Zealand Underwater Association, and since 2006 as the Regional Promotions Manager at WaterSafe Auckland.

In that time there have been many changes in the world of water safety, she says.

One is the ease with which people access a range of recreational water-based craft and activities. Things like sit-on-top plastic fishing kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, low-cost plastic surfboards and the affordable above-ground portable swimming pools available from retailers like Kmart are changing the water-safety environment. Another is migration.

In 2006, the year Barbara joined WaterSafe, 37 per cent of Auckland’s population were born overseas and 234,279 Aucklanders identified as Asian. In 2013, the percentage of those born overseas had risen to 39.1 per cent and the number of Aucklanders identifying as Asian had reached 307,233.

Alan Chow, WaterSafe’s latest recruit, is one of them. He and his family came  to New Zealand when he was four and, while he is at his happiest in, on and around water, he understands how deeply unfamiliar New Zealand’s water environment can be to newcomers.


Barbara Venville-Gibbons and Alan Chow are determined to educate new New Zealander's about water safety.

Many migrants come from landlocked countries, he says, or from regions that are far from the sea or have little in the way of swimmable waters.

Even in his birthplace of Hong Kong, which he visits from time to time to keep up family connections, it is much less common to be involved in water-based recreation. And although Hong Kong does have swimming beaches, there is nothing equivalent to the surf and rips of Auckland’s West Coast.

“When it comes to Asian migrants, you often have people who haven’t been brought up around water or haven’t had much experience of the dangers you come across in natural settings,” he says.

At the same time, many Asian migrants find themselves attracted by the bounty of seafood in their new home.

“We love seafood; we love catching fish and sometimes that narrow focus leads to people being unaware of their surroundings and water safety. People overestimate their abilities and underestimate the risks. They go out in small boats without using lifejackets or head to the beach without knowing what rips are or how to recognise one.”

Rock fishing – a particularly risky hobby – and crab fishing are popular among Asian New Zealanders. In 2006, following a spate of rock fishing fatalities on Auckland’s West Coast, the then Auckland Regional Council (now Auckland Council), Surf Life Saving Northern Region and WaterSafe Auckland banded together to form the West Coast Rock Fishing Safety Project.

It focused on working with the Asian community – research had shown that nearly half of fishers were Asian and nearly half of these had only recently gained residence.

The project employed a number of strategies, including multilingual rock-fishing safety advisers, aquatic risk signage and resources in a range of languages. A decade on, rockfishing drowning fatalities have declined to less than one per year and many more fishers wear lifejackets. In 2006, 4 per cent of fishers regularly wore lifejackets; in 2015, 40 per cent did so.

Focusing on four key areas - pool, boat, beach and rock fishing. Translations available.

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WaterSafe Auckland continues to work hard to reach out to new New Zealanders. In 2014, in partnership with ACC and Water Safety New Zealand, WaterSafe Auckland released a New Settler Water Safety DVD and handbook using the most widely spoken languages in the Asian community: English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean. The DVD covers water safety at the pool, at the beach, in and around boats and when rock fishing.

This DVD led to a follow-up, this one targeting the Pasifika community – a group that also sees a large number of drownings. Different cultures learn in different ways. The There Will Be Another Day DVD tells the real-life survival stories of three Pasifika people, showing how easily and quickly things can go wrong and what they learned from their experiences.

Alan Chow was employed in April 2015 as an Aquatic Educator to work with refugee and new migrant communities, international students and swim schools. He fits the job well: a water sport enthusiast since his school days, he speaks fluent Cantonese and passable Mandarin. “Though my parents wouldn’t say that,” he jokes.

Alan works with local communities, delivering programmes, presentations and workshops designed to meet their specific needs. He engages with ethnic media, such as the Chinese-language television channel WTV, and he works alongside a host of partners, including Coastguard Northern Region, Surf Lifesaving New Zealand, the New Zealand Police, Red Cross, Auckland Regional Migrant Services and the New Zealand Chinese Youth Trust.

It is important, he says, that people take the time to assess the risks and their own levels of competency to be able to enjoy activities safely in open water. Beyond having the ability to swim, competency includes water safety skills, such as floating or being able to enter the water safely, water safety knowledge and environmental risk analysis.

There is a real sense of accomplishment when you see people putting what they have been taught into practice, he says, or when emails arrive to say how useful a seminar has been. Someone may have taken up a new water activity – or they may have even saved someone from drowning.

A knowledge of water safety can prove useful when you least expect it, says Barbara. “On average, nearly a third of New Zealand drownings are ‘immersion incidents’, where people had no intention of entering the water. Someone fell off a wharf or off the side of a boat, or someone tried to rescue someone else,” she explains.

“We think all New Zealanders have an important role to play in keeping themselves and others safer in, on and around water.”

To find out more about WaterSafe Auckland and the programmes it offers visit their website. 

WaterSafe Auckland

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