‘A national tragedy’: Maori drowning rate worries New Zealand | New Zealand
Water safety instructor Clayton Wikaira leans against a small inflatable boat, his hair wet from the sea, talking to a group of six college students who have just learned how to dive safely for kaimoana (seafood). Students’ attention wanes under the hot midday sun – they are tired from an early start, a trek around the rocks of Auckland’s Whangaparaoa Peninsula and hours spent diving in the open sea for kina (sea urchin ). Some are looking at their phones, others are snacking on a pizza. But as he begins to tell a story, their ears perk up.
“I thought I could swim to Australia when I was young. I thought I was fit, strong,” he begins.
“But when I got caught in big waves and they came crashing down on me, and my goggles got ripped off and I got sucked into the big waves, into an impact zone, I didn’t wasn’t prepared for this.”
Wikaira now has a captive audience. “There were stories circulating in the community: ‘Who are these crazy fullers going out in these harsh conditions?’ It was me and my mate,” he said. “We thought there was nothing wrong with that because we had never experienced drowning. This lesson saved my life. After that, I had so much respect for the ocean, the elements and what could happen.
It’s a story Wikaira, an aquatic educator at Drowning Prevention Auckland, has told the thousands of students he trains every year. As a Maori man – a demographic that figures prominently in New Zealand’s drowning toll – it’s also a story he tells to save his own people.
Since December 1, there have been 39 drowning deaths in New Zealand, making it the worst summer in six years, with a month to go.
There were 15 drownings during the official holiday period (December 24 to January 5), an increase of 180% from the five-year average, according to data from Water Safety New Zealand. There were 74 drownings, including 15 people aged under 24, last year – on par with 2020 – despite longer periods spent in Covid-19-related lockdowns.
An alarming number of those who perish are Maori men. In 2021, 31% were Māori (23 deaths) and 96% of these were male, although Māori make up only 16.5% of the total population.
Maori have a strong ancestral relationship with the sea, including expert ocean navigation, hunting and kaimoana (seafood) fishing. But that can come at a cost, says Wikaira.
“We have this feeling that the water is us and that we are part of the water and we can deal with it, but I’m sure our ancestors had protocols in place as well.”
There is also pressure to provide for the family, often through free diving for kaimoana or fishing. “Sometimes your mana [prestige] is online to support your whānau [family]and this is a demonstration of your aroha [love] to people. I felt that even if the weather was bad, I was going to go for food, and it almost cost me my life. I try to help people see the big picture – we don’t want anyone drowning. »
Wikaira is acutely aware of the relationship between Maori and the moana (ocean) and uses tikanga (Maori customs) in his training whether the student is Maori or not. The session teaches respect for the ocean and its power, while maintaining love for all it offers: after teaching his students how to minimize fatigue using buoys, he then picks a kina from the bottom of the sea and shows how to cut it open to scoop out the buttery, brackish flesh inside. “The delicacy of the sea,” he tells them, before swallowing it happily.
“Education is always key, but as with everything, it’s always about who will be the one to fly the flag of whānau, or who will be a leader within their own home and within the community,” he said.
This includes regional councils educating people about their local waterways and taking clues from Maori place names, says Rob Hewitt, Maori spokesperson for Water Safety New Zealand.
“Waikino means bad water; Waiparu, dirty water. As Maori we know these are not good places to swim.
The Waikato River, which means flowing water, where there have been four drownings in 2021, comes with a saying, Hewitt says. “He piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha’ – there is a taniwha (a water spirit or monster) on every corner.”
Drowning remains the leading cause of recreational death and the third leading cause of accidental death in New Zealand.
“It’s a national tragedy,” said Daniel Gerrard, chief executive of Water Safe New Zealand. “Every preventable death is devastating to a whānau and the community.
“This is a horrific and unprecedented loss of life. It cuts across all age groups, water activities and ethnicities. A common theme in these drownings was that people were underestimating the conditions and overestimating their abilities.”
Not all drownings are related to food collection. Water Safety New Zealand says there are a number of factors including a lack of water skills education for children, people not keeping up to date with weather and ocean conditions, population growth and new arrivals in the country who do not know the turbulent waters of New Zealand.
An aging population with income and recreation and a growth in water sports like kayaking and boating, as well as risky extreme sports, could also contribute to the rise.
But another reason could be warmer days and the allure of a dip in the sea or a river to rest from the heat, Hewitt says.
New Zealand had its hottest year on record in 2021, with December becoming the fourth hottest on record, the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research confirmed this month.
There were four drownings in the Manawatū River over the summer. In the days following the death of two Karen refugees from Myanmar, a rāhui (customary restriction) was placed in the area, but people still came to bathe there, says Hewitt, who helped with the relief.
“Two days after picking up an 11-year-old child, there were 20 people by the river. They were told there was a rāhui, and all said “it doesn’t affect me” and “it’s way too hot”. The heat pushes them into the water,” Hewitt says.
“It’s only going to get hotter. Now is the time we really need to push, to make sure people are safe in and around the water.