Aquatic safety instructor Clayton Wikaira is leaning against a small inflatable boat, his hair wet from the sea, speaking to a group of six university students who have just learned how to safely dive for kaimoana (seafood). The students’ attention is waning in the hot midday sun – they are tired from an early morning start, a hike around the rocks of Auckland’s Whangaparaoa peninsula, and hours spent diving in the open ocean for kina (sea urchin). Some look at their phones, others chomp on pizza. But as he starts telling a story, their ears prick up.

“I thought I could swim to Australia when I was young. I thought I was fit, strong,” he starts.

“But when I got caught in big waves and they were dumping on me, and my goggles were getting ripped off and I was getting sucked out into the big ones, into an impact zone, I was not prepared for that.”

Wikaira now has a captive audience. “There were stories going round in the community: ‘Who are these crazy fullers going out in these rugged conditions?’ That was me and my mate,” he says. “We thought there was nothing wrong with it because we had never had an experience of drowning. That lesson saved my life. After that, I had so much respect for the ocean, the elements and what could happen.”

It is a story Wikaira, an aquatic educator at Drowning Prevention Auckland, has told to the thousands of students he trains every year. As a Māori man – a demographic that features highly in New Zealand’s drowning toll – it is also a story he tells to save his own people.

Since 1 December, there have been 39 deaths from drowning in New Zealand, making it the worst summer in six years, with still a month to go.

There were 15 drownings during the official holiday period (24 December to 5 January) – a 180% increase on the five-year average, according to Water Safety New Zealand data. 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 perishing are Māori men. In 2021, 31% were Māori (23 deaths) and 96% of those were men, despite Māori comprising just 16.5% of the total population.

Māori have a strong ancestral relationship to the sea, including expert ocean navigation, and hunting and fishing for kaimoana (seafood). But that can come at a cost, says Wikaira.

“We have this feeling that water is us and we are part of water and we can handle it, but I’m sure our ancestors also had protocols in place.”

There is also pressure to provide for the family, often through free-diving for kaimoana, or fishing. “Sometimes your mana [prestige] is on the line to provide for your whānau [family], and that is a demonstration of your aroha [love] to people. I’ve felt that, even if it was rough weather, I was going to go and get a feed, and it nearly cost me my own life. I’m trying to help people think of the bigger picture – we don’t want to lose anyone to drowning.”

Wikaira is acutely aware of the relationship between Māori and the moana (ocean), and uses tikanga (Māori customs) in his training, regardless of whether the student is Māori or not. The session teaches respect for the ocean and its power, while retaining love for all that it provides: after instructing his students on how to minimise fatigue using buoys, he then plucks a kina from the sea floor, and shows how to break it open to scoop out the buttery, briny flesh inside. “The delicacy of the sea,” he tells them, before happily swallowing it down.

‘A national tragedy’: Māori drowning rate causes alarm in New Zealand

“Education is still the key, but like anything, it still comes down to who is going be the one flying the flag for whānau, or being a leader within their own home, and within the community,” he says.

That includes regional councils educating people about their local waterways and taking clues from Māori place names, says Rob Hewitt, the Māori spokesperson for Water Safety New Zealand.

“Waikino means bad water; Waiparu, dirty water. As Māori we know those are not good places to swim.”

The Waikato River, meaning flowing water, where there were 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) around every corner.”

Drowning remains the leading cause of recreational death and the third-highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand.

“It’s a national tragedy,” says Daniel Gerrard, Water Safe New Zealand’s chief executive. “Every preventable death is devastating to a whānau and the community.

“This is a horrific loss of lives and is unprecedented. It cuts through every age range, water activity and ethnicity. A common theme in these drownings was people underestimating the conditions and overestimating their ability.”

Not all drownings are related to gathering food. Water Safety New Zealand says there are a number of factors, including a lack of water skills education for children, people not staying up to date with weather and ocean conditions, population growth and new arrivals to the country being unfamiliar with New Zealand’s turbulent waters.

An ageing population with income and leisure time and a growth in aquatic sports such as kayaking and boating, as well as risk-taking extreme sports, could also be contributing to the rise.

But another reason could be hotter days, and the allure of a dip in the sea or a river to get respite from the heat, says Hewitt.

New Zealand experienced its hottest year on record in 2021, with December becoming the fourth warmest on record, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research confirmed this month.

There were four drownings in the Manawatū River over summer. In the days following the deaths of two Karen refugees from Myanmar, a rāhui (customary restriction) was placed on the area, but people were still turning up to swim there, says Hewitt, who was involved in the rescue response.

“Two days after I recovered an 11-year-old, there were 20 people on the riverside. They were told that there was a rāhui, and all of them said ‘it doesn’t affect me’ and ‘it’s way too hot’. The heat is pushing them to the water,” Hewitt says.

“It’s only going to get hotter. Now is the time that we really have to push, to make sure making sure that people are safe in, and around, the water.”