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A large part of New Zealand’s natural beauty is our ever-inviting beaches and waterways. We’re a nation that loves to swim in the great outdoors, be it in the sea, rivers or lakes, but beautiful swimming holes and beaches can also be deadly if not treated with the utmost respect. Read on to learn how to stay safe each time you take to the NZ waters.

What are the dangers of swimming at New Zealand beaches?

On Aotearoa’s beaches, the most common hazards are waves, wind, tides and what we call a rip. A rip is a channel of water with a strong current heading out to sea. Rips can be difficult to spot, so before you go in the water, look out for the following:

    • Murky brown or discoloured water (caused when sand is stirred up from the sea floor)
    • A spot where the surface water is smoother and has much smaller waves, while waves of normal size are breaking to either side
    • Drift wood, leaves or debris being carried out to sea by the current
    • An area of rippled water, surrounded by generally calm water

Rips are extremely dangerous because they drag swimmers out to sea. People usually panic when they are grabbed by a rip and attempt to swim back to shore, fighting against the strong current. They then get into real trouble when they become too exhausted to stay afloat.

To educate yourself on what to do if you get caught in a rip, visit on the Water Safety New Zealand website.

How to swim safely at New Zealand beaches

Luckily for New Zealanders and our international visitors, Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) is a huge part of our beach culture. SLSNZ is made up of 17,000 dedicated members who patrol more than 80 of our busiest beaches every summer, keeping swimmers safe in the surf.

To make life easier for these voluntary guardians of the sea, consider these points before you take the plunge:

    • Swim where other people are swimming, and stay between the red and yellow flags, where SLSNZ surf lifeguards have marked the safest place to swim and are patrolling
    • Listen to advice from lifeguards and be considerate to others in the water
    • Do not swim after drinking alcohol or taking drugs, or when tired or cold
    • Read the safety signs and if you’re unsure, ask an SLSNZ surf lifeguard for advice
    • Use findabeach.co.nz to find beaches and get invaluable information about SLSNZ patrols and water and weather conditions
    • Stay within the limits of your swimming ability
    • If you get into trouble raise your hand and call for help

What are the dangers of swimming in New Zealand rivers and lakes?

Like our beaches, NZ’s rivers and lakes have their own set of dangers, but they aren’t patrolled and many of their most dangerous hazards are hidden beneath the surface. As such, drownings in NZ rivers are more common than in any other water environment.

Rivers can have strong currents that sometimes aren’t obvious until it’s too late. The pressure created by the moving water is constant and can be quite powerful even if the river looks to be calm and moving slowly. Paying close attention to the way the water is moving before you enter it is very important and can even save your life.

The bottom of a river or lake will not be a consistent surface like a swimming pool or the sea. It can instead be very irregular and littered with rocks, boulders, logs, ledges and debris. This is especially relevant when jumping into the water from height.

Floods frequently play a part in river swimming accidents, as the fast-flowing water can change the banks of the river, making them unstable and prone to collapsing. Floods can also carry large rocks, logs and other debris into a swimming hole that was previously clear of hazards. This is why checking a swimming spot thoroughly at the start of each visit is so important to your safety.

Another factor to consider before taking a dip in a kiwi river or lake is the quality of the water. Water quality can be a problem in some places and below acceptable standards for humans to swim in. Heavy rain affects this and you can find more information out by using the resource below.

How to swim safely in New Zealand rivers and lakes

A careful and thoughtful approach is what’s required to safely swim in rivers and lakes in New Zealand, especially considering the lack of patrols and signage at most swimming holes. Use these steps as a guide:

    • Never go swimming alone
    • Do not go swimming in any open water unless you are a capable swimmer
    • Tell someone where your group is and when they can expect you back
    • Check for hazards in the water, both where you plan to swim and downstream
    • Do not swim after drinking alcohol or using drugs
    • Have a confident swimmer check the depth of the water before less confident swimmers enter water

Have fun in the water!

While New Zealand’s waterways need to be treated with respect, you can still enjoy swimming if you make the right decisions and take precautions. We have world-class surf breaks, white- and volcanic-sand beaches, and rivers that are so picturesque you’ll never want to leave. So, come on down, and don’t forget your togs!


‘IMG_8331.jpg’ by Kieron Norfield under CC BY 2.0

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