Pasifika urged to take up swimming lessons after drowning stats

A Samoan-New Zealand lifeguard is encouraging Pasifika to take up swimmining lessons in the wake of a report highlighting their over-representation in drowning statistics.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand's Beach & Coastal Safety Report show Pasifika, Māori and Asians are over-represented in fatal drowning figures.

The report stated that on average, 36 people drown every year on New Zealand's coastlines.

Most drownings occurred on non-lifeguarded beaches or outside of patrol hours, and 87 percent of victims were male.

SLSNZ Chief Executive, Paul Dalton, said per capita, although not overall, Māori and Pacific people were over-represented in the figures.

"Their exposure to risk is a bit higher than other ethnicities simply because of kaimoana [food from the sea], the connection they have with the water. They are out there doing stuff, and different stuff to everyone else."

Last year a University of Auckland study discovered found a majority of cases in New Zealand were not wearing a lifejacket when found.

The study also found the median age of drowning victims was 41 years.

In terms of ethnicity, 37 percent were European New Zealanders, 12 percent were Asian, 24 percent were Māori and 19 percent Pasifika.

The University of Auckland study spokesperson, Dr Jonathon Webber, said the latter two were over-represented in the statistics compared with their percentages in the population, perhaps due to activities of food gathering and fishing.

In 2012, Pacific people were also over-represented in drowning statistics, making up 7 percent of New Zealand's population at the time, but accounting for 9 percent of the country's drowning deaths.

In 2007, Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) reported the growing number of recreational-based drowning deaths amongst Māori and Pacific Islanders.

Two thirds of all Māori and Pacific drowning deaths were recreational-based.

Surf Life Saving NZ lifeguard, John Tuia, (who is of Samoan heritage), said there were many Pasifika who didn't take part in swimming lessons and this was one of the reasons why there were high drowning rates for that particular group.

"I can personally relate to this because when I grew up in Samoa, swimming lessons was never a priority because we would always swim in shallow water. Also , in the islands there are not many places that run swimming classes like they do in New Zealand.

"Pasifika grow up learning to cover yourself as a sign of being respectful to the public, so wearing swimming togs is not common practice. In general, Pasifika wear t-shirt and shorts to cover up when swimming, but we know heavy clothing is not ideal as these can become water logged and heavy, making it difficult to swim or float," he said.

Tuia said there were a lot of places in New Zealand where people could sign up for swimming lessons, but financial cost was a barrier for some Pasifika families.

"It's really unfortunate because Pasifika love the ocean. In every report released by SLSNZ we find that it the people who go diving for food to feed their families that get in trouble in the water.

"The main reason is because they haven't been taught about water safety," he said.

Tongan Olympic swimmer Amini Fonua said this was an issue for not just Pasifika, but Pacific people in the region.

"I go back to Tonga every Christmas or every second Christmas and I try to host free swimming lessons for kids because it is bizarre how we live around islands, but we don't know how to swim, so I hope we can change that.

"We have a tough time with water safety and the swimming school in the Pacific still, so I think having kids learn how to swim and have water safety skills that will last a lifetime I think that's the biggest thing that makes me happy with what I do."

SLSNZ is calling for more public education about water safety.

"Education needs to continue with an "ages and stages" approach, so that we're not just trying to get it all over and done with teaching kids to swim and then leave it at that," Dalton said.

"We actually need to keep going and recognising all the times and points in your life when you're engaging in water activities.

"We also need to have cultural responsive forms of education in New Zealand as well."