No freediver immune to sea danger

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Dean Thomas.

The children of an Otago man who drowned while freediving last year say you never know when something can go wrong.

They were commenting on statistics that showed an increase in freediving deaths in the region last year.

Provisional preventable drowning toll data from Water Safety New Zealand reveals three people died freediving in Otago.

The death rate was higher than any other activity that had led to drowning.

There were no freediving deaths in Otago between 2010 and 2016, one death in 2017 and two deaths in 2018.

Freediving is a form of underwater diving that relies on holding one’s breath rather than using breathing apparatus.

Freedivers usually wear weight belts and often collect seafood or spearfish.

Dean Thomas (57), of Maheno, died while gathering paua near Shag Point last November.

His son, Leon Porter-Thomas, speaking to The Star on behalf of himself, his brother Mitchell Porter-Thomas and sister Jehdene McRae-Thomas, said despite his father having decades of freediving experience, even the most experienced divers were not immune to the dangers of the sea.

His father was diving with a friend watching him from the shore and the conditions were calm.

‘‘It’s never a good idea to dive by yourself no matter the condition of the weather or yourself,’’ Mr Porter-Thomas said.

‘‘Even with years of experience, you never know when something could go wrong.

‘‘It’s not always your diving skill that could possibly get you into trouble.

‘‘The possibility of a medical event is always real, but even diving with others doesn’t eliminate the chance of something going badly wrong.’’

The other two freediving fatalities in Otago last year were brothers Whererika Popata (30), of Windsor, in North Otago, and Kereta Tatana (24), of Herekino, in Northland, who died while freediving off the coast of Kakanui, south of Oamaru, in February.

Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Jonty Mills said nationally, there were 11 freediving deaths in New Zealand last year, up from five deaths in 2018.

The satisfaction of catching food from the water was not worth losing your life over, he said.

“Obviously there’s a recreation and cultural aspect but sometimes there can be pressure to put food on the table, resulting in unnecessary risk-taking and the potential cost is one no family wants to bear.

‘‘It’s so important fishers and divers make wise decisions and follow best practice when it comes to water safety so they come home to their families.”

The increase in freediving fatalities highlights the importance of getting professional training, and always taking a buddy and running thorough safety checks before every dive.

“If you have been away from diving, it’s important to get a health check from your doctor.

‘‘Too often in underwater fatalities it’s the failure to follow correct safety procedures that leads to tragedy.”