Man dies after getting into difficulty in sea off North Canterbury coast

The seas off Motunau Island are popular with diverse, but have proven to be treacherous

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The seas off Motunau Island are popular with diverse, but have proven to be treacherous

A man has died in the sea after getting into difficulties off the North Canterbury coastline.

Police were informed of the incident south of Motunau Island in Hurunui shortly after 4.15pm on Monday, a spokesperson said.

It is believed the man was diving and failed to surface, and inquiries into the circumstances of his death are ongoing.

The incident is the latest in a series of fatalities off the coast of Motunau in the last 20 years and reinforces the need for people diving in the area to take adequate precautions, said one expert.

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Between 2003 and 2006, three divers – Neville Gordon Bennett, 35, Steven Leslie Cope, 44, and Stephen John Sintes, 41 – drowned off the North Canterbury beach. Two of their bodies were never found.

In February 2015 Thai woman Bua-Ngoen Thong died while diving with a friend for crayfish near Motunau Island.

The 37-year-old’s body was found by the police dive squad three days after she went missing.

And in March 2017 Neil Brookes died after an accident while diving for crayfish with a group of friends.

Motunau has had a number of diving tragedies.  Pictured is a helicopter searching for a missing diver in 2006.

Stacy Squires/Stuff

Motunau has had a number of diving tragedies. Pictured is a helicopter searching for a missing diver in 2006.

Joe Dunning, owner of Christchurch-based diving equipment supplier NZ Diver, frequently dives in Motunau and said the attraction of the site is that it is close to Christchurch and “has a wide range of sea life”.

“There are big numbers of crayfish, depending on the time of year. People can go there to get Pāua, mussels and gurnard.”

However, visibility “can vary quite a bit while you are diving”, he said.

“From one day to the next it can go from four meters to four inches. It depends on the wind and the sea conditions.

“At times there can be some quite dangerous currents there. I’ve come up 200m or 300m from the boat because the currents have taken us there.”

Dunning said the latest incident underlines the importance of always carrying safety equipment.

“Safety sausages, whistles and most importantly [divers] don’t exceed their limit.”

Motunau Island lies 1.2 kilometers south of the mouth of Motunau River. It is administered by the Department of Conservation and access is restricted with permits only issued for research.

The village of Motunau is 85 kilometers north of Christchurch and is home to a small settlement and a basic campsite. A report in stuff in 2018 detailed how it is has no shops and no cell phone coverage.

At 300 meters at its widest point, Motunau Island is one of the largest islands off the Canterbury coast and is the region’s main crayfishing spot.

It is a haven for fishing enthusiasts, with blue cod, blue moki and tarakihi found in large numbers.

However, according to a 2020 report on website fishingmag.co.nz, divers get into trouble at the site every year.

“The tides are deceptively strong and even very experienced diverse can get into serious trouble very quickly,” wrote Patrick Morris.

“The fast-moving current, wind and tidal stream can separate divers and boat very quickly with disastrous consequences.”

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