New infrared drone may reduce rock fishing drowning numbers

Fishing from the rocks is one of the deadliest recreational sports in New Zealand.

Popular spots on Auckland's raw and wild west coast are especially hard for rescuers to reach when anglers get into trouble.

Now there's hope a drone fitted with an infrared camera can improve safety.

Sam Turbott has earned his name as "The Rockman" by manoeuvring in and out of the rocks, dispensing advice to people casting their lines into the boiling sea. But first they have to find their fisherman or woman.

"Often I've found I spend a lot of time going out to these dangerous spots and putting myself in danger just to find there's no fisherman out there," he says.

"So we're hoping with the drone it will just be a lot safer and time-efficient."

The drone can fly in murky conditions, and because it is infrared it can pick up "hot spots" - people.

Between 2006 and 2015, 7 percent of all drownings in New Zealand came about because of people fishing from the land. During that decade, 57 people died and 33 percent of them were on rocky foreshores.

"The rock fishing drowning toll has come down gradually over the years as more and more people are wearing lifejackets and more people are aware of the dangers," says Surf Life Saving northern region operations manager Adam Wooler.

"We don't want that to go back up. This is just making sure people are aware and people are enjoying themselves safely."

Sometimes fishermen are just too eager to get to the perfect spot. Experience is not a guarantee of safety.

"At Kerikeri we had a well experienced fisherman try and swim out to an island," Mr Turbott says.

"He got caught in a rip, got towed away and smashed against the rocks."

Mr Turbott reckons he's already managed to get the message through.

"I went out one week, did the surveys. Only a couple were wearing lifejackets.

"They were being a bit sketchy and I came back and a week later to the same spot, they were out again, all wearing lifejackets, wearing helmets, because the falling rocks are also a danger. It's awesome to see."

So far they've just been testing the drones, but by next summer they could be saving lives.