Whānau who suffer personal tragedies on the water lend support to World Drowning Prevention Day

A whānau who've lost their loved ones on the water is lending their support to World Drowning Prevention Day.

In 2021, 74 people drowned in Aotearoa, with 23 Māori fatalities. This accounts for 31 percent of all drownings.

It's a particularly raw subject for Rihari Wilson's whānau, who for generations have always found a path back to the moana.

Wilson is part of the Tamaariki whānau from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, who are well-known kaitiaki of the moana.

"My great grandfather was a descendant of great fisherman and people knowledgeable of the moana," Wilson told The Hui.

"That kind of mātauranga was handed down, right up to my nephews and nieces - they're well versed in tikanga on the water."

But when he was just six years old, tragedy struck his whānau. His father, Jack Arama Wilson, died at the age of 29 while diving and suffered an asthma attack in the water.

For his whānau to lose a loved one out at sea was a devastating blow and a pain they carried for many years.

"For my dad to pass away in the water, it should not have happened." 

Rihari Wilson.
Rihari Wilson. Photo credit: The Hui

Years later his koro would share an important lesson he'd taught Jack about Tikanga on the water.

"So he told us, 'I told him if you're ever sick, don't go out on the water'."

But in 2016 his whānau would lose another whānau member in the water. Wilson's brother died in a swimming pool in Rarotonga after suffering a heart attack.

"Losing my brother - especially because he was the pōtiki, he was the baby."

Wilson is working alongside Drowning Prevention Auckland, an organisation the Tamaariki whānau has a close relationship with, to promote safety on the water.

On July 25, the organisation will hold a special dawn ceremony to commemorate World Drowning Prevention Day.

The event called He Taonga Te Wai will be held at St Mary's Bay in Auckland and is a chance for people who've lost their loved ones in the water to come together. 

Drowning Prevention Auckland chief executive Nicola Keen Biggelaar said she's grateful Wilson is sharing his story and his whanau's mātaraunga around being safe on the water.

"The impact is lifelong - the ripple effect to the community is significant too."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and the Public Interest Journalism Fund.