Pair who died at west Auckland's Piha weren't between flags, reportedly couldn't swim

Surf lifeguards were on their way to warn two swimmers at Piha about the dangerous spot they were in last night but by the time they arrived, it was too late.

The pair weren't between the flags - and Newshub understands neither of them knew how to swim.

Just 15 minutes before patrols wrapped up for the day at North Piha on Saturday, a full-scale rescue operation was triggered.

"My understanding is they were a family group that had just come to the beach. They'd literally parked the car, walked over the sand hills, and gone for a swim," said United North Piha Lifeguard Service Club president Robert Ferguson.

But the spot the two men chose wasn't between the flags.

"They were at a really dangerous part of the beach, probably the most dangerous part," said surf lifeguard Abby Ferguson.

"They were probably quite shallow and made a few steps and it would've been over their head," Robert added.

Lifeguards had identified that the two people were swimming in a dangerous spot and were already responding to what's called a PA, or preventative action. But by the time the team made the 200-metre journey to the beach, that had quickly turned into a rescue operation. 

Abby was off-duty at the time at the surf-club campground nearby.

"We got a call that there was one person being resuscitated, and one missing, so we all jumped into action and came up," she said.

Up to 50 people were involved in the search for the two men. Newshub understands neither of them knew how to swim.

"The fact they weren't between the flags was fatal," Surf Life Saving Northern Region CEO Matt Williams said.

The warnings are all around the beach but the message just doesn't seem to be getting across.

Just after an interview, Newshub witnessed two swimmers enter an area of water that wasn't patrolled.

"It's not the ocean's fault, it's not the weather's fault - it's New Zealanders' fault. It's our choice not to be making those safe decisions and not to swim between the flags. I'm not apportioning blame - it's simply in our hands to keep ourselves safe," Williams said.

"It's time to start checking in with people. Finding out better, smarter ways of communicating. Bring in behavioural psychologists, or experts around behaviour change, and get them to help the sector," added Water Safety NZ CEO Daniel Gerrard.

Flowers have since been placed outside North Piha's Surf Lifeguard tower.

"This was very, very fast, and something we responded amazingly to, but it was just a terrible outcome," Abby said.

And a terrifying reminder of just how quickly a dip in the water can turn to tragedy.