Man's survival 'absolute miracle' after spending night in sea, shark having 'a sniff' off Whangamatā

The boaties who saved a man who fell overboard and spent nearly 24 hours at sea off Whangamatā have recalled the dramatic rescue, saying "fate" played a large role.  

Whangamatā Police Sergeant Will Hamilton said the man was at sea for 23.5 hours and his survival was an "absolute miracle", adding that "few stories end the way this one did". 

The ordeal began when the man set off on a solo fishing trip on Tuesday aboard his 40-foot (12m) boat, with the intention of returning the following day.    

But things took a turn for the worse when according to Hamilton, the man hooked what he suspects was a marlin before falling overboard - some 30 nautical miles (55km) off the North Island.  

Unable to catch the idling boat as it meandered further out of reach, the man attempted to swim to the Alderman Islands but was dragged away by the currents, according to Hamilton.  

The man endured a "cold night" in the ocean, too exhausted to keep swimming - at one point, a shark even came to "have a sniff" before leaving.   

"Incredibly, about 2pm on Wednesday, three fishermen were on a boat near Mayor Island when they noticed an unusual reflection on the water," Hamilton said.

"They decided to investigate and discovered a fellow fisherman, desperately trying to get their attention using the reflection of the sun on his watch." 

The trio plucked him from the water, immediately contacted police and set course for Whangamatā Marina.

"It is an absolute miracle the fisherman is still alive after the ordeal. Without the quick actions of the three gentlemen that retrieved him, this certainly would have had a tragic outcome," Hamilton said.

Hamilton added that the man - hypothermic and exhausted when he was returned to land - was treated by a St John ambulance crew.   

Three fisherman found the man in the water near Mayor Island.
Three fisherman found the man in the water near Mayor Island. Photo credit: Getty Images

Now two of the three men onboard the boat that rescued the man have shared their side of the story of how the dramatic rescue unfolded.  

Max White, who was the skipper of the boat, told Newshub he and his friends were out near Mayor Island for a day of game fishing. 

He's relieved the story had a happy ending. 

"It's definitely an experience we won't forget. It's just one that could've gone either way, but I'm glad it's got a happy ending and a story to be told in this kind of sense, as opposed to what could have been," White said. 

James Mcdonnell, who was also onboard, told Newshub "fate" and a "series of fortunate events" played a part in spotting the man in the water.  

"When you start going back and piecing through the day, little things where we may have ended up in different locations - it was kind of fate, I suppose, on how we ended up there," he said.  

"We set out in the early morning and got through to the afternoon and we sort of saw a glistening, probably 600 metres away from the boat at the time." 

The three men were "curious" to find out what that glistening was so headed over towards it, not expecting to find a person.  

"As we got closer, I think it was Max who said, 'I think that's a person' and it was actually me who said, 'Surely not'," Mcdonnell said.  

"I mean, we were 10 miles off the back of Mayor Island and not a boat in sight, but sure enough, as we got closer, it was quite obvious that someone was waving their arms."  

The three men who rescued the man who fell overboard and spent nearly a full day at sea.
The three men who rescued the man who fell overboard and spent nearly a full day at sea. Photo credit: Supplied.

Once they realised it was a person in the water, White told Newshub they were in a "state of disbelief".  

"We're in the middle of nowhere. We'd seen a sunfish and then when you try and imagine seeing a human, I guess not everything's off the cards at that point," White said.

Since the three rescuers were out game fishing, they had to quickly pull all their lures in - which led to the man thinking they hadn't seen him.  

"I think you could see the despair in his face when we slowed down. We were game fishing, so we had all the lures out the back, so we were madly trying to clear gear and probably 50 metres away from him. I think he was just that desperate and worried that even at that point we hadn't quite noticed him," he Mcdonnell.  

"[It's] very, very lucky and the outcome was far, far better than what anyone could have expected." 

Once he was onboard, attention quickly turned to keeping the man awake, giving him warm clothes and madly scrambling back to shore so paramedics could treat him.  

"He was definitely struggling a bit, as you can imagine, being afloat for 23 hours and very cold to touch, so priority turned to getting him sitting down, and as thankful as he was to be on a vessel again, our priority quickly turns to take off all of our shirts, our jumpers," White told Newshub.  

"We had a big cooler bag and just wrapped him up in as many layers as possible. He's desperate for water and that sort of thing, so I had a bit of warm water on the boat and some cranberry juice and that sort of thing. Give him what we can and try and get him talking and just make sure that he stayed awake as best possible." 

Hamilton said the three rescuers did an "absolute stellar job" and without a doubt saved the man's life.

In a note to police, the man said he wanted to go on record and "thank Mike, Tyler and James for rescuing him, along with all the emergency services involved". 

It's currently not known where the man's boat has ended up.  

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre has been advised of its last-known direction, the amount of fuel onboard and its speed so navigation warnings can be issued.   

"Boaties are asked to report any sightings of empty powered vessels," Hamilton said.

"Few stories end the way this one did, and Police cannot thank the eagle-eyed trio enough for making the call to investigate something that looked out of the ordinary. The boat may be missing, but the fisherman still has his watch."