Whenuakura is one of the Coromandel Peninsula’s most iconic and beautiful coastal attractions.
Nestled about 600 metres off the coast of Whangamatā, the island has a unique feature – a turquoise lagoon at its centre, formed by a collapsed volcanic blowhole, hence it’s nickname ‘Donut Island’.
Once a well-kept secret, the island’s allure has spread, thanks in no small part to social media, making it a newfound ‘must-do’ destination. However, this surge in popularity has brought about an unintended consequence – an uptick in rescues.
This season, surf lifeguards have responded to 16 incidents at Whenuakura, involving 32 people, including local resident Mike Foley and his two children.
On Thursday, 18 January, Mike’s daughter and son found themselves stranded in the lagoon after kayaking to Whenuakura. They were unable to exit through the only entry, a cave.
Mike explained, “The sea was a bit too big for them, and they weren’t confident about getting out. Thankfully they had radios, so they called the Whangamatā surf lifeguards who went in and yanked them out.”
Although the pair were safely rescued, they left the double kayak behind, which they’d borrowed from friends.
Mike was keen on returning the kayak, so he came up with a plan to get it back.
“I talked to a friend of mine who has a jet ski, and he agreed to go out and get it with me.”
A week later, on the morning of January 24, they set out for Whenuakura.
“We floated on the jet ski in front of the island for about 10 minutes, and conditions seemed reasonable. So, I swam in there, but when I went through the cave and into the lagoon, there was no kayak.”
While Mike searched the lagoon, checking to see if the kayak had wedged itself somewhere, the swell started to get bigger and bigger.
When Mike eventually decided to leave 30 minutes later, waves were pouring through the cave. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m not a strong enough swimmer and I’m too old! I’m 69; my days of being foolhardy are long gone. This is beyond me now; don’t be stupid’.”
Mike’s friend on the jet ski soon grew worried and triggered a rescue response at 9:45am. The Whangamatā surf lifeguards were notified and soon arrived on a Rescue Water Craft.
With one surf lifeguard driving, two other surf lifeguards swam in and found Mike.
“My first thought when I saw them was, ‘I’m a big fella, are they going to be able to pull me out?’ but they knew exactly what they were doing. They sat down with me and worked out a plan. I felt like I was with an experienced team, and they were very professional.”
The trio tried swimming out with Mike attached to a rescue tube; however, the swell was too large, so they regrouped. An Inflatable Rescue Boat with three more surf lifeguards shortly arrived on the scene, and with their help, Mike was rescued safely and taken back to shore.
“I have nothing but praise for all of the surf lifeguards involved, and my two children said the exact same thing after they were rescued. They were skilful and incredibly professional, and they were logical in the way they stopped and worked it all out.”
Mike said he’s not put off by the ocean following the rescue, but it has made him stop and think.
“We thought we’d checked out the weather conditions and the environment before going in, but we didn’t do it well enough. We also only focused on the first leg of the journey, but you need to make sure you plan the whole trip there and back.
“And, if the trip does go wrong, do your best to stay calm. Don’t panic! As long as your head is above the water and you’re in no immediate danger, take time to think, then act.”
Mike was able to do exactly that so surf lifeguards could be alerted, and he’s very grateful they were there.
“I’m so thankful to not only the guys in the water but the whole support team behind them. Everyone has been really accepting that people make mistakes. There was never a sigh or an eyeroll; they all wanted to make sure we all came home safe and sound.
“The least I can do now is go down to the Surf Life Saving Club and thank them. And I’ll take them a feed of donuts too!”