Tasman's Natural Swimming Holes and Beaches - Popularity and Effects on the Recreational Experience

Swimming in rivers and coastal beaches is a popular recreation activity in Tasman with estimates as high as 300,000 swimmer days per year. Information about the popularity of particular sites allows Council to better manage activities in rivers that may adversely affect this recreation and better provide for the safety and enjoyment of these users in a systematic and properly-prioritised way. This information also helps to ensure that monitoring is taking place at sites where the risk of illness from poor water quality is greatest. Risk is calculated by multiplying the number of people affected with the type and frequency/likelihood of discharge of faecal matter to the river.

A survey in the 1985-86 season provide useful information on relative usage of swimming sites in the Waimea catchment (including Lee, Wairoa and Roding Rivers) but the accuracy of actual swimmer count data is open to question as the surveys were not done on site.  The opinions of people using sites were also useful for determining the general concerns and issues in the region. This information has not previously been sought, except in the Waimea catchment in 1985. In 1981 a survey of the whole of Tasman District showed Kaiteriteri/Marahau and Rabbit Island as the most popular beaches and the Lee and Roding were the most popular rivers.

During the 2010-11 summer season Tasman District Council undertook a study of local swimming holes and beaches to determine the relative popularity of particular sites to assist Council to better manage these areas. This study used the following methods: 1. Counts of users of swimming beaches/holes (by aerial survey, on-site counts and traffic counts at selected sites) and 2. Opinion surveys focusing on factors that affect the swimming experience. Aerial surveys were carried out on two days, one of which (6 February) was one of the hottest and most popular swimming days of the season. This method was very useful at assessing the number of users of a site over a large area in a short space of time so time-of-day biases were kept to a minimum, as well as seeing sites previously unknown to Council.  A total of 287 people were interviewed at sites on rivers and marine beaches known to be popular on four of the most popular swimming days of the summer. Traffic counts were carried out at 7 sites, 4 in the Roding, Lee and Wairoa catchments, and 3 on Rabbit Island. The three user-count methods correlated well. All these methods were used at sites covering most of the region. Unfortunately, resources were not available to include sites in Abel Tasman National Park, West Coast and the Buller catchments.

This study confirmed the high use of our coast and rivers for swimming and associated recreation such as picnicking and sunbathing. Relative use of most sites was as expected, but a few reasonably popular sites were thought to have low use or were not known to Council prior to this survey. Conversely, some previously thought reasonably popular, had low usage. As expected the greatest use of swimming sites was during hot, dry weather on weekends or public holidays.

The Roding River at Twin Bridges and Busch Reserves had far and away the highest use. The popularity of rivers taken as a whole are listed in order from most popular to least popular: Roding > Lee > Takaka > Motupiko > Wairoa = Waimea > Motueka > Buller > Anatoki > Aorere. Rabbit Island Main Beach and Kaiteriteri Beach stood out strongly as being the most popular marine beaches.

The total number of people engaged in swimming in the Waimea catchment between 17 Dec and 27 Feb 2011 was estimated to be 115,000. The number of swimmers on the peak day in the Waimea catchment (6 February) was estimated at 4,000 persons. This was slightly higher than the peak day in 1985-86 and for Rabbit Island.

Effects on the Recreational Experience

The issues of greatest concern to swimmers  (starting from the highest level of importance) were: rubbish = concentration of disease-causing organisms = scums/foams/odour > sliminess = water clarity = safe for children and shallow areas = scenery = presence of toilets > peaceful > proximity to where I live or stay = too many other people = water temperature = deep water > power boats> Erosion = Rope swing or place to jump > being able to take dogs.

Rubbish, especially broken glass, was offensive to over 80% of people, but most respondents were very inclined to pick up rubbish. The concentration of disease-causing organisms was almost equally important and people expected Council to be managing that issue. Generally people thought that the level of faecal contamination was low and saw Council doing a good job to manage it. Scums/foams/odour was an issue that again about 80% of people would be concerned about if it was present at a swimming site.

Swimmers can put up with a little sliminess in rivers and slightly murky water at some sites, particularly marine beaches (e.g. Rabbit Island where water clarity of less than 1m is common). Obviously parents and grandparents are most keen on a safe environment (both physically and water quality) for children. The need for shallow areas was strongly linked to what is considered a safe swimming site for children. The quality of scenery was moderately important (65% of respondents). Having toilet facilities at site was thought of as a big draw card for a similar number of respondents.

Over half of all respondents were prepared to travel more than 30 minutes for swimming. Over-crowded sites were seen as an issue for about half of respondents. Of those people asked at what water temperature was the minimum required for swimming, most said 18oC, but there are a few that will still use the site for swimming at temperatures down to 15oC. This has implications for our monitoring as most sites reach this temperature in mid December and continue until late March. However Council’s monitoring of bathing beaches starts and finishes about one month earlier than this. One of the reasons for this is that student resources are not available after mid February.

Approximately 40% of people liked deep water to swim in or jump into. The presence of power boats taking up space and being a threat to the safety of swimming was only a real issue at a few sites (e.g. Tata Beach) but almost 40% of people would be concerned if power boats became more common at swimming sites.

Erosion of the foreshore, or slips into the river, was an issue for about a quarter of respondents. Young people were very keen on rope swings and places to jump off into the water.  Less than 20% of people wanted to take their dog to the swimming site. Most of the 80%+ respondents who did not want dogs, sited dog faeces and physical intimidation, particularly directed to  children, as the main reasons. Many of those who object to dogs at swimming sites were dog owners themselves.

The idea of producing a guide to swimming spots of Tasman was raised with several site users and staff, and was generally favourably received. However, locals often jealously guard their 'secret spot' and any publicity about the location of the site should probably respect this. Rope swings are very important for youth.

Information from this study will be used to update Schedule 30.1 of the TRMP, review our BWQMP, and assist in upgrading Council parks and reserves.

Tasman's Natural Swimming Holes and Beaches - Popularity and Effects on the Recreational Experience 2011