Mount Maunganui swimming death: Michael Finekifolau mourned by family

Eleseni Finekifolau is missing her younger brother Michael’s smile, his dancing, his “carefree spirit” and humour most.

Michael Joseph Finekifolau, 22, of Auckland, went missing swimming at Mount Maunganui about 10am on Saturday morning, near Marine Parade.

His body was found about 15km east, on the beach near Karewa Parade at Pāpāmoa, at low tide this morning.

The Finekifolau family “had been planning a family trip down to the Mount for a while to spend some quality family time,” Eleseni told the Bay of Plenty Times this afternoon.

Michael “was also excited to climb the Mount” on Saturday, but never made it.

It was a difficult weekend for the Auckland family, but “it means a lot” that he was found, she said.

“All we wanted was to take him back home, where we could farewell him properly and be with the rest of his family and friends.”

Some had come down to the Bay of Plenty to grieve and offer immediate support.

“Just by being present … sharing fond memories of Michael and how loved he was, kept our spirits up.

“One thing about Michael was he was always happy and that’s the way we will always remember him,” Eleseni said.

Michael went missing while swimming with two others, before beach patrols started on Saturday.

The Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service had a team of 33 people, aged between 18 and 60, searching over the weekend.

They deployed six IRBs and a jetski, search and rescue manager Thomas Yule said.

The TECT Tauranga rescue helicopter also carried out aerial searches and the Ōmanu and Pāpāmoa emergency callout squads covered further stretches of coastline to the east.

Despite sunny days, the conditions in the water were “very challenging” Yule said.

“They taxed our guys more than we were expecting … The waves and swell in the area would certainly be some of the toughest weather we get, outside of a tropical cyclone.”

Boats went up and down the coast using GPS, landmarks, and points of interest identified by the helicopter but “it was fairly difficult to ride the waves and actively search”, he said.

Volunteers were back out searching from 6am today, until they were stood down by police.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand lifeguards saved 577 lives and helped 1543 people to safety in the 2019/20 season, despite the fact it was cut short by Covid-19 lockdown.

Yule said large-scale searches like last weekend’s showed “we need to continuously work on upskilling our own crews and gaining more members”.

Western Bay of Plenty area response manager Senior Sergeant Shannon Clifford confirmed Michael’s body was found by a member of the public about 7am.

A blessing was performed at the beach about 9am and Michael’s body was removed.

Karewa Parade resident Alex Jamieson, 79, has lived on the street since 2003.

Jamieson was cooking breakfast when he first saw the police nearby.

He said it was a popular stretch of beach and a close neighbourhood.

“It is very sad to have something happen so close. I just feel for the family who have lost their loved one, whatever the circumstances.”

Michael’s death has been referred to the coroner.

The Finekifolau family expressed their gratitude for all those involved in the widespread search efforts, police, iwi support and blessings, and the hospitality loved ones were given at their AirBnb, the Quest Hotel and by the Tay Street Store.

Staying safe at the beach

• Swim during patrols, between the flags.
• Swim in places you’re familiar with.
• Swim with others, never swim or surf alone, and stay close.
• Learn to identify rips and how to avoid them.
• If you see someone in trouble, and lifeguards aren’t on patrol, call 111 and ask for the police.

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