A search began about 4pm on Thursday after emergency services were notified of a person in trouble in the water at the mouth of the Rees River.
The police national dive squad arrived about 1pm on Friday and were searching about 50m from the shore.
The body was recovered just after 4pm. Otago Lakes Central Area Commander Paula Enoka said the man had been helping a young boy when he got in trouble himself. The drowning was the second at Lake Wakatipu in less than a week after Wānaka man Linkin Kisling died on Friday last week saving his 10-year-old son.
It was a “horrible tragedy”, Enoka said.
“Recently we’ve lost the life of one person only just over a week ago and at the moment we’re searching for a second person in what appears to be similar circumstances.
“I feel for the family of the first swimmer who probably have to relive this tragedy again while we’re searching for this person today.”
The area where the body was found was close to the spot where Kisling was located but closer to the shore, she said.
“It is still the same area that has the fast-running river that provides a different current to the water people are usually swimming in the lake.”
Signs warning people of the danger of swimming in the lake were installed on Friday after the Queenstown Lakes District Council ordered them following Kisling’s death.
A council spokesperson said learning a second person drowned at the head of the lake so soon after the first tragedy was “truly devastating”.
“Our thoughts are first and foremost with the person’s friends and whānau, as well as the Glenorchy community who will naturally share a sense of sadness, shock and loss.”
The question of safety on our waterways was complex and involved several different agencies and the wider community, they said.
“There is no single authority responsible for the choice people make to enter a body of water. However, the steps we are taking to ensure nothing like this happens again is a logical and practical way that council can help at this incredibly sad time.”
Before the council’s new signs went up, Glenorchy locals took matters into their own hands to warn people about the deadly swimming spot and erected a handwritten sign with a simple message: no swimming.
Glenorchy resident Niki Gladding, a Queenstown Lakes District councillor, said the community was gutted, frustrated, angry, sad and exhausted.
So many people in the town were first responders and “it’s just call-out after call-out”, she said.
It was a dangerous lakefront, but two drownings in a week in the same spot was a new level of tragedy, she said.
The flow of the river and a sudden drop-off made it more dangerous. People were also experiencing a strong undertow, which she hadn’t heard of before.
The only sign was one at the end of a wharf, but there were none regarding the “relatively new” hazard.
Both locals and tourists swam at the spot.
“It’s hot, it’s inviting, there is shallow water, but when you get to the end of the shallow, it goes straight down.”
Locals were patrolling to warn people – they’d already warned a couple of fishermen on Friday morning, she said.
“My heart goes out to the families and friends of the two men who have drowned in circumstances where they were acting to save a life. It was very brave.”
A public meeting was held on Friday afternoon where members of the community questioned if more could have been done to prevent the second death.
Glenorchy Community Association chairman John Glover said the community was “to some extent beating themselves up”.
“Should we have done more? Put signs up last week? Should we have waited for the council to do it?”
About 20 people attended the meeting and more were expected at another meeting on Friday night.
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Glover said they were trying to understand what had happened, what had changed with the river and what needed to be done to keep people safe.
“Obviously there’s a huge loss to the families concerned. We have lost members of our own community in the rivers and lake in the past so it brings it home very strongly.”
After the meetings the association would come up with an action plan regarding signage, establishing which government organisations had responsibility for the area’s waterways and better understanding the changes in the river.
“We need to understand what’s caused this particular hazard when we’ve had many decades of enjoying the Rees and being able to swim in the shallows.”
In the North Island, a person died and another remains missing following a rescue involving a group of swimmers north of Whangamatā on Wednesday.