Killed swimmer Leslie Gelberger's 'romantic day' with wife for her birthday ended in tragedy

Leslie Gelberger was found dead near Mairangi Bay on Auckland's North Shore.
LINKEDIN

Leslie Gelberger was found dead near Mairangi Bay on Auckland's North Shore.

Laura McLeod was meant to be celebrating her 40th birthday on Saturday.

Instead, she was grieving for her husband, Leslie Gelberger, who was killed while swimming in Auckland harbour on Thursday - apparently struck by a Ports of Auckland boat.

The expat Canadian couple and their sons, aged five and seven, have been living in New Zealand nearly three years. Gelberger began teaching at Westlake Girls' High School this year, and McLeod was due to start a new job on Monday.

Leslie Gelberger was killed while swimming in Auckland harbour.
SUPPLIED

Leslie Gelberger was killed while swimming in Auckland harbour.

But now, she's now sure how she's going to cope without her beloved husband.

READ MORE:
Man pulled dead from harbour identified as Leslie Gelberger
Police investigating if Ports of Auckland pilot boat hit and killed swimmer
One-legged body in Auckland bay

"I have lost my best friend, the best father to my boys and the most amazing kindest positive and adventurous person I have ever known," she said in a statement.

Leslie Gelberger, his wife Laura McLeod, and their two sons moved to New Zealand from Canada three years ago.
GIVEALITTLE

Leslie Gelberger, his wife Laura McLeod, and their two sons moved to New Zealand from Canada three years ago.

McLeod described her husband as "the epitome of kindness and unrelentingly positivity", who befriended strangers everywhere he went.

"I didn't believe that Hollywood romance was real until I met him. He was the yin to my yang."

On Thursday, the couple had planned to have a "romantic day" to themselves, the couple's friend Maria Mariotti said.

It was not yet known whether Leslie Gelberger's body would be repatriated to Canada.
SUPPLIED

It was not yet known whether Leslie Gelberger's body would be repatriated to Canada.

While McLeod slept in, Gelberger dropped their sons off to Conscious Kids - a nature-based holiday programme where his wife was about to begin working - and went for a swim at Narrow Neck Beach.

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He never returned.

Later that day, concerned for her husband's whereabouts, McLeod went down to the beach, found his car but no sign of her husband, and called police.

A Port of Auckland pilot boat, like this one, was believed to have struck Leslie Gelberger.
FAIRFAX NZ

A Port of Auckland pilot boat, like this one, was believed to have struck Leslie Gelberger.

His body was found floating in Mairangi Bay, 13 kilometres north, on Friday afternoon. One of his legs was missing.

Police were investigating whether a pilot boat, owned by Ports of Auckland, hit and killed Gelberger.

McLeod said the couple's sons were "absolutely devastated and struggling to come to terms" with their dad's death.

They had applied for permanent residency after falling in love with New Zealand and "its amazingly friendly people". 

"The outdoor lifestyle suited [Gelberger] to a T. If he wasn't in the ocean, he was in the bush hiking with his boys in tow. Just this past weekend, he took them camping in Whangarei to explore Abbey and Waipu caves."

Gelberger was a passionate ocean-swimmer, but was always cautious and safety-conscious in the water, she said.

HEARTBROKEN MUM'S LAST CALL

Gelberger's mother, Judith Kopacsi-Gelberger, says it's hard to fathom how the boat's crew failed to spot her son, who was wearing a fluorescent pink swimming cap.

Minutes before he headed off on his fateful swim, he called his parents, who live in the Canadian city of Brampton, Ontario.

"My husband asked him 'is it good weather for a swim?' And he said, laughing, 'any day is a good day for swimming'. And that is the last that we heard," Kopacsi-Gelberger said.

She described her son as "really an exercise nut" who was "extremely cautious" on his daily swims.

"He was wearing the proper attire and a hat which was bright pink so he would be noticeable in the water."

Late on Thursday night, Kopacsi-Gelberger and her husband, Peter Gelberger, received a frantic phone call from McLeod to say he hadn't returned from his swim.

"It was the worst news that a mother can hear," Kopacsi-Gelberger said.

McLeod's mother was flying to New Zealand on Sunday.

It was not yet known whether Gelberger's body would be repatriated to Canada.

Kopacsi-Gelberger was concerned that her son's death might mean his wife and kids would be forced to leave New Zealand, as their residency application had been tied to his job.

"Now he's gone, I don't know what basis they would have to stay there," she said.

Kopasci-Gelberger described her son as "a gentle, wonderful giant" who made many friends while studying in Australia and during a fortnight of teaching experience in Malaysia.

"He was smart, talented and beautiful ... Leslie touched so many lives from so many different directions, and the friends are pouring in.

"Even from two weeks in Malaysia, he left his mark. People are sending us condolences from all over the world."

FRIENDS, SCHOOL MOURN

Mariotti and her Conscious Kids co-workers have launched a Givealittle page to fundraise for the family.

The page described Gelberger as "a much loved husband, father, friend and teacher ... an avid outdoors man who lived for his family."

"As Leslie was the only source of income for his family at the time of his untimely death, the funds raised will go to Laura to help her continue to raise their boys during this tragic time," the page said.

More than $14,000 has been raised so far.

Westlake Girls High School, where Gelberger taught maths, science and physics, sent an email out to parents and students saying it is "shocked and saddened" by the news. 

"While the exact circumstances surrounding his death are unclear, it would appear that Leslie was involved in a tragic accident while swimming off Narrow Neck Beach," the email reads.

Gelberger had only joined the school at the start of this year, but had "built up a reputation as an excellent teacher and was greatly respected by staff and students."

"Leslie was actively involved in school life. His ready smile and outgoing personality will be missed by everyone."

Tori Holland, a former student of Gelbergers', wrote on Givealittle that a "great teacher" had been lost.

"I could already tell he was going to be great because he clearly enjoyed teaching us."

"He was so kind, helpful and he always had a smile on his face. He often talked about his children and happily recalled something funny about them."

A colleague at Westlake Girls, Joanna Bartch also commented on the Givealittle page.

She said Gelberger's commitment to his students' learning was "beyond amazing" and his love for his family was his "reason for living."

"Rest in peace my friend and thank you for teaching me so much in our short time working together. You certainly made all of our worlds a better place," she wrote to Gelberger. 

INVESTIGATION ONGOING

Meanwhile, Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson confirmed an investigation was underway into the actions of the crew on one of its aluminium pilot boats.

"I am extremely upset that one of our pilot boats may have been involved in the death of a swimmer. I understand the pain this will have caused and I offer the family and friends of the swimmer my deepest sympathies for their tragic loss," he said.

A pilot boat is a roughly 15-metre boat used to transport marine pilots to incoming ships and pick up marine pilots from outgoing ships. A marine pilot's job is to guide a ship safely into port.

Police had identified and examined the boat and Gibson said the company was working with police to help determine what had happened.

 - Stuff

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