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October 2005 Vol. 20, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Another Couple Swept Away in Australia

from the October, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In an incident eerily similar to the 2004 blockbuster movie Open Water, last month a British couple drifted away from their dive boat in Australian waters. Louise Woodger, 29, and her fianc Gordon Pratley, 31, were making their first unaccompanied open water dive from the Sea-Esta out of Townsville, Queensland, when they got caught in an unusually strong current at Wheeler Reef, 55 miles offshore.

The pair entered the water about 10 a.m., but when they surfaced, their boat was just a "speck in the distance" before it slipped out of view. The 1998 disappearance of Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan (the inspiration for Open Water) sparked a crisis of confidence in north Queensland's dive industry, which led to tighter safety regulations for dive boats. In that case, the boat operator didn't discover the Lonergans missing until two days after the boat had returned to port. Only a couple of pieces of their equipment were found.

Fortunately, new safety procedures worked better this time. The skipper realized two divers were missing when he completed a head count immediately after the other divers were on board. He called the Australian Coast Guard, which launched an air and sea search.

Nevertheless, Woodger and Pratley drifted for six hours. They could see rescue helicopters and search boats, but couldn't attract their attention. They used their dwindling air supply to inflate their BCDs, huddled together, and swam around to warm up. When they saw a shark circling beneath them, they made a decision not to look down any more. Eventually they were picked up by their own boat about 3:50 p.m.

Coast Guard skipper Jon Colless, who ferried the exhausted pair to safety, said they were at risk of "very large" sharks. He said, "They were freakishly lucky that search was called early in the day, that the weather was going down, it had been a bit lumpy ... and the skipper of the dive boat was right on the ball, did everything right." Pro Dive, the company which operated the tour, insisted that the boat crew had followed strict procedure, and that the unusually strong current - caused by a high tide - caught everyone by surprise. Despite suffering seasickness, exhaustion and mild hypothermia, Woodger and Pratley expressed nothing but praise for the Sea-Esta's crew.

And yet the London Times reported that the recently certified couple was allowed to go off on their own while the other divers on board "were having a lesson with an instructor." Perhaps the Sea-Esta should have sought out safer waters for neophyte divers. The Queensland Courier Mail editorialized, that Australian authorities, " should thoroughly review the circumstances which led up to this incident and determine whether, and how, the diving code of practice should be tightened to ensure nothing like it happens again."

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