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February 2005 Vol. 20, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers in the Tsunami

Contents of this Issue:
All publicly available

Sunset Waters Beach Hotel

Thumbs Down

Moving Your Weights

Divers in the Tsunami

Tsunami Damage

Caught in the Wave

Hawaiian Tips

Dead Fish, Dying Reefs

Pre-Paid Diving

A Guide to the Coral Reefs of the Caribbean

Flotsam & Jetsam


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Publisher and Editor

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— divers caught in the wave

from the February, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As divers and travelers, we are routinely confronted with a wide range of dangers we usually negotiate with relative ease. But a tsunami wasn’t a danger on anyone’s list. Hence, on December 26, divers were, like everyone else, caught unaware.

Both the Maldives and Thailand are diver hangouts and some divers were there when the disaster struck, and some of them were diving when the wave rolled over them. Their stories are now starting to filter in.

In the Maldives

Greg and Deirdre Stegman, retired diving instructors from Queensland, were about half a mile offshore of Faru diving at 60 feet when they were suddenly sucked down to 90 feet in a onesecond underwater terror ride. They clawed at the reef to save their lives. “We would have gone down another 30 to 60 feet if we had not held on to the reef,” Mr. Stegman said. They were clueless as to why this was happening.

On the boat ride out, they had noticed the currents were particularly strong that morning, which was unusual. Once they were in the water (along with six other experienced divers from France, Switzerland, and the UK) the current completely reversed directions, sweeping all the divers along for seven to eight minutes at a tumultuous five knots. After a five-minute lull, the ripping current reversed and sucked them back in the other direction. Mr. Stegman said the diving party somehow managed to keep together by holding on to their diving buddies. “Every now and again we’d see the other divers come past us and they’d disappear again.”

On the surface, their dive boat had miraculously remained intact, and once the waves had passed, the driver was able to take them back to the shore.

British divers Matthew Oliver and Emma Simcox were instantly forced down to 125 feet by wild crosscurrents when the tsunami rolled over them on a dive off Hakuraa, the Maldives’ most southerly island. They eventually managed an emergency ascent, sharing air, and returned to Hakuraa, only to find their beach bungalow destroyed and their few remaining possessions gone.

“When we reached our island there was debris everywhere — rubbish, bottles, trees, lamps from beach bungalows. The roof had been ripped off the restaurant, and there was a boat in the trees. People were covered in blood. The husband of one injured woman told me that his wife had been dragged underwater and had her skin ripped off by broken glass and coral,” they said. A Pakistani Navy destroyer eventually rescued the couple.

George Chinn, a student in Cuckfield, England, was down 50 feet diving off the coastline of Meru, an hour from Male, when the main 30-foot wall of water surged over him, and he was forced to cling to the reef as the powerful surge threatened to drag him out to sea. He surfaced to wood and lifejackets floating in the water. “The whole thing lasted only a few minutes, but it was not until we got back to the island that we realized the scale of what had happened.”

A divemaster on the liveaboard Manthiri reported that their boat met the wave at Vaavu Atoll with no damage. He described the wave as being like nothing he had ever seen in his lifetime. “When the wave flowed in, the tiny islands were consumed and when it ebbed, the reefs, normally several meters under the water, were naked and visible.”

In Thailand

Canadians Gobeil and Francois had traveled to the island of Koh Phi Phi, where they were training to become dive instructors. They were just boarding the dive boat with eight others when, without warning, the first wave reared up in front of them. “The water at the pier is 60 feet deep, so there was no warning,” she said. “The wave just came up. It was 30 feet high. My boyfriend yelled to run, but I froze.” She managed to hold on to the railing of the pier until the metal broke loose in her hands. Tossed around like a rag doll in a washing machine, she popped to the surface three times while in the wave as it carried her up the side of a mountain. Then she crashed through a bamboo hut full of people who were then washed away alongside her.

Eventually, she ended up on the roof of the dive operation’s compressor shed about 400 feet away.

Her partner, Francois, suffered severe cuts after he was flung through debris of trees, furniture, and construction up the side of another mountain, landing next to several dead Thai children in a schoolyard. Eventually, Gobeil and Francois found each other, and after spending the night in the jungle, they were airlifted by helicopter to Phuket.

On Sri Lanka

When Warren and Julie Lavender surfaced from their first-ever certified scuba dive on the day after Christmas, they pulled off their masks, looked at each other and said, “That sucked.” Then Warren threw up.

The dive had sucked because the water was choppy on the surface, the current was hellaciously strong below, and, for some reason, the fish were all hiding in crevices. The Lavenders were happy to climb back into the dive boat for the half-hour return trip to the beach, where glorious Alka-Seltzer awaited.

On the way, Julie noticed something weird in the water. Somebody’s wallet, she said, pointing at it. Then came a chair. Then a coconut tree.

Then Warren noticed something worse — a horrified look on the captain’s face. He spun around to see that the beach wasn’t there anymore. That’s when they knew something was very, very wrong. “That beach had to be 150 meters wide, and it was just ... gone. So were the docks.” Waves were crashing straight into the hotels, some of which caved in like sandcastles, he reported.

The Lavenders had unknowingly scuba-dived through a tsunami. It was now hammering their vacation spot, the resort town of Beruwala on the western coast of Sri Lanka, gobbling up homes and boats and people, pulling them all back into the Indian Ocean and then flinging them back at the town again and again, killing hundreds.

Suddenly, it all made sense to the novice divers, the way they’d had to fight the torrential current at the bottom — like a “hurricane underwater,” was how Warren described it. Sixty feet below the surface, his mask was ripped off. It was all they could do to hold on to coral to avoid being sucked away. Warren said, “I remember thinking, ‘Gee; I could really learn to hate this sport.’”

Ironic as it seems, the safest place to be in a tsunami may well be in the ocean itself. It may be safer still to be beneath the surface: as divers we’ve all experienced how, on a rough day on the dive boat, it’s much more comfortable once you’re down below the surface of the water. And a tsunami at sea doesn’t reach great heights; the immense waves don’t form till the tsunami starts to reach shallow water and roll up against the ocean floor.

What most of the underwater tsunami stories had in common was that this was no time for coral conservation; grabbing on to the reef kept several from being sucked down to more dangerous depths. And, as with all underwater emergencies, the most critical factor was remaining calm enough to make the right choices.

These stories were compiled from e-mails, first-hand accounts, AP wire stories, and other resources. The Lavender’s story was taken from an article by Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated

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