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July 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nineteen Hours Adrift in Australia

Undercurrent interviews the rescued couple

from the July, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

After a dive in Gary’s Lagoon in the Whitsunday Islands on May 23, the dive boat Pacific Star discovered a couple were missing and couldn’t find them. But the two divers, American Allyson Dalton and Briton Richard Neely, were found in good shape after spending 19 hours stranded off the Great Barrier Reef. Then the blame game followed. The divers and the dive boat are playing the “he said, she said” game, while a potential lawsuit dangles. The press speculated how the couple made a speedy recovery so they could cash in on their story. Debates started about who should pay the rescue costs.

The aftermath is similar to what happened after the disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, American divers left behind on a Great Barrier Reef diving trip 10 years ago, whose story was made into the film Open Water. Their dive boat returned to shore without them and it was two days before the alarm was raised. No sign of the couple was ever found, and they are believed to have drowned or been killed by sharks. The Aussie scuba industry went on the offensive and blamed the divers, saying it was staged. (Read our coverage of the Lonergan mystery in our March 1998 issue online.)

So what really happened once Neely and Dalton entered the waters at Gary’s Lagoon? Did they break any rules? Was the dive briefing detailed enough? How long did the boat wait to sound the alarm? Dalton and Neely told their story to us, and there are lessons to be learned here so that you can be spared the scenario these two had. (We asked OzSail, owners of the Pacific Star to do the same, but never received a reply so we’re going with the statements they gave to newspapers).

“The Boat Was Laid Back, to Say The Least”

Dalton, a bar owner from Sacramento, and her boyfriend Neely, a dive instructor based in Phuket, Thailand, went to Australia in May to dive the Great Barrier Reef for the first time. Both were experienced - - Dalton received her PADI divemaster certification in March, and Neely is a PADI Master Scuba Diver. They chose Pacific Star, a 65-foot catamaran known as a budget boat for backpackers and novice divers. “It was the only all-purpose dive boat that fit what we wanted to do,” says Dalton. “A short liveaboard trip that sailed the Whitsundays and went out to the Reef.”

She said the boat crew seemed “laid back” and not thorough about dive instructions, even though only eight of the 20 passengers were certified divers and six others were going through certification. The PADI waiver form everyone signed was for course certification instead of the standard scuba diving release. The cruise director was excited that Neely and Dalton were experienced divers. “He even pulled us aside to say how happy he was that he didn’t have to babysit.”

Because of their experience, the cruise director and skipper told them about special places to dive, different sites than where other divers were taken, and a laid-back dive. “It was about ‘this is where you should go, you may see a shark cleaning station at 40 meters.’ There was no standard discussion of currents, dropoff, maximum depth and time, or pickup spot.”

Dalton said the boat was also lax on safety gear. “They didn’t have any batteries for flashlights, and we were never offered signaling devices. Luckily, we had our own. We had two dive computers but no one else did, nor were they offered any.”

Was It Okay to Leave the Lagoon?

On May 23, the third day aboard, the boat director gave Neely and Dalton a briefing about Gary’s Lagoon. Here’s where the differing points of view start. The couple says they got another not-so-thorough briefing, and the cruise director had privately told them of a passageway to the outside of the lagoon. OzSail said Neely and Dalton were told not to leave the lagoon but did so knowingly.

Rebecca Sharkey, another diver onboard, told British newspaper The Independent that her group got a thorough briefing but Neely and Dalton were at the back of the boat, discussing how to find manta rays. “The strict instruction was to stay inside the lagoon, don’t go outside it,” said Sharkey, who got stuck in the current but was rescued by the dinghy. “The lagoon floor is 40 feet, so if you’ve gone below that, you’ve gone outside the lagoon. If you feel the current, you’ve gone outside. Come straight back but if you can’t, surface straight away and there’s people on deck ready to come get you. He said it was a safe dive spot, just don’t go outside it.”

Dalton and Neely wanted to fit in two more dives, so they told the skipper they would be down for an hour, surfacing at 3 p.m., and go out for a final half-hour dive at 4:30 p.m. “The skipper told us, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come to wherever you are.’”

The dive was normal, only a slight current and a modest drift. They found the lagoon passageway but it was a dead end, and went out another way. The couple wasn’t alarmed because they saw two other divers, a British father and son, outside the reef, about to resurface. Their dive computers – Dalton had a Suunto D9 and Neely a Suunto Stinger – showed nothing unusual. They surfaced six minutes after the father and son, and Neely released his five-foot safety sausage.

On the surface, they noticed the boat was farther away than they expected, about 650 feet. “We saw the dinghy at the boat, saw the two divers get off, then the dinghy driver got off and did not come back. We weren’t concerned because our safety sausage was up, but the current was picking up and we were getting carried away.” They kept watching the boat until 4:15, 90 minutes after surfacing. Then they saw the dinghy move, going out of the lagoon and coming along the reef toward where the couple had surfaced. “We were blowing whistles but the wind was blowing in our direction and we were drifting toward the setting sun. We saw the boat go around, then turn back. We couldn’t believe that they didn’t come look for us for 90 minutes. Then we realized, ‘they don’t see us and they’re not coming to get us.’”

Fraser Yule, manager of OzSail, told Australian newspaper The Courier-Mail that the crew did everything possible to locate Neely and Dalton, asking why four lookouts with high-powered binoculars on the deck couldn’t spot them. An anonymous crew member told another paper: “There was a mile of shallow reef, why not stand on it and wave for help? There was a marker buoy standing 20 feet out of the water, why not hold onto it and wait to be picked up?” Neely’s reply: “The current was too strong and there was no point in using up all our energy.”

Their fellow divers told the press that they searched for three hours but when it became too dark to continue looking, their boat headed back to shore.

After nightfall, Neely used rope from his marker buoy to tie the two together. They huddled every half hour, pressing stomachs together for warmth through their wetsuits, then they would flip their bodies over to swim in the direction of the dive boat, as Neely was monitoring their position by compass. The first helicopter came by at 9:30 p.m. and didn’t see them, but Neely assumed they would come back. They did, every 45 minutes, but the wind and six-foot waves hindered a sighting, and finally they stopped at 3 a.m. “Both of us had lost it,” Neely told British newspaper The Guardian. “We were hallucinating, seeing everything from robots to colourful fish in the sky and speaking a bit of gibberish.”

The helicopters started again at daylight and then at 8:40 a.m., the divers were spotted. It took a couple of tries to get them -- a venomous sea snake reared up in Dalton’s face on the first try. The couple was flown to a Townsville hospital and was released after only a few hours.

“The Press Was Merciless”

That’s when the rumors started. The British and Australian press printed that the couple had worn extra-thick wetsuits and carried water bottles on their dive, as if preparing to stay out all night. Ridiculous, says Dalton. “My BCD has very small pockets so there’s no way I could fit a bottle in there. And the water temperature was 74 degrees, so it’s certainly not tropical. As for my wetsuit, I was going to use it for my next dive in the colder waters of Komodo – exactly where those five divers disappeared.” (See the sidebar below on that story.) “Everyone else was issued stinger suits by the boat but if they had the option of thicker suits, they would have taken it.”

When the couple was interviewed by the Guardian while still in hospital beds, rumors abounded about million-dollar book deals and paid appearances on 60 Minutes. The flames were fanned when the couple hired a celebrity agent to go through the offers.

Dalton admits they got paid $10,000 for the 10-minute interview, but that was the first and last time they got paid. “If we wanted to sell our story, we wouldn’t take the first offer because then we lost exclusivity. The celebrity agent called my friend and we jumped at the chance for someone to field the calls because we were inundated with offers.” Back in the U.S., they appeared on NBC’s Dateline and Today shows but weren’t paid. “We just wanted the correct story to appear in our home countries, because the Australian press was merciless.”

Rescue efforts are estimated to be $400,000, and the press trumpeted that Australian taxpayers will foot the bill. Dalton says she hasn’t received a bill, that she and Neely were insured by Divers Alert Network for $100,000 each, and that DAN assured her the rescue and medical costs will be taken care of. She says she and Neely will make a donation to the rescuers’ organization, but if anyone should reimburse costs, it should be OzSail. “They were negligent, their duty of care was not met. If they had alerted Emergency Services earlier, we would have been rescued well before dark.”

OzSail’s official statement is this: “Allyson and Richard did not remain on the dive site. They did not follow the clear instructions of the dive instructor. They did not surface immediately upon leaving Gary’s Lagoon. Visibility for a safety sausage is approximately one nautical mile.” It also said emergency services were alerted within one hour of their scheduled surface time, refuting reports of a three-hour delay.

While the police aren’t filing charges, Australia’s Workplace Health and Safety division is investigating potential breaches of workplace laws. Dalton says the investigation is showing “things were worse than we even realized,” but she wouldn’t give specifics. She and Neely are contemplating legal action against OzSail.

Her advice to avoid being stranded: Pay the extra airline fees to haul your safety gear. She and Neely had decided to scrimp. “We had a larger than normal safety sausage and whistles but it was not normally all we would carry. Going forward, I’ll use every single safety device I can find.” She’ll also make sure more people on board know her dive profile. “If we had to do it again, we’d have everyone witness on the boat what we discussed with the dive leader. If everyone on the boat hears what you do, you’re more likely to be missed after a dive.”

We’ll add one thing: Don’t accept laid-back dive briefings. Make sure they’re clear - - a good dive guide will make you repeat it back to ensure you got it. If you didn’t get it, ask detailed questions. Even if you’re told it’s a shallow dive site, better to be safe than stranded.

- -Vanessa Richardson

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