Lost diver kept her wits and survived as she drifted away in Monterey

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Posted by on April 09, 2005 at 11:21:22:


For Jennifer Thomas, the panic began when her head popped above the surface of Monterey Bay and she realized her diving partners were gone.

The swell was rising. The current was pulling her farther from shore, and there were only a few hours left until sunset.

As the strong, chilly water surged around her, she screamed. She cried. Then the 32-year-old San Jose scuba diver began kicking -- and praying.

She refused to die at sea even if she had to swim all night. So, for more than five hours, Thomas swam until her feet were numb, her lips were cracked and her face was red with windburn.

``I didn't let myself think I was going to die out there,'' Thomas recalled in an interview just days after her ordeal and eventual rescue.

Her day had begun the morning of March 27 with her boyfriend, Aly Tamboura, and three others taking a successful dive near Breakwater Pier in Monterey. The couple has been together for two years, and they had worked together at Diver Dan's, a dive shop in Santa Clara where Thomas is an assistant manager.

That afternoon, they hit the water again. About 2 p.m., Tamboura dropped anchor six miles off Moss Landing at a place divers call Eric's Pinnacle, a mile offshore from Pacific Grove. The five divers descended. With visibility poor, Tamboura lost sight of the anchor line, so he aborted the dive. The murky water also prevented Thomas from seeing her fellow divers.

Others out of sight

When they surfaced, the other divers couldn't find Thomas -- and she couldn't see them.

And their 20-foot runabout, helmed by a friend with no boat-handling skills, was drifting rapidly away.

At 4 p.m. the Coast Guard received a call from someone who had spotted the four stranded divers. So the U.S. Coast Guard sent a 47-foot motor boat. But the four were rescued by the skipper of another boat who was looking for a lost kayaker, who was later found.

``My legs were burning with pain from swimming for 2 1/2 hours against the current, but I didn't feel the pain. I was more concerned with finding my girlfriend,'' said Tamboura, 38, who owns a geophysical survey company and helps as a dive master at classes at Diver Dan's.

Thomas, meanwhile, continued to drift as the Coast Guard continued its search. ``I told myself that panicking was just going to waste my energy. I figured I couldn't fight it and that the only thing I could do was go with it,'' she said.

``Every time a bigger swell would come, I would kick harder. When there was a lull I would slow down.''

With her determination and 16 years of dive experience, Thomas tried to stay calm. She thought about her family and friends and Tamboura, whom she knew was desperately searching, too.

From shore, Tamboura scanned the water and watched the rescue crew, aided by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter launched from San Francisco.

``I started crying. I couldn't go help; I was just a bystander,'' Tamboura said. They had lived together for a year, and now he was stuck on shore while she was lost at sea.

Wind and rain

Alone, Thomas kept kicking, searching for boats and landmarks while bobbing in the cold, choppy water as the waves surged as high as 10 feet. To make matters worse, the wind had picked up and rain was coming down hard.

By this time, Thomas had shed about 15 pounds of lead weight she wore to help her descend. She was fortunate that she was wearing a dry suit, which was insulated with a special gas that kept her warmer for a longer time than a wet suit would.

``That probably saved her life,'' U.S. Coast Guard Officer Maegan Schwartz said.

The darkness also proved crucial. After the sun set, she turned on a flashlight she usually carries when she dives to explore underwater. And that was how the Coast Guard spotted her, two miles from shore and eight miles southwest of Moss Landing.

Suddenly, Thomas saw a blue light. She thought she was dreaming. She began flashing her light. ``I thought, `Please dear God, let them see me out here' because I didn't know if they were going to be coming back.''

They got closer. She heard voices. It was the Coast Guard.

``We were about a half-mile away and we could hear her yelling,'' said Petty Officer Dan Sunday, who was aboard the rescue boat when it picked up Thomas around 7:30 p.m.

`Do not let go'

``I broke down crying,'' she said, ``I remember telling them, `I can't believe you found me, do not let go of me.''

Shivering and thirsty, Thomas collapsed in a crying heap in the lap of an officer. Even so, she still managed to walk off the boat, with some help.

She was taken to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, suffering from mild hypothermia. But she left that night and was driven home to San Jose where she recovered at home for the next two days.

Despite her harrowing ordeal, Thomas said she planned to dive into Monterey Bay again today.

``Everything you do in life has its danger,'' Thomas said. ``Diving is fun. It's something I love to do. It's not something I would ever give up. Sometimes, things happen.''

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