Dive couple rescued after six hours in shark-infested waters

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Posted by on September 18, 2005 at 15:29:50:

A BRITISH couple who survived nearly six hours in shark infested waters off the east coast of Australia have told of their “freakish good luck” after being rescued.

Louise Woodger and Gordon Pratley were on holiday scuba diving over the Great Barrier Reef when they were swept six miles away from their tour boat.

The pair had to tread water as they watched large sharks circling beneath them. Despite Miss Woodger suffering sea sickness in the rough waters, they were eventually picked up by and treated for hypothermia and exhaustion.

Miss Woodger, 29, and her fiancé Gordon Pratley, 31, had been on a group diving expedition on Wheeler Reef, 55 miles from Townsville, Queensland, on Saturday. After sailing for seven hours they began their first dive without an instructor. Strong currents swept them six miles from the group.

When Mr Pratley, an information technology manager, and Miss Woodger, a nurse, resurfaced they inflated their wet suits using the dwindling reserves of air in their tanks and clung to each other to try to keep warm.

Miss Woodger’s mother, Jane, 61, said she had received an emotional telephone call from her daughter soon after she was rescued. “It is a great relief that they are okay. They are both excellent swimmers and that must have helped them,” the retired teacher from Mildenhall, Suffolk, said.

“They had recently qualified as divers and this dive was the first they had done by themselves. They went off while the others were having a lesson with an instructor. They were happy to swim around below the boat but expected to come up next to it. But as they came up they were hit by a strong current. It was like a wall of water which was impossible to swim against and they were swept away.

“They lost orientation and when they realised where they were the boat was like a dot on the horizon. They just had to tread water and hope they would be rescued. Louise said at one point there was a shark circling beneath them. It was probably only a reef shark but it must have been terrifying.”

The skipper of their boat realised the couple were missing when he did a head count. He alerted the coastguard and an air and sea search was launched. The skipper later spotted them huddled together six miles away.

Jon Colless, the Townsville Coastguard captain, praised the English pair for staying calm despite “very large sharks” being in the area. “They were freakishly lucky that the search was called early in the day, that the weather was getting better and the skipper of the dive boat was right on the ball.”

After landing at Townsville, Mr Pratley would only say: “It’s good to be back.”

Their ordeal was not the first time divers have been left behind in Australia. Two American tourists are believed to have drowned or been eaten by sharks after a dive boat crew accidentally left them on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998.

Miss Woodger and Mr Pratley are due to return to their home town of Bury St Edmunds to marry next year.

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