shark couple speak of their ordeal

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Posted by on September 20, 2005 at 08:27:39:

A SUFFOLK couple who narrowly escaped death after drifting in shark-infested waters for nearly seven hours said their rescue was “as good as winning the Ashes”.

Gordon Pratley, 31, and Louise Woodger, 29, of Bury St Edmunds, were “freakishly lucky” to survive their terrifying ordeal that unfolded off the Australian coast of Townsville.

But the recently engaged pair, who are coming to the end of a two-year working holiday, have not been put off their hobby and plan to go out on another dive this week.

An investigation has now been launched in Australia to determine what went wrong on the organised diving excursion.

Mr Pratley and Miss Woodger, who only got their diving certificates in August this year, hugged, held hands, and sang to keep their spirits up after strong currents swept them more than five miles away from their dive boat over the Great Barrier Reef.

They were eventually pulled from the water, suffering from exhaustion and mild hypothermia, after a major air and sea rescue mission was mounted.

The couple's ordeal mirrored the 2003 movie Open Water, in which two scuba divers are left in shark-infested waters after their tour boat vanishes.

Speaking at a media press conference in Townsville yesterday, Mr Pratley, a former IT worker, said: “We just sort of looked out for each other. We were hoping somebody was going to turn up. At first you think you are going to be fine, and then, as it gets later and later, you think - well you don't really want to think what might happen, you just stay cool. No, we always thought we'd be rescued. It (being rescued) was as good as it gets, as good as winning the Ashes.”

Miss Woodger, who spent four years working as a nurse in West Suffolk Hospital in Bury before going travelling, spoke of seeing a shark circling below their feet.

“I think it was a white-tipped reef shark, but not too big,” she said.

Strict safety measures were imposed on Australia's diving industry after American tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan were believed to have drowned or been eaten by sharks when a dive boat accidentally left them on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998.

Miss Woodger's mother, Jane, 61, from Mildenhall, first heard of the couple's ordeal when her daughter phoned her on Saturday.

“They were in a group but had gone diving on their own, and when they came up the boat wasn't there - it was just a speck in the distance,” she said.

“Louise said it was just a great expanse of water. They're both good swimmers but when they tried to swim against the current to get to the boat they said it was like swimming against a sheer wall of water and they couldn't do it.

“They said they looked down at one point and saw a shark circling beneath them, and made a decision between themselves not to look down any more.

“It doesn't seem to have put them off diving. Louise said they were planning to go out on another dive to a wreck in a couple of days.”

Coastguards said the pair were “freakishly lucky” to have survived, and had been kept afloat by their dive buoyancy vests.

Richard Boulton, from the Townsville Coastguard, said: “The weather was on their side. As the day progressed, the winds and waves improved and it was easier to see them. Had the search gone longer - another couple of hours - it would have been after dark, but everything was going their way.

“The skipper of the dive boat had done everything he could to find them - and he did.

“They were exhausted, quite tired from their ordeal, but other than that they were in pretty good shape and were very happy to be back on dry land.”

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