Lucky couple escape shark peril

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Posted by on September 20, 2005 at 19:53:15:

In Reply to: shark couple speak of their ordeal posted by on September 20, 2005 at 08:27:39:

A BRITISH couple spent six hours clinging to each other in shark-infested waters off the east coast of Australia before being rescued.

An investigation has been launched.

Louise Woodger, 29, and her fiance, Gordon Pratley, 31, of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, drifted for more than five miles over the Great Barrier Reef, near Townsville in Queensland, after becoming detached from a group they were diving with.

The couple are expected to speak to the media in Australia today about their ordeal and an inquiry is under way to discover what when wrong on the organised diving excursion.

Miss Woodger and Mr Pratley have spent the last two years travelling in New Zealand and Australia and completed their dive training a month ago.

A major air and search search was mounted after they went missing and they were eventually found by their dive boat. Neither was hurt.


Miss Woodger's mother, Jane, 61, a retired teacher from Mildenhall, Suffolk, said she had spoken to her daughter by phone over the weekend.

"An investigation is now under way in Australia and they are due to speak to the police about what happened," said Mrs Woodger. "They are also due to have a press conference in Australia."

Miss Woodger said the first she knew of the couple's ordeal was when her daughter phoned on Saturday.

"Louise said it was just a great expanse of water," said Mrs Woodger, from her home in Mildenhall, Suffolk.

"They held each other and when they got cold they swam around to try and get warm.

"I think he was supporting her quite a bit. She was being seasick because she does get a bit seasick.

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

The couple could see the rescue helicopters and boats but could not attract their attention.

Finally, the exhausted pair were found by their original dive boat and brought back to safety.

Mrs Woodger went on: "When they were pulled on to the boat they were quite calm, and I think they were quite shocked to see how euphoric everybody was on the boat because they had been found.

"I don't think they'd realised quite how emotional they would be.


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

Miss Woodger and Mr Pratley only started diving this year and got their certificates in August.

Their ordeal began on Saturday morning when they joined a tour and went diving on Wheeler Reef, about 55 miles from Townsville.

Strong currents pulled them away from the rest of the group just after 9am local time (midnight UK time).

Mrs Woodger said: "Louise said they had travelled on a boat for seven hours overnight to get out that far.

"They were in a group but had gone diving on their own. They only went down for 20 minutes. They were quite cautious.

"When they came up the boat wasn't there - it was just a speck in the distance.

"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."

Richard Boulton, from the Townsville Coastguard, said: "That was caused by the current that runs between the reef and the outgoing tide. In some areas it can run up to four or five knots."

Although the sea was initially quite rough, the winds dropped and the waves started to flatten out.


"The weather was on their side," said Mr Boulton. "As the day progressed, the winds and waves improved and it was easier to see them."

Once back in Townsville, he said: "They were very happy to be on dry land.

"They were exhausted, quite tired from their ordeal, but other than that they were in pretty good shape."

The coastguard said the pair had seen a reef shark, which is relatively harmless, but were on the look-out for the highly dangerous tiger shark.

Mr Boulton paid tribute to the captain of their boat: "The skipper of that vessel had done everything he could to find them - and he did.

"It was very good seamanship."

Miss Woodger spent four years working as a nurse at the West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds before she and Mr Pratley, who works in IT, travelled to Auckland in New Zealand in October 2002.

They got engaged while in New Zealand and are currently staying in Townsville.

Talking about her daughter's lucky escape, Mrs Woodger said: "Diving is obviously a dangerous sport and I have always been concerned about it.

"I would have thought they would have had specialist information about the currents out there.

"I would have thought that would have been all in place, but I gather there is a police inquiry under way.

"I am anxious about them diving again but I am sure they will be having more than just second thoughts about their safety next time."

Their ordeal was not the first time divers had been left behind in Australia.

American tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan 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.

Strict safety measures were imposed on Australia's diving industry following the Lonergans' disappearance.

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