Clear thinking kept stranded divers alive

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Posted by on May 24, 2008 at 18:11:06:

TWO divers found alive after drifting for 19 hours when they vanished off the Whitsunday Islands survived by strapping themselves together and remaining calm.

The British man, 38, and the 40-year-old American woman were spotted by a plane as they floated in the water just before 9am yesterday, 7.8 nautical miles from where they were last seen.

They were winched into a helicopter and flown to Townsville General Hospital to be monitored for hypothermia.

Queensland Police said the pair found themselves 200metres from the vessel when they resurfaced at Bait Reef at the scheduled time of 2.30pm on Friday.

Superintendent Shane Chelepy credited their survival to their experience and ability to remain calm.

"They made some very good decisions throughout the evening," he said. "My information from talking to them is they strapped themselves together using their weight belts, they conserved energy, stayed as a pair and awaited rescue."

The manager of the charter boat the rescued divers had set out on described the incident as an "upsetting time for everybody".

Fraser Yule of OzSail, owners of the Pacific Star that took the group of six divers from Airlie Beach to Gary's Lagoon in Queensland's Whitsundays, described his relief that the pair, presumed dead, had been found alive.

"It is an upsetting time for everybody but, in the end, everything was handled professionally and we had a very positive outcome," he said.

Mr Yule said the charter boat's skipper was distressed by the incident.

The dive boat crew alerted police when they failed to find any trace of the missing divers. Three aircraft, including a rescue plane with infrared equipment, searched overnight for the pair, and the search was expanded at first light.

Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association spokesman Daniel "Blue" Gray said: "It is probably one of the safest places in Australia, and the world, to dive. Queensland is one of the few places in the world where diving is regulated by the government."

Tourism Whitsundays chief executive officer Peter O'Reilly said his region remained at the forefront of world diving safety.

"The Whitsunday dive industry has an excellent safety record," he said.

"The safety regulations protecting the 1.2 million scuba dives undertaken in Queensland annually are world's best practice."

The drama revived memories of American couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left stranded in the ocean off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 after the operators of their tour boat miscounted the number of divers on board and departed without them.

The crew only realised its mistake two days later when they found some of the Lonergans' property on board.

Despite a widespread search, the Lonergans were never found.

A movie, Open Water, was made about the ordeal and tougher regulations were introduced to govern the industry as a result of the incident.

"That will always be referred to, but the work put into dive safety after the Lonergan incident is what makes me confident to say we are world's best practice," Mr O'Reilly said. "Diving is a like flying an aeroplane - it requires the diver and operator to stick to the rules and in this incident I believe all involved did."

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