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Divers saved after night in sea of sharks


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Posted by on May 24, 2008 at 18:17:16:

In Reply to: Clear thinking kept stranded divers alive posted by on May 24, 2008 at 18:11:06:

A BRITISH scuba diver and his American girlfriend were rescued yesterday after surviving 19 hours in choppy, shark-infested seas off the Australian Great Barrier Reef when the crew of their dive boat lost sight of them.

Dick Neely, 38, and his girlfriend Alison Dalton, 40, were said by rescuers to have had a miraculous escape. They were plucked to safety by a helicopter, having drifted nine miles out to sea.

“We’re exhausted,” said the couple, both diving instructors who now live in California. “We’re fine but tired, and we’re really thankful to our rescuers.”

Their diving experience almost certainly saved their lives during a day and night in open water. The perils they faced included poisonous jellyfish, sea snakes, dehydration, a tropical storm and the constant, nerve-jangling threat of a shark attack.

A decision to link their dive belts in a “survival embrace”, to ensure they were not parted as they floated through the night, probably saved them, rescuers said.

Their ordeal began on Friday when they joined four other divers on a charter boat, the Pacific Star, to explore the beautiful Gary’s Lagoon near Bait Reef, off the coast of northern Queensland. The couple spent £290 each on a twin cabin.

Their dive started at lunch-time. Dalton and Neely began to drift away from their friends, but they were not too concerned because they were so experienced. They surfaced 50 minutes later about 200 yards from their agreed meeting point and frantically waved to the boat’s crew. Although two professional dive instructors were onboard the vessel, nobody noticed their increasingly desperate waves and cries. A strong current carried them away from the shallow reef and into the open ocean.

The incident revived memories of 1998, when an American couple, Thomas and Eileen Lonergan, were left on the Great Barrier Reef by a dive operator who failed to count his divers back on to the boat and did not notice they were missing until two days later. The ordeal of the couple, who were never seen again, inspired the film Open Water.

In scenes reminiscent of the film, Neely and Dalton realised they were lost and alone. The Pacific Star searched for three hours, and only at 5.30pm did the crew decide to radio for help.

Rescue services immediately launched a wide search with three aircraft, two fitted with infrared night-search capabilities, and a small flotilla of police and volunteer rescue craft. By the early hours yesterday, the planes had to refuel. Police decided to resume the search at dawn, but hopes were fading.

As they floated in the darkness, the couple spotted a search aircraft, but they had nothing with which to attract its attention.

That long night tested the couple’s endurance to the limit. They talked to each other to stay awake and to avoid thinking about the salt water that parched their tongues.

Rescue finally came at 8.30am. Volunteer Andrew Barker was the first to spot them from a helicopter, drifting about nine miles northwest of Bait Reef. “The couple were lying on their backs, flippers in the air out of the water,” he said. “They were waving frantically . . . [then] they were blowing kisses at us.”

Rescue officer John Chate said he could not remember the couple’s first words but said they were clearly “extremely pleased” to be found. “It wasn’t the best conditions to be searching in,” he said. “The odds were stacked against them.”

Michaela Moss, president of the local marine rescue volunteers, said drifting through the night would have been “terrifying” for the pair. “It was dark, overcast, there are currents and a fairly heavy swell, which makes it hard to keep your mouth clear of water. They are extremely, extremely lucky,” she said.

The couple were admitted to hospital but released last night. Police said the Pacific Star’s three-hour delay before notifying the authorities would be part of an investigation.



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