Divers survive six hours on shark-infested reef

Australian police are to launch an investigation after two British divers endured six hours floating in shark-infested waters off the Great Barrier Reef when they were dragged more than five nautical miles from their boat by treacherous currents.

Coastguards described how the novice divers, Louise Woodger, 29, and Gordon Pratley, 31, had been “freakishly lucky” after surviving their ordeal in an area known “for having some very large sharks”.

The couple, from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, were suffering from exhaustion, mild hypothermia and sunburn when they were eventually picked up.

They had been shocked to discover upon surfacing that their dive boat was nowhere to be seen. They inflated their buoyancy vests and clung together, battling with rough seas. As they tried to conserve their energy, the pair spotted a shark as it circled below them and “decided not to look down any more”.

They held on to two orange “safety sausages” which helped the boat skipper to spot them from a distance.

Ms Woodger and Mr Pratley – who were diving without a guide in spite of being only recently qualified – had been exploring Wheeler Cay, about 55 miles from the east-coast diving town of Townsville. Their boat captain alerted the coastguard as soon as he realised they were missing and an air and sea rescue was launched, but it was their own dive boat which eventually located the couple.

Coastguard skipper Jon Colless said: “They were freakishly lucky that the search was called early in the day, that the weather was going down and the skipper of the dive boat was right on the ball. Wheeler is known for having some very large sharks working its seaboard side and the risks increase at night because that’s when a lot of your predators are out.”

Another coastguard official, Richard Boulton, said: “They reacted very intelligently and responsibly and they conserved their energy … The weather was on their side. As the day progressed the winds and waves improved and it was easier to see them.”

Australian authorities have introduced tougher regulations since an American couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, disappeared after being left stranded by their dive boat in 1998. Their crew did not report them missing for two days. The incident sparked a crisis in the Queensland diving industry. The skipper of the Lonergans’ dive boat, Jack Nairn, was found not guilty of manslaughter. The Lonergans’ deaths were used as the basis for the film Open Water.

Tom’s mother, Betsy Lonergan, complained that companies were not careful enough. She said: “People are still being left behind by dive boats. Something must be done to clean up the industry.”

Ms Woodger’s mother, Jane, said she was surprised the pair were allowed to dive in such strong currents.

“I don’t know if the current was something the crew should have known about … There wasn’t anyone with them. They had only done around 10 to 12 dives before,” she said. “They saw a shark down below them and after that they decided not to look down any more. They learned later that there are lots of large sharks there that come and have little nips at you and then when you begin to struggle, that can be it.”

Ms Woodger, a nurse, and Mr Pratley, an information technology manager, have been working and travelling in Australia for 15 months and had planned to return to the UK in 2006 to get married.

Source: Guardian (UK)