19 September 2005

Australia: Tourists survive shark-infested waters

New dive safety procedures introduced after the disappearance of American couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan have been credited with helping to save the lives of two British tourists lost at sea.

Louise Woodger, 29, and Gordon Pratley, 31, survived nearly six hours in shark infested waters on the Great Barrier Reef after becoming separated from their dive boat Sea-Esta about 10am (AEST) on Saturday.

The couple, suffering exhaustion and mild hypothermia, were found clinging to emergency flotation devices about 3.50pm - nearly 10km from where they first entered the water at Wheeler Reef north-east of Townsville.

The ordeal revived memories of the disappearance of the Lonergans, who vanished without a trace after being left behind on a dive trip in Cairns on January 25, 1998.

Their disappearance was not reported to police until two days after the trip and they were never found.

The incident sparked a crisis of confidence in north Queensland's dive industry and the tightening of safety regulations for dive boats.

Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief Daniel Gschwind said those improved safety procedures would have helped save the Britons' lives.

"The fact that these people recovered safe and sound demonstrates that procedures work, a result of having implemented much more effective codes of practice amongst dive operators since that tragic incident some years ago," he said.

"I think the result is the one we want to see."

Mr Gschwind said the incident would not hurt the state's lucrative dive industry because tourists understood "things do go wrong".

The skipper of the dive boat immediately raised the alarm after a routine head count, sparking a widespread air and sea hunt.

Police said there was no suggestion of any negligence by the crew.

Dive Queensland spokesman Col McKenzie said that at the time of the Lonergans' disappearance, only one person was required to carry out a head count on a tour boat.

"Now the head count is actually done by two people, so two staff members have to count everybody on board," he said.

Coast Guard skipper Jon Colless, who ferried the exhausted pair to safety, said they were at risk of "very large" sharks and in greater danger if they weren't found before sunset.

"They were freakishly lucky that search was called early in the day, that the weather was going down, it had been a bit lumpy ... and the skipper of the dive boat was right on the ball, did everything right," he said.

Mr Colless said the area the pair went missing was between two reefs and a high tide "caused a much stronger current between the reefs than I think anybody realised".

Source: seven.com.au


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