Thursday, December 18, 2008

Report: 'Operator Error' to Blame for Stranded Great Barrier Reef Divers

Investigators are recommending charges be filed against the boat firm and scuba instructor who left two divers in shark-infested waters off the Great Barrier Reef.

Miracle dive couple Richard Neely and Allyson Dalton survived a 19-hour ordeal after being lost at sea during a Whitsundays dive expedition.

Now a Queensland Workplace Health and Safety report, after a six-month investigation, has found their failure to be picked up was due to "operator error".

The report has recommended Airlie Beach-based dive company OzSail and its former dive trip director Kylie Irwin face charges.


Rescuers found Mr Neely and Ms Dalton - experienced divers with more than 2000 dives - clinging together for warmth after they were swept 15km out to sea on May 26.

The couple told how crew and passengers failed to spot them waving a red safety inflatable as a strong current dragged them away from their dive boat, the Pacific Star.

"We were shouting and whistling but nobody saw us," Mr Neely said.

"The boat stayed where it was, on a mooring, but we just kept drifting further away."

Their disappearance on Bait Reef, northeast of Hayman Island, sparked a huge search, involving seven helicopters, three planes and a flotilla of boats, estimated to have cost $170,000.

Their harrowing ordeal was compared to that of the American couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who disappeared off Port Douglas in far north Queensland in 1998 and were never found. That tragedy was the inspiration for a movie, Open Water.

Mr Neely and Ms Dalton, a dive master, tied themselves together with rope from a marker buoy and desperately waved to helicopters that flew overhead every 45 minutes.

Mr Neely said he clung to Ms Dalton every half an hour, wrapping his legs around her and pressing their stomachs together for warmth.

The couple also jettisoned oxygen tanks and water belts to make themselves lighter.

Mr Neely said: "If I could see Ally getting weak, or Ally could see me getting weak, one of us would shout, 'I love you'."

The QWHS findings offer a ringing endorsement for the couple after they were accused by some in the dive industry of a "stunt".

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