Wednesday 29 June 2011

Abandoned Reef tourist shunted and ignored by Passions operator

28-year-old Ian Cole of Michigan, USA is disgusted at the way that a Cains-based tourist operator treated him after abandoning him to fend for himself in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef on Saturday afternoon.

"I just wanted them to do the right thing," Ian Cole told CairnsBlog. "Their actions showed that they were more interested in protecting the company's reputation than convincing me that this incident wouldn't happen again."

On Saturday June 28th, Ian Cole, who has been visiting Australia for the last six months, paid $150 for a day trip on Passions of Paradise tour. There were 70 passengers on board, however when the vessel departed the Reef and headed back to Cairns, they only had 69 on the boat.

Ian Cole of the United States told CairnsBlog he was stricken with panic when he looked up from snorkeling around Michaelmas Cay, 3pm on Saturday, in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. He was around 50 kilometers from land and discovered his host boat was no longer there. The Passions of Paradise catamaran had left after a staff member and the boat's captain, signed off on a full passenger manifest.

"I had already been out in the water for a few hours that day," Ian Cole said. "My first thought was that I had swam the wrong direction; my second thought was sheer panic. At that point I was pretty tired, so when the horror of being left behind riddled my body. I began to struggle and started taking water in through my snorkel."

The abandoned tourist swam to Coral Sea Dreams, an overnight tour boat a 15 minute swim away from where

"I was in shock when they told me my boat had left. I thought they were kidding," Ian Cole recounts. "I nearly drowned. In my eyes, this is clearly a failure of the management to create an environment that promotes safety and competency."

Passions operations manager, Scotty Garden refused to discuss the disastrous incident yesterday.

"You'll understand that I can't talk about this at all," he told CairnsBlog, and referred my call to Col Mckenzie of the Association of Marine Park Operators for look after damage control. The response was defense and dismissive of any wrong-doing or problem with the company.

"I'm quite stunned this happened," Mckenzie said yesterday afternoon. "This is one of our flagship operators and they have a perfect record. They have recently been audited and passed with flying colours."

"It was reported to Work Place Health and Safety; to Marine Safety Queensland and a diving inspector. They did all the right things," Col Mckenzie said yesterday. "This was nothing more than a single breach by one staff member not following the rules. He was trained and passed all the tests, he just didn't do what he should have. That's all. He has paid the price and lost his job." Mckenzie was dismissive that there was any danger to the abandoned guest.

"The fact that this guy [Ian Cole] talked about this shows that he's just seeking self-exposure, and wants to be portrayed as a hero, you know, a survivor," Col Mckenzie said. "There's no lesson to be learnt from this. He is just making a mountain out of a molehill, and trying to maximize his own self-exposure. It's just bullshit. He was never in any danger. It was just like being left behind on a beach."

"I mean, his demands were unreasonable. He wanted a written apology. I think his requests were morally reprehensible," Col Mckenzie said.

Ian Cole staunchly refutes the accusation and was stunned at the defensive and complicit response from the Marine Park Operators Association spokesperson.

"His response is very upsetting. I engaged in a professional and respectful way and all I sought was for this company to do the right thing following an incident that was totally unacceptable," Ian Cole said.

The recording system that Passions of Paradise have in place to ensure all passengers are accounted for and on board, is average at best. Responsibility was vested in a single crew member to physically speak to each passenger to confirm their identity and cross them off as present on the manifest. However on Saturday's tour, this obligation was delegated to a relatively inexperienced crew member in his 20's, a backpacker from France who had only been with the company for less than six months.

Why such an integral safety check was given to inexperienced crew, who is not even native to the English language, is cause for serious concern.

Both Ocean Spirit and Sunlover reef operators confirmed with CairnsBlog that they employ dual-count system, whereby two staff members make a count that is replicated until it correlates to each other and the manifest.

Ian Cole was assigned passenger number 17. He was the only passenger named Ian and clearly the only number 17.

On the way back to shore, Passions tried to cajole Mr Cole with a free trip, and refund of his ticket and offered him "anything he'd like from the bar" including hats and t-shirts. It was a clear admission of wrong-doing.

"When I finally returned to shore and reflected on the events, I didn't hold any disdain towards Passions, but I realised that action needed to be taken," Mr Cole said. "I asked that the owners write a formal letter of apology to the events that occurred, and a detailed explanation of the new safety measures that would be implemented to prevent future tragedies like this."

"I had no interest in ruining the careers of the staff members that performed their jobs with integrity, but I needed to know that this was an isolated instance that would not happen again," Ian Cole said. "Considering the severity of this event, I think this was a simple and fair request."

Passions did not comply with Cole's request, instead they informed him that an incident report was lodged with proper authorities including their insurance company.

Company management evaded a meeting requested by Mr Cole, who waited until midnight Monday to receive a promised letter or telephone call, but nothing was forthcoming.

"I had an airline ticket booked for Brisbane on Tuesday morning that I ended up missing as I wanted to stay in Cairns until I had the letter," Cole said. "This cost me my flight. They knew this fact but I believe they deliberately delayed my request. I was told that one of the managers had an injured leg and couldn't meet."

Both directors Alan Wallish and Beau McCormack signed a letter that was left at the booking office for collection at 3pm Tuesday.
  • "Please accept this letter as an apology for your unpleasant experience on board our vessel.

    We hope that the rest of your time with us was a more positive experience and that you have been able to take away some great memories of the reef and your holiday with us."
A dinner voucher was included.

"The letter fails to deal with or acknowledge what happened," Ian Cole says. "I sought them to record the events that occurred on Saturday afternoon, and what measures they would put in place to prevent this from happening again. Frankly it is just fobbing me off."

Passions boast a Queensland Tourism Award and have won a Hall of Fame acknowledgement. Their brochure presents a line up of accolades and labels itself as "Cairns most awarded small tour operator."

The last known incidence of passengers being left behind on the Great Barrier Reef to fend for themselves was in 1998 with the infamous disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan. Since that time, Cairns and Port Douglas tourist operators have come under much scrutiny to provide stringent safety standards, especially in the area of accounting for the collection and safety of passengers. It appears apathy towards safety has taken root.

The company terminated the employment of the crew member when the boat returned to Cairns on Saturday afternoon.

Queensland Workplace Health and Safety has received a report, and acknowledged there was a "incident" on the Great Barrier Reef.

Monday 27 June 2011

Cairns tour operator leaves diver behind on Great Barrier Reef

In a story that eerily mirrors the disappearance of US tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were abandoned on the Great Barrier Reef by their tour operator in 1998, another visitor was left for dead on Saturday.

On Saturday morning the young male overseas visitor to Cairns, who asked not to be named, took a day-trip on the Great Barrier Reef. He was told before booking the trip "how good this particular Reef operator operator was."

At the end on the afternoon's snorkeling, following a head count carried out by the crew, the vessel departed. However they left behind a male passenger in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

In January 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan were left behind due to a faulty head count by the crew, and were never found despite a massive sea search, that involved 17 aircraft, helicopters and boats. It was an incident that had wide-spread ramifications for all Reef operators in the region and exposed a lazy system of accounting for passengers, that appeared widespread.
On the weekend's incident, the overseas visitor, fortunately survived.

After the boat left where he was snorkeling in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, he paddled for at least 5 minutes, where he was able to join another boat. He was then transferred by dinghy to the original operator, which took another 20 minutes.

According to the distressed guest, the crew member who did the head count was immediately sacked. The embarrassed Reef company pampered the aggrieved guest and was given a refund on trip. They even provided free drinks and merchandise in an admission of wrong-doing.

This type of incident should never have happened.

The names on Saturday's Reef trip were on a passenger list and there was one name not crossed off, however this was not the guest who was left behind in the water. According to the man, the captain personally checked that the missing member was accounted for, but since his name was crossed off, the Captain didn't know he was missing and not back on the boat.

The industry went through reform of this crucial safety measure after the Lonergans incident 13 years ago. It's totally unacceptable that a Reef operator would shortcut such a fundamental part of protecting it's passengers.

10 days after the Lonergan's disappearance, a diver's buoyancy control device was found near Indian Heads, about 105 km north of Port Douglas. There was no tank attached, and Mrs Lonergan's green and grey wetsuit that was found washed ashore. It had tears in the buttocks area, presumed to have been caused by a shark. A dive slate was also found on a beach and this was confirmed as being the Lonergans'.

It's a sensitive subject for Reef operators, and many say it's often a very stressful process as

Two well-known Reef operators were prepared to talk with CairnsBlog about how they manage he counting process to account for guests. Ocean Spirit's operations manager Roy Raniga said his company managing the counting with the use of clickers (counter).

"We have two people go around the boat, and they do a manual count," Roy Raniga said. "We ask passengers to stay in one place, while the two crew members go around. If it doesn't match up, they will do it again until it does. This can sometimes take several times."

Roy Raniga says you don't take these sort of things lightly.

"It's people's lives that are at stake. I can tell you that our people are very rigorous
about this. We've never had any incident like this."

Sunlover's operations manager Dominic Waddell says his company cross reference with the reservations manifest before they leave the harbour.

"We don't leave unless we have the correct numbers and they all tally up," Dominic Waddell said. "The same thing happens from departure on the Reef. We account for who we've gone out to sea with, and we don't leave until we have everyone accounted for. I've witnessed up to six or seven head counts, and this can take 25 minutes. However long it takes, so be it, until we get the correct numbers. "

Dominic Waddell says there's much confusion in busy periods like Chinese New Year and public holidays when there's so many people on the boats.

"They move around and some young kids might be sleeping under blankets," Dominic Waddell says. "It can be quite hard, but our policy is to not go anywhere until we have the numbers that we believe are correct, and as a result, we have a 100% safety record in 18 years."

Waddell says there's various operations on the Reef.

"Ours is one end of the spectrum, as there's dive boats that have a buddy system with a staff member. It's just too obvious, and you can't miss people. We have manifest for the staff and passengers," Dominic Waddell says. "I know for a fact that some organisations do a different style of diving where people buddy up with someone who you may or may not know, and you go off and do your own dive, and the vessel [moves] up and down. That's a different product than we offer, ours is much more supervised."

Waddell says he knows his operation well enough to understand where the faults would be.

"We have even sent crew back into the water to satisfy that no one is there. We would do a head count until we find everyone. It's a worry and I'm glad that our operation is water-tight for the procedures we've got in place," Dominic Waddell says.

However Waddell is critical of some of the smaller operators that have a high turnover of staff.

"They often have quite young staff. The implication of safety and how they manage that. I'm not putting anyone down, but I think our crew, being older and experienced, and there's not a high-turnover of staff," Dominic Waddell said. "The industry can be vulnerable to quite young staff."

As someone suggested to me, surely in this day and age there could be some kind of tag or wrist band that a diver could wear that needs to be 'swiped' when they get back on the boat. We have micro chips in the dog and barcodes on everything at the shops, it wouldn't be hard.

The young male who was left on the Reef on Saturday afternoon, is still in shock and did not wish at this stage to publish the details of the Reef operator.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Don't miss Leung's 'Unbelievable' on ABC tonight

Séances, Scottish ghosts and Patrick Swayze are all in tonight's next installment of Lawrence Leung's ABC Unbelievable at 9.30pm.

Skeptics, charlatans and atheistics will love this show. It's also uploaded on iView.

''Get rid of the grubs, the bogans and the layabouts,'' - Kevin Byrne

A biting comment from former and wannabe return mayor, Kevin Byrne, on a Post article this morning...
  • ''Lets have a reality check here and look at some history.

    Cairns Central sucked the retail life out of the CBD and it is still recovering and now you have a CRC that wants to suck further life from it with a cultural precinct.

    Unless you have good shops, hotels and people living in the CBD and visitors to support the retailers this will be another white elephant project.

    It is not the trees and green spaces that will make the CBD thrive but PEOPLE. Be prepared to get rid of the grubs, the bogans and the layabouts and you might have a chance of reigniting the CBD.''

    - Posted by: Kevin Byrne of PNG 11:15am today
Is this a different sort of layabout than those that hog around at Villa Romana with a gobful of pasta and a gutful of free red wine? I wonder if someone has had too much sun and kava in the islands.


The Cairns Post has now removed the comment although they haven't removed the other one from 'Kevin Byrne of PNG' on the Duyfken. Funny thing is their comments are supposed to be moderated.

Friday 10 June 2011

DNA results confirm Machans Beach teenager Declan Crouch

Cairns Police have this evening confirmed the human remains discovered at Machans Beach 10 days ago, belong to missing teenager Declan Crouch.

Police have thanked the State Emergency Service, members of the public and the media for their assistance in this difficult investigation that the Cairns community were moved by.

A report is now being prepared for the Coroner.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Council worker's death shocks staff after 23 years service

Late last evening a Cairns Regional Council employee was hit by a car at Manoora, killing the 66-year-old Mooroobool man at the scene.

Walter Robert Greenfield was part of a Council team work undertaking line marking on the roadway in Pease Street, between Anderson Road and Jensen Street just before 11pm.

Cairns Regional Council issued a statement and said it is mourning the loss of a long-time staff member, following the fatal roadwork incident last night.

"The employee was a valued member of the organisation," Council CEO Lyn Russell said. "He has been with Council for more than 23 years. This is a very sad day for many people within our organisation and community."

“I offer my personal support and that of Council to his family and workmates affected by his death."

Russell says they will fully cooperate with Police and Workplace Health and Safety investigations.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Track the race today

Wanna follow the race today? Live tracking here.

Friday 3 June 2011

Free swim coaching Saturday morning

With around 1500 athletes in Cairns this weekend for Challenge Cairns, there's loads to see as this mammoth sporting event engulfs our region.

Five-time ironman and founder of Bare Fish Swim coaching, Dunstan Bertschinger, who is racing in this weekend's triathlon, is offering Cairns locals a free swim session for anyone who would like to be more relaxed and at ease in the water.

You don't have to be a top swimmer, non-swimmers and beginners are especially welcome.

Meet at the small beach, to the right of Yorkeys Knob Boating Club, boat ramp. Saturday 11am to 12 midday.

"This is my way of connecting with the local community, and share some of my experience as an athlete and a coach," Dunstan says. "I will give a brief presentation, show folk some simple exercises to use in the water. There will be a chance to ask any questions about swimming or the race in general."

This invitation goes out to local residents and competitors.

Dunstan founded Human Growth Coaching Services in 2006, and has helped over a thousand people to swim with less effort and more enjoyment. Dunstan is also a facilitator for The Work of Byron Katie and is influenced by a wide range of teachings including Eckhart Tolle, Rudolf Steiner, and the Dalai Lama. He works to incorporate key elements into his swim coaching in a way that is accessible and relevant.

Cairns cycling spokesperson, Richie Bates, says this weekend's event is great for our region.

"They don't get much better and bigger than this. An elite-level triathlon for the far north that anyone can compete in," Bates says. "This signature event in Cairns will be recognized all over the world."
  • 11am to 12 midday. Saturday.
    Meet at the small beach,
    Yorkeys Knob Boating Club.
    (This is just to the right of where
    at the Swim start, boat ramp.)

  • Facebook event link
  • Sign-up to Bare Fish for free online swim coaching.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Human remains discovered at Machans Beach

Late this afternoon Police located remains, believed to be human, in a swamp area during searches near Machans Beach.

The area around the discovery is currently a crime scene and a further search is underway for evidence which may assist with the identification of the remains.

At this time investigations are continuing, and Police have be unable to confirm if there is a connection between the disappearance of 13-year-old Declan Crouch, who went missing on Wednesday 9th March, after returning home from school at Machans Beach. Declan turned 14 on April 5th.

There have been no leads in his sudden disappearance after numerous searches of surrounding properties and around local creeks and rivers around Machans, including the Barron River. both areas are known to have a crocodile population on the fringes of the Cairns Airport.

Family of Declan Couch believed had run away.