"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.