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.

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