Deserted at Sea

By Babbie Daily Joyce

My dive computer showed plenty of time left for a no decompression dive as we ascended from the depths of the Great Barrier Reef at the end of a spectacular dive. When we broke the surface and looked in all directions, we were shocked to realize we had been abandoned at a reef 35 miles from the mainland of Australia!

My husband and I are both avid scuba divers. He has been certified for several years and we have enjoyed hundreds of dives throughout the Caribbean and South Pacific. I have been diving for about 15 years and have captained live-aboard dive operations in The Bahamas and the Florida Keys. With all this experience, nothing prepared us for this event.

Having been diving in this specific area every day for about three weeks, we were very much aware of the tremendous currents and tidal changes. These currents at times make the water boil on the surface as it hits the reef and is driven upward. It was absolutely necessary to have a chase boat available for every dive. Since there are only the two of us on our sailing vessel, we had arranged to have other scuba diving friends, in their sailboats, anchored out on the reef during our dive.

We had taken the dinghy to Hook Reef, across from the commercial tourist pontoons, for a drift dive on a location called The Walls. An Australian couple was with us on this occasion and they made the first dive. While they were underwater, we followed their bubbles, picking them up when they surfaced. During the surface interval, as we were getting our gear ready, a boat from the pontoon came over to where we were anchored. In it was a young man named Gordon. He invited us to come to the pontoon that night to visit and watch a rugby game. He told us to be careful because the currents on The Walls could be very strong. A few minutes later we entered the water.

Wow! Nice dive. We went to 85 feet along the wall and the current was so strong it was like flying! What fun. We then hit a strong upward current, followed by a strong downward current. It stirred up things like a big dust storm! Next thing we knew the current shifted and carried us back to where we started the dive. Our bottom time was about 45 minutes. The coral and fish life were abundant.

We came to the surface and guess what? That's right, no boat! We looked around-there was no dinghy anywhere. We were within sight of both commercial pontoons. The closest one was up current from us and not within swimming distance. The second was down current but still about a mile away across a very deep channel that contains sharks that like to feed at dusk. It was only two hours before sunset and we noticed an approaching storm cloud. Things were not looking good.

Suddenly, the seaplane from the pontoon started its engine and began to taxi toward us. I thought maybe the other couple had made arrangements to have us picked up by the seaplane. A sense of relief came over me as the plane got nearer to us. We signaled the diver OK, then watched in disbelief as the plane turned and took off. They hadn't even seen us! We worked our way over to a part of the reef where our fins could touch a big coral head to try and look for the dinghy. As I pushed out of the water, I could barely see a tiny speck (our red dinghy). It was so far away they would never see us in the water. We started hollering, yelling and whistling, just trying to get the attention of someone, anyone, on the pontoon.

It just so happened that Gordon was pointing out Hayman Island to some guests, which caused them to look in our direction. He saw two divers in the water on the surface but he could not see our boat. Gordon to the rescue! He jumped into a boat and came out to pick us up. When we arrived at the pontoon we saw our dinghy arriving at the other pontoon. The other pontoon was contacted on the radio to tell our friends we had been recovered.

We soon learned the Australian couple had had a much more traumatic time than we had. Early into our dive they lost our bubbles and assumed we would travel the same way they had. But the current changed and we ended up where we started. They were very concerned and worried when they couldn't find us. They went a few miles farther south along the reef. When it was obvious our dive should be over they feared something had happened to us. They went to the closest pontoon to get help searching for us. Upon arrival at the other pontoon they heard we were waiting for them. Everyone was safe and all is well that ends well.

A very good lesson was learned on this occasion. No matter how much hassle it seems to carry a float and line attached to the divers, it is worth the trouble so the surface chase boat can easily follow them. The joys of diving are numerous, yet safe diving is a concern for everyone-our lives depend upon it!

I learned:

Lesson: "No matter how much of a hassle it seems to carry a float and line attached to the divers [during a drift dive], it is worth the trouble so the surface chase boat can easily follow them."