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Thanks to an extensive air, sea and shoreline search on 24 March, four divers’ lives were saved after they went missing in marine protected area Protea Banks.

Protea Banks, a 1200km2 marine protected area also known as the ‘shark sanctuary’, is home to seven shark species, including huge schools of hammerhead and ragged tooth sharks. This, along with spectacular reefs and biodiversity, makes it an attractive destination for divers from across the globe.

Dives in the area are usually ‘drift dives’, allowing the current of the water to carry divers over a particular area – which means it is of critical importance that whoever is manning the boat keeps vigilant tabs on their location.

Unfortunately, on 24 March, huge swells caused four divers – two men, plus a father and his daughter – to drift out of range of their charter boat. They were to drift an incredible 33 kilometres (about 17,5 nautical miles) before being rescued.

“The sea current was pushing about 3.5 knots that day, and the surf was huge,” says Station 20 (Shelley Beach) commander Gary Wolmerans, whose crew formed part of the rescue effort.

The divers’ charter boat raised the alarm while initiating a search, and at 10.38am, Station 20 duty crew were activated and launched rescue crafts “Spirit of Dawn” and “Freemasons Way”. Meanwhile, Station 32 (Port Edward) rescue craft “Spirit of Steve” also launched.

The divers had entered the water at around 8am, and had already been in the water for almost three hours once the searched commenced; it would be another two hours before they were found at 1.07pm.

In those hours, an extensive air, sea and shoreline search was conducted along a plotted search grid, involving multiple SAR and communication organisations, including a private fixed wing aircraft which diverted its flight to contribute to the search before continuing on its way.

The divers were eventually found an extraordinary 33 kilometres from where they had originally surfaced: a bit sunburnt, dehydrated, hungry and tired, but in good spirits.

The fact that they managed to stay together by tethering themselves with a buoy line undoubtedly saved their lives.

“This was a really clever move, as one big target in a search is far better than individuals scattered about,” says Graeme, “so the dive master keeping a calm head and keeping them together is a major factor in this rescue. Even so, if they hadn’t been found, their only option would have been to attempt to swim to shore. Bearing in mind they’d already been in the water for hours, fighting the current, they may not have made it to shore before succumbing to exhaustion or nightfall.”

Indeed, Gary also commends his crew for risking their lives in the choppy waters to rescue the divers: “One knows the surf conditions are bad when you put the JetRIB on standby just in case the other boats don’t make it out safely!”

Graeme concurs: “The station used all their available knowledge to save these lives and knocked the ball out of the park. Well done to Gary and his team, and all the stations and external people that pulled together to make this happen. As a diver, there are two things one dreads: losing consciousness while under water, and being lost by your boat. Happily for this bunch, the rescue was successful.”

While apps such as SafeTRX (which can monitor a boat or diver’s position and alert contacts in the event of an emergency) can prove lifesaving, it all depends on the cell phone being within range of reception. In this particular instance, it may not have helped as reception is patchy. However, “there are devices one can buy that can be put into waterproof cases specifically made for diving, which could then be activated once on the surface,” says Graeme, “such as Spot Trace or AIS MOB.”

For divers wanting to avoid a similar emergency situation, consider the following precautions:

• Dive planning is a must. This includes a briefing of actions to be taken if there is an emergency situation, instead of reacting after one has occurred,

• Ensure the boat operator is licensed to take divers and is fully competent in/familiar with challenging locations.

• Divers must have the correct qualifications.

• It’s always a good idea to incorporate a tracking device.

The NSRI would like to thank and commend the following organisations and people for their participation in the rescue effort: SAPS Search and Rescue, charter boats Aqua Planet and African Dive Adventures, Transnet National Ports Authority Port Net helicopter, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, (TNPA) Transnet National Ports Authority Durban Port Control, Medi-Vac ambulance services and MI7 ambulance services, Telkom Maritime Radio Services, and SA Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Pine Pienaar.

Additional sources:

Marine Protected Areas SA

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