Cash - and questions - pile up after sea rescue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am

Richard Neely and Allyson Dalton arrived in hospital exhausted, dehydrated and in no mood to recount publicly the terror of being stranded for almost a day in shark-infested waters off the Great Barrier Reef.

Media gathered outside were told the experienced divers would consider facing the cameras the next day. For now, they just wanted to rest and recover.

By the time they were released from hospital eight hours later, Mr Neely had sold an extraordinary tale of survival to a British Sunday newspaper. The hiring of a celebrity publicist was quickly followed by another paid interview on Australian television. Then it was off to New York for lucrative appearances on America's NBC network.

Mr Neely and Ms Dalton are not the first - and won't be the last - to realise the financial windfalls available to thrill-seekers whose adventures go wrong, but live to tell the tale.

The biggest bucks are handed over when the main characters come from the US or Britain, and the transatlantic couple's story of high drama lost on the high seas fits the bill perfectly.

Mr Neely has told how he feared sharks would eat them alive, while Ms Dalton described a sea snake rearing up in her face as she was about to be winched on to the rescue helicopter. 'There was that split-second moment,' she said. 'I have survived this whole ordeal, then the snake is going to be the one that does me in.'

But as their bank balances grow, so too do questions on how such a routine diving trip could have gone so badly wrong.

What began last weekend as a heroic tale of survival against the odds has quickly deteriorated into a bitter war of words between those closest to the action.

The rescued pair's insistence that the crew is to blame for their ordeal has infuriated the tour firm that runs the trip. Other passengers have openly speculated that the couple staged their own disappearance.

Several aspects of the story have certainly puzzled many who know all the best diving spots around Australia's idyllic Whitsunday Islands.

Mr Neely, 38, is a professional diving instructor based in Thailand with more than 2,000 dives to his name. Ms Dalton, 40, who owns a popular bar in Sacramento, California, is a dive master. Between them, their underwater experience is vast.

But last weekend, on the final one-hour dive of a three-day cruise, four less experienced divers were able to make it back to their chartered boat, while Mr Neely and Ms Dalton disappeared.

In a series of paid interviews, the couple have maintained they surfaced at the agreed time 150 to 200 metres from the catamaran Pacific Star, which was moored at a popular reef known as Paradise Lagoon, 33km from Hayman Island.

Despite shouting, whistling and waving to attract attention, not one of the 18 passengers or four crew members aboard saw or heard anything, they say. There was no sign anyone was looking for them and, unable to swim back because of currents, they drifted out to open sea. After a massive air and sea search, they were finally spotted the next morning, 14km away.

In recent days a succession of tourists who were aboard the Pacific Star have challenged their version of events.

All describe frantic scenes on board after the most experienced divers failed to return. 'There were 22 people standing on the roof looking for them,' British backpacker Matt Cawkwell told an Australian newspaper. 'There were at least four pairs of binoculars. There's no way they came up near the boat.'

His version of events was supported by another Briton, Rebecca Sharkey, who was part of the same dive group as Mr Neely and Ms Dalton. When she surfaced 150 metres from the boat she simply waved, was spotted immediately, and was picked up in a dinghy.

Ms Sharkey says the couple had talked beforehand about wanting to find manta and eagle rays, which are not normally found in the lagoon. As soon as they hit the water, she said, 'they were gone'.

Mr Neely and Ms Dalton have rejected allegations that they disobeyed instructions from the boat's skipper and left the dive site.

Inevitably, every aspect of the dive is being scrutinised. The water temperature that day was a relatively warm 24 degrees Celsius, but on top of the usual 2mm-thick wetsuits, the couple pulled on far heavier hooded suits typically used in cold conditions. Mr Neely says he did so because he often gets cold diving.

The clear insinuation is that they were planning on spending more time in the water. Another passenger said they took a shark-protection device, although the couple deny speculation they also had a bottle of water.

Mr Neely has told of his frustration at not being spotted by aircraft and helicopters that flew close by during the long night in the ocean. He said they were both freezing, exhausted and hallucinating, and NBC's Today programme showed a photograph he took of himself to show how 'cold and worried' he was.

Another of the boat's passengers, American student Beverley Cadey, said she couldn't understand why he didn't use the same camera to attract attention.

'If I had a camera that would flash bright light out in the dark if I was lost in the ocean, I would have been flashing it like crazy,' she told Australian television.

It also remains unclear when Mr Neely inflated a large and brightly coloured 'sausage-shaped' marker buoy designed to attract attention. The tour's operator, OzSail, says it would have been visible from almost 2km. Police, who interviewed both divers separately in hospital, would not confirm reports Mr Neely told them he waited until after dark.

The couple have described as 'preposterous and heartbreaking' suggestions the ordeal was staged.

'We thought we were going to die,' Ms Dalton told Brisbane's Courier-Mail newspaper. 'We came that close that we really were on the verge of giving up. Why would we put ourselves in that position in any intentional way?'

While the media appearances are said to have netted the couple at least US$250,000, the cost of the rescue operation is estimated to be close to double that figure.

The couple's insurance will cover the rescue, but not the search. They have reportedly said the tour firm should pay for the rest because the crew was at fault.

OzSail, which takes about 10,000 holidaymakers on ocean adventure trips each year, maintains that correct procedures were followed and the divers were to blame.

Although police have confirmed they will lay no charges, Queensland's Office of Workplace Health and Safety is still investigating.