A British couple who went scuba diving off the coast of Mauritius spent seven hours drifting in shark-infested waters after they became separated from their dive boat and swept out to sea.
Julie Byrne and her husband, Jeff, were in a group of five divers, including a qualified dive leader, who were dragged 12 miles by a rip tide into the Indian Ocean, prompting a huge rescue operation involving 22 boats, two helicopters and an aircraft.
They were eventually spotted by a passing pleasure boat and hauled out of the water, dehydrated, sunburnt and traumatised, and taken to a nearby yacht club.
Panic immediately set in, and some of the younger members of the group freaked out
“We were constantly on the lookout for fins, but the waves were so high and the water so choppy that we couldn’t see a thing,” Mrs Byrne, 52, said.
The couple, from Carlisle, were half an hour into their second dive when their dive master signalled for them to surface due to rough seas and low visibility. Their boat was nowhere to be seen, however.
“Panic immediately set in, and some of the younger members of the group freaked out,” said Mrs Byrne. The dive master blew a whistle to attract attention, but the boat never appeared. “We thought we were done for. That this was it. We’d perish in the water and our bodies would never be found,” she added.
There hasn’t been a shark attack off Mauritius since the 1980s, but swimming and surfing have been banned off Réunion, its closest island neighbour, because there have been 18 shark attacks there since 2011. Seven people died.
“When you’re in waters where you know sharks are common, your mind plays tricks. Each time a fish or leaf of seaweed brushed my ankle my heart would stop,” said Mrs Byrne, who works for the ambulance service.
Rough seas near their dive site had capsized a different boat earlier that morning in June, killing four people including a baby and child.
“We saw helicopters flying overhead. We yelled and screamed but they couldn’t see us,” she added. The five divers linked arms to stay together and inflated their diving jackets to stay afloat.
Mrs Byrne said that a German girl in their group kept peering into the deep. “I knew what she was searching for. We all did. Nobody mentioned the s-word, but we were all thinking about it.”
An investigation by the Mauritius Scuba Diving Association found the diving company negligent and suspended its licence indefinitely. Hugues Vitry, MSDA president, said that the boat’s skipper and the dive master “put the lives of the divers at considerable risk”. Stephane de Senneville, director of DiveSail Travel, blamed the dive master. “The mistake was the decision made by the dive master who chose to swim away from the protection of the cove and into sharp currents which dragged them out to sea.”
Mrs Byrne said that she suffered post-traumatic stress but her husband, a site manager, had been back in the water. “I’m not letting one bad experience ruin my love of diving,” he said.