Suffolk couple rescued from shark waters

A SUFFOLK couple diving off the east coast of Australia got lost in shark-infested waters and spent six hours clinging to each other before being rescued, the coastguard said today.

A SUFFOLK couple diving off the east coast of Australia got lost in shark-infested waters and spent six hours clinging to each other before being rescued, the coastguard said today.

Louise Woodger, 29, and her fiance Gordon Pratley, 31, drifted for five miles over the Great Barrier Reef near Townsville in Queensland.

As they desperately tried to conserve energy before being saved, they spotted sharks swimming nearby.

Miss Woodger's mother Jane said she was extremely relieved that her adventurous daughter, who is a nurse, was safe.

Speaking from her home in Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, she said: "The first I knew was when I received a call from her, telling me she was safe.

"It hasn't really sunk in. They had finished working in Sydney and were travelling before heading back home at some point next year."

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The frightening ordeal for the couple, who are also from Bury St Edmunds but are spending two years in Australia before they return to the UK to get married, began yesterday morning.

They joined a local tour and went diving on Wheeler Reef, about 55 miles from Townsville.

Strong currents pulled them away from the rest of the group just after 9am local time (midnight UK time).

When they resurfaced, they realised they could not see anyone else from their party, said Richard Boulton from the Townsville Coastguard.

"They had been taken away from the area they had been taken into,'' he said. "That was caused by the current that runs between the reef and the outgoing tide.

"In some areas it can run up to four or five knots.''

Mr Boulton said the divers did not try to struggle against the strong current but inflated their life jackets and clung to each other.

"They reacted very intelligently and responsibly and they conserved their energy,'' he said.

Although the sea was initially quite rough, the winds dropped and the waves started to flatten out.

"The weather was on their side,'' said Mr Boulton. "As the day progressed the winds and waves improved and it was easier to see them.''

The skipper of their boat immediately noticed they were missing and alerted the police and coastguard to launch a search by sea and air.

After a frantic six hours, they were found by the dive boat which had brought them to the reef that morning.

Miss Woodger and Mr Pratley were then transferred to the Townsville Coastguard boat which took them to safety and despite being exhausted, both were unharmed.

"They were very happy to be on dry land,'' said Mr Boulton. "They were exhausted, quite tired from their ordeal but other than that they were in pretty good shape.''

The coastguard said the pair had seen a reef shark, which is relatively harmless, but were on the look out for the highly dangerous tiger shark.

Mr Boulton paid tribute to the captain of their boat: "The skipper of that vessel had done everything he could to find them - and he did.

"It was very good seamanship. It was a combination of good weather and everybody doing the right thing.''

Coastguard captain Jon Colless added: "They were freakishly lucky that the search was called early in the day, that the weather was going down and the skipper of the dive boat was right on the ball.''

Miss Woodger spent four years working as a nurse at the West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds before travelling to Auckland in New Zealand in 2002.

Writing on Friends Reunited, said she planned to return to the UK in 2006 where she and her fiancé "may eventually tie the knot and then?''

Mr Pratley, who went to King Edward VI Grammar School in Bury St Edmunds, worked in Newmarket before they decided to travel.

Their ordeal was not the first time divers had been left behind in Australia.

American tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan are believed to have drowned or been eaten by sharks after a dive boat crew accidentally left them on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998.

Strict safety measures were imposed on Australia's diving industry following the Lonergans' disappearance.

ends Mrs Woodger, of Mildenhall, Suffolk, said: "I spoke to Louise yesterday (Saturday). She called me to let me know what had happened and to tell me she was all right. But I didn't get the chance to speak to her for very long.

"I suspect they must have been terrified but on the phone she seemed fine and said she was okay. They are not in hospital.

"From what I could gather they were on a diving trip. They were both under the water and when they surfaced they found that their boat had gone. So they were swimming on their own in the water.

"They used their diving tanks to hang onto to help them float and from what she said they were like that for eight hours until they were found.

"I gather at one point a shark did swim underneath them.''

She added: "They live in Bury St Edmunds but they've been out in Australia for about 15 months travelling and working doing odd jobs.

"They started diving since they were out there. They've been on a course and have qualified and everything.

"To be honest I don't know whether this was their first diving trip or not.

"I'm hoping to speak to her again soon and find out more.

"I don't know what to think myself at the moment.''

Mrs Woodger, 61, a retired teacher, said she had spoken to her daughter on Saturday and again today to talk about the ordeal.

"They ended up six miles away from where they had started the dive,'' said Mrs Woodger.

"Louise said it was just a great expanse of water.

"They held each other and when they got cold they swam around to try and get warm.

"I think he was supporting her quite a bit. She was being seasick because she does get a bit seasick.

"They had an inflatable of some sort which they put up to attract attention but it kept going down.

"She said they could see helicopters and boats but they (the helicopters and boats) could not see them.

"Every now and then they summoned up the energy to try and wave to attract attention.

"Eventually the original dive boat found them.

"Louise said they had got to where they were diving at 8.30 in the morning and had got into the water at 9.30 am.

"They had travelled on a boat for seven hours overnight to get out that far.

"They were in a group but had gone diving on their own. They only went down for 20 minutes. They were quite cautious.

"When they came up the boat wasn't there. It was just a speck in the distance.

"They're both good swimmers but when they tried to swim against the current to get to the boat they said it was like swimming against a sheer wall of water and they couldn't do it.''

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