Terrified couple survive shark ordeal

A TERRIFIED Suffolk couple spent seven hours clinging desperately to each other in shark-infested waters after drifting miles off course during a dream diving trip at Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

A TERRIFIED Suffolk couple spent seven hours clinging desperately to each other in shark-infested waters after drifting miles off course during a dream diving trip at Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Louise Woodger and her fiancé Gordon Pratley, of Bury St Edmunds, were left stranded after strong currents in the east coast waters near Townsville, Queensland, separated them from their dive group during Saturday morning's expedition.

A massive air and sea hunt was launched as the horrified duo, who struggled to conserve their energy while waiting for help, spotted sharks circling nearby.

Local coastguards last night said the pair were "freakishly lucky" to have escaped their ordeal relatively unscathed, while Miss Woodger's mother Jane, who lives in Mildenhall, also spoke of her relief.

"I suspect they must have been terrified. There are some rather large sharks in that area, so it was quite lethal to be in that position," she said. "I am just relieved they are both ok.

"They must have had a terrible worry going through their minds but I don't think they let on to each other. They managed to keep each other going.

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"They would try and swim around to get warm again when they got chilly, and were trying to wave at aircraft and the diving boat, which was miles away on the horizon, but it was fruitless as they were only tiny specks in the ocean."

Miss Woodger, 29, and Mr Pratley, 31, who have been together for 12 years, joined a local tour on Saturday morning, but realised they were in difficulties when they could not see any other members of the diving group upon resurfacing.

The pair, who plan to marry after returning to the UK in 2006, drifted for five miles over the Wheeler Reef, around 55 miles from Townsville - which coastguards have said is home to some "very large sharks".

Mrs Woodger added: "Diving is quite a dangerous sport, but I think the marvellous world you see when you get under there makes it too much of a temptation.

"You are always anxious for your children and I have my reservations about it, but I don't think this will stop her.

"They did not realise they had been in the water for seven hours, so it was a shock when they were rescued to know there were only a couple of hours of daylight left before night."

Miss Woodger, a nurse who spent four years working at the West Suffolk Hospital in Bury before leaving to spend two years in New Zealand in 2002, suffers from sea sickness and was ill while waiting to be rescued.

Her mother said she was extremely tired after the pair were pulled from the water, but has now made a full recovery.

Richard Boulton, from the Townsville Coastguard, praised the couple for conserving their energy by not struggling against the strong currents which run between the reef and outgoing tide.

He said the weather conditions had helped the rescue effort, as initially rough seas flattened out once the winds had dropped, making it easier for rescuers to spot the pair and bring them to safety.

"They were very happy to be on dry land," said Mr Boulton, who also paid tribute to the captain of the couple's dive boat, who alerted emergency services quickly and eventually located the duo himself.

"They were exhausted, quite tired from their ordeal but other than that they were in pretty good shape.

"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 said the couple had been a risk from "very large sharks" which frequent the waters around Australia.

"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," he added.

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