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Durban - A Durban watersports star is counting her blessings after surviving a near-tragic dive - on her 27th birthday - on the wreck of the Protea Banks, at Aliwal Shoal near Umkomaas.
Lauren Dwyer and her instructor, Chad Crowhurst, lost contact with their charter boat at about 2pm on Sunday.
Rescuers scrambled for three hours to find them as shifting currents swept the pair away in shark-filled waters as evening drew near. The alarm was raised when Lauren’s boyfriend, Daniel Smuts, 25, who was skippering the boat, grew increasingly concerned at their failure to surface as expected at about 2pm.
He phoned the owner of the boat, Walter Bernardis, of African Watersports in Widenham near Umkomaas, who rushed out in his son’s boat and managed to locate the divers. Bernardis alerted the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) who brought Dwyer and Crowhurst to safety.
Fortunately Dwyer, who represented the national women’s underwater hockey team against Hungary last year, was a strong swimmer.
The Morningside resident, who was working to complete her advanced diver course, was diving on the wreck of the Protea Banks, about 3.7km offshore with Crowhurst.
She said the dive between the wreck and the reef went ahead with no problem.
“Initially, we descended well into the water. But the problem started when currents swept us under the sea. When we reached to the surface we could not see the boat,” Dwyer said.
The pair surfaced to an empty sea after spending half an hour underwater.
“The boat had just disappeared,” said Dwyer. “The fear struck me when I saw remora fish; I thought of shark attacks.
“We then started to swim fast while trying to locate the boat. We were a bit worried.”
Smuts, also of Morningside, said emotions raced through his mind when the divers failed to surface. He phoned Bernardis to help him find the pair.
Bernardis told the Daily News he wasted no time rounding up his crew and launching his son’s boat, The Shoal. He also contacted the NSRI which arrived in less than an hour from Durban.
In all, six boats helped in the search and an SAAF Oryx helicopter was put on standby.
“The current was travelling at about 1 knot. It had changed from its earlier (morning) direction, which had been from north out to sea. It was difficult to determine the wind, current or the divers swimming and drifting direction,” said Bernardis.
“It took us hours. We realised the current was going inshore so we extended our search pattern with the arrival of the NSRI...”
Said Bernardis: “We spotted them less than 2km offshore. They were floating calmly and the water was warm. We were all very happy to have found one another.
“They were able to get on to the boat without any difficulties and we headed home.”
Dwyer, who works as a chiropractor, said she was not discouraged by the incident. “Having been born a water baby I will always love to swim in the ocean.”
She said the incident had left her exhausted, but she was grateful to the rescue teams.
“I thought I had lost her,” said an emotional Smuts.
“The feeling of happiness returned when I was told she had been located. We hugged each other non stop.”
NSRI spokesman, Craig Lambinon, said a private boat, Alice, from Durban that was used by NSRI volunteers responded to the distress call. Crew at Shelly Beach and Port Edward also launched dive charter boats to help.
“But a boat, skippered by Walter (Bernardis) found the missing divers off Rocky Bay,” said Lambinon.