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Jo'Burg Days: The Outcrop

Barbara Durlacher tells a tale of a disasterous diving trip.

“Sea’s pretty choppy today, but the swell will ease off when the wind dies as the tide goes down. Don’t worry, it’ll be a very good day for diving by the time we get there,” he assured the group. Arriving at the barely visible coral outcrop four feet under the waves, the group marvelled at the skill of their skipper in finding this tiny spot so far out to sea.

“Yes, it was a pure fluke that we ever found this place,” the skipper remarked as they donned their wetsuits, flippers and oxygen tanks. “It takes a lot of careful navigation to arrive at the right spot amongst this waste of water. We’re thirty miles out to sea, you know,” he advised the group. Stopping to adjust the harness and buoyancy belt of one of the party, he continued, “Even though it’s quite long trip out here, it’s a very popular spot, as the underwater life on the reef is utterly fantastic, those in the know can hardly wait to arrive!”

After carefully checking the equipment of everyone in the group he assembled them in the forepeak. “Now remember, the tide changes at 3pm and you must be back on board by then. Any later, and by the time we get back to the lagoon, it will be too dangerous to get over the bar. It is absolutely essential that you all, as a group, are back on board by no later than 2.30pm. Now do you all understand?” he stated in a non-nonsense voice.

“Yes, Pat,” the chorus came back willingly and unhesitatingly and one by one, they slipped overboard, eager to sample the delights of the undersea world of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Things are going well with this new venture,” he thought to himself as he sluiced the decks and polished up the bright surfaces of the binnacle and steering gear. “Another two trips this week, and we’ll be able to notch up the vital one hundred hours. Then we can get our registration as underwater tour operators and go onto the official website. Then we’ll start to make money!”

The time slipped by. At noon he ate his sandwiches and enjoyed a cool beer. Sensing a change in wind direction, he glanced at his watch. ‘Twenty-past two, time to sound the siren. The wind’s getting up and the tide’s rising, better get them all on board as quickly as possible. Not a good place to hang around when a big sea’s running; it’s too dangerous to risk knocking the keel against the reef. The outcrop’s very close to the surface, although it’s submerged by twelve feet of water at full high tide.’

Within a few minutes heads were popping above the surface, and helping them into the boat he quickly removed their cylinders and underwater gear, stowed it away and warmed up the engines. Casting a quick look around, he hauled up the anchor. “OK, everybody all right?” he queried, and receiving their assent, put the boat into gear. Spinning the wheel in a tight turn, he opened the engines to full power and the boat surged away in a whirl of spray and foaming water.

Within minutes it was a dwindling shape in the distance. Then, waving and screaming frantically, two figures clambered onto the rapidly submerging reef. “Dan, Dan, what’s happened?” she cried, unable to believe her eyes. “They’ve gone and left us behind … It’s just not possible, they knew we were with the group, didn’t they count heads to make sure we were all there?”

“Oh God, what are we going to do?” he said in despair. “It took us hours to get out here sailing at top speed. We’ll never be able to swim back. It‘s three hours to sundown, we’ll never find our way back without a compass and our oxygen tanks are nearly empty. He said the reef was submerged by twelve feet of water at high tide. I studied the tide tables carefully before we left, and high water will be at five-thirty; we’ll never last out ‘till tomorrow.”

The opalescent sea cooled as darkness crept in, while great masses of cumulus cloud rolled across the sky. The sinking sun’s rays tipped the waves with gold and rose, while purple shadows gave an indication of the watery depths beneath.

Shivering violently, the husband and wife clung helplessly together as they gazed across the empty sea, unable to believe that fate had dealt them this appalling blow.

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