Divers recount 19 hours in shark-infested seas

For 19 hours Richard Neely and Allyson Dalton clung to each other and to life, alone in a vast ocean, hoping that the search crews above would find them before the sharks below.

They were on the second day of a scuba-diving trip on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef last Friday when their ordeal began, the couple told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday in New York. After an hour’s dive, they surfaced about 200 meters (220 yards) from their dive boat, which was moored in the idyllic-sounding Paradise Lagoon. They expected the boat to send a dinghy to pick them up, but although they could clearly see the boat, no one on the boat saw them.

Neely blew his dive whistle. He and Dalton yelled. He waved a 6-foot-long dive buoy in the air. Gradually, the realization sank in that no one on the boat could see them, and, with a strong current pulling them away from the boat, they couldn’t swim to it.

What were they thinking, Lauer asked.

“Bewilderment, certainly. Surprise, as well,” said Neely. “We watched the boat. We could see it very clearly. We could see the people moving on the boat. We could see the colors of the wet suits.”

“They were moored in the lagoon,” Dalton added. “They were supposed to be looking out for us because the dinghy was going to come over to get us.”

Like ‘Open Water’

But as they drifted further away from the boat, they realized they were alone in the ocean. Within minutes of realizing their predicament, Neely said his mind flashed to scenes from the movie “Open Water,” a real-life story about a couple who got lost while scuba diving in waters off Australia. That story did not have a happy ending: Neither one of the divers was ever found, and it is presumed they were eaten by sharks.

It is impossible, both Neely and Dalton said, not to think about sharks in such a situation. The Great Barrier Reef swarms with them, and every year there are stories about surfers, swimmers or divers attacked by the ocean’s alpha predators. But for 19 hours, neither Neely nor Dalton mentioned the “S” word.

“It was very much on my mind,” Dalton told Lauer. “I didn’t want to say anything about sharks, because if he wasn’t thinking about sharks, why would I mention it? Just three days before, we had been discussing various locations of shark attacks with our friends. Tiger sharks were predominantly our biggest fear.”

It was 3 p.m. when they surfaced, and when their boat didn’t find them, helicopters started searching the ocean. When the choppers went overhead, both Dalton and Neely waved their arms and Dalton fired the flash on his underwater camera, hoping to attract the searchers’ attention.

“Your hopes get built up when you see the helicopter — ‘We’re saved. They’re going to find us. They’re going to find us,’ ” Dalton said, recalling her emotions. “And then to see the lights turn away and fly off into the distance, and then not hear the choppers any more ….”

“Devastating,” said Neely.                     

Darkness falls

As night fell, the helicopters stopped coming around, and Dalton and Neely set about trying to survive a night alone in the ocean. The couple had met last year. He’s a 38-year-old British dive instructor who lives in Phuket, Thailand, where he survived the 2004 tsunami that claimed as many as 200,000 lives across the Indian Ocean. She’s a 40-year-old American who owns a British-style pub in Sacramento.

In “Open Water,” the ill-fated couple start bickering within an hour of realizing they’re lost at sea. But Dalton and Neely never argued about who was to blame for their predicament, because both said they did everything right.

Knowing they had to stay together, Neely cut about a 10-foot length from the cord on his marker buoy and used it to tie himself to Dalton. As the night went on, the water and the wind sucked the heat out of their bodies, making hypothermia as big a threat to their survival as sharks.

“To keep warm I would pay the line in, and we’d wrap our legs together, press our stomachs together, get our heads underwater together because there’s a very strong wind chill above,” Neely said.

They both hallucinated and nearly gave up hope. At one point, Neely thought about using the underwater video camera he had to film his last will and testament, but he didn’t have the strength to hold the camera out of the water.

Instead, he and Dalton told each other they had to get through this.

‘I started to panic’

“We talked about how we had to be stronger than we ever were before,” he told Lauer. “We didn’t talk about anything nice, anything fun. We just talked about how terrible it was, how frightened we were, how we had to get through this.”

“It wasn’t either of our faults,” Dalton added. “He was doing most of the talking to keep me into it, because I started to panic very early on.”

She got away from the snake and both were hoisted out of the water and flown to land, where they landed in the midst of a controversy.

Neely said that they were approached by a representative of an Australian newspaper, who offered to buy the exclusive rights to their story. They agreed to the deal for a sum that Neely said was less than $10,000 in Australian dollars.

Critics quickly accused them of profiting from their ordeal and demanded that they pay the estimated $300,000 cost of their rescue. Others accused them of disobeying the instructions of the crew on the dive boat.

“For anyone to say or imply that we did not follow the safety standards or the instructions of the crew on the boat is preposterous and obviously spoken out of ignorance,” Dalton said.

As for the cost of the rescue, Neely said, “We have insurance that covers scuba divers if there’s an accident at sea. They would not have had to implement this rescue if the dive operators had performed their job properly.”

But there’s no controversy about how the divers feel about surviving their dramatic ordeal. “Exhausted,” Dalton told NBC. "But happy to be alive.”