Diving deaths raise safety questions in Australia

Six people died in Australian waters last week, including three on the Great Barrier Reef Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Six people died in Australian waters last week, including three on the Great Barrier Reef

Despite six snorkelling or scuba-diving deaths in Australia last week, tourism and certification operators are rejecting a call for a safety review, reports Ben Collins.

First came the tragic news last Wednesday that two elderly French tourists had died on a guided snorkelling trip at Michaelmas Cay, a popular tourist spot about 40km (25 miles) north-east of Cairns, in Queensland state.

They reportedly had pre-existing medical conditions, and suffered cardiac arrests.

Two days later, a 60-year-old British man died in unclear circumstances while scuba-diving at Agincourt Reef, also in Far North Queensland.

By the weekend, three more men - one of them aged 68 - were also dead after separate snorkelling and scuba-diving incidents in Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria. Their deaths are still being investigated.

'Really unusual'

The incidents have prompted Graham Henderson, president of the Australian Underwater Federation, to call for a review of safety standards for scuba-diving courses.

He said increased health screening for older divers should be considered.

"Having that number of deaths is really unusual. I've never seen it happen before," said Mr Henderson, whose organisation is the government-recognised body for amateur underwater activities in Australia.

"I think realistically, for older divers from the age of 65 onwards, I think it would be worth having a medical every two years."

Mr Henderson said the diving community was ageing as people came back to the sport later in life.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tourism operators insist Australia has world-best safety standards

"People can be certified 20 years before and in some of the [certifying] organisations there is no process for renewal," he said.

However, others such as Mike Holme, head of quality management at Padi Asia Pacific, deny there is any issue with safety standards. Padi is a global provider of scuba-diving training and certification.

"There's a self-screening medical statement that every open-water diver student needs to complete," Mr Holme said.

"Any dive operator will always ask a diver when they last dived and would generally ask for proof of currency.

"If it has been more than two years, they will ask that they do a refresher course or what we call a re-activation course.

"We are always telling our divers to refresh their skills and re-activate. We also tell them if they have any medical conditions that have changed since their last dive, to go and talk to their doctor about it."

'Safest' regulations in world

The executive director of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO), which represents the tourist industry in the Great Barrier Reef, also rejected any issue with current standards.

But Col McKenzie said older people should be aware of the risks associated with either snorkelling or scuba-diving.

"We are the most regulated diving and snorkelling industry anywhere in the world. We're also the safest," he said.

"The reality is that as customers get older we will have more deaths, not less.

"All we can do is make sure we have the correctly trained staff to deal with it as best we can.

"When you're two hours off shore and you have a heart attack the outcome is not good unless we can get a helicopter to you," Mr McKenzie said.

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