In mid to late December 2006, a group of divers from Sydney was on a diving holiday at Wooli on the Far North Coast of New South Wales. They were using their non-commercial dive boat. This boat was purpose built for diving and was built to suvery, even though it was not in survey (that is, for commercial use). Over the couple of weeks that they were at Wooli, they dived the North Solitary Islands and Pimpernel Rock.
On Saturday 23 December 2006 the boat headed out to Pimpernel Rock with five divers on board. One diver who was driving was a very experienced diver and used to be (apparently) a Master Class Five (a very high commercial level of boat driver). Another diver was also very experienced and he was accompanied by his as experienced wife. The fourth diver was a newer diver but he still had over 500 dives to his credit, including a number of locations overseas and all over Australia. He also had a fair bit of experience in deep diving. I will call this diver BP. The final diver was a relatively inexperienced diver. I will call him ID.
Pimpernel Rock is a U-shaped pinnacle what comes up to about nine metres on the southern-most of its three peaks. The bottom is over 40 metres and there is a tunnel right through the mountain. It is located 23.4 kilometres north east of the Wooli Creek bar and 6.3 kilometres off the small village of Sandon River.
The boat had previously put a "mooring" on the reef, really an anchor which they had left there for later use.The anchor was quite some way down, perhaps about 40 metres. There was a current from the north or north-east. This appeared to be only on the surface. The first three divers entered the water (these being the first three I have mentioned) and completed their dive. The second two entered the water either after the first three exited the water back onto the boat or while the first three were under the boat doing their safety stop.
BP and ID did their dive, going to over 40 metres and circling back around the pinnacle as they ascended back to the top of the reef.
While BP and ID were underwater, the anchor rope broke and the boat drifted away. The three divers on board did not notice this. BP and ID came up and noticed that the anchor rope had broken at about the 20 metre level. BP looked at his gauges and saw that he had about 100 bar left. He briefly thought about descending to where the anchor was and dragging it up to the top of the reef and using the rope to ascend. However, he decided against this as he was already in decompression and thought (quite rightly) that the boat would be waiting for them when they surfaced. BP and ID completed their ascent and then their decompression before surfacing. Once on the surface, the boat was nowhere to be seen.
It seems that the anchor rope broke about 20 minutes before BP and ID hit the surface. Unfortunately, it was another 40 minutes before the three people on the boat noticed that the two submerged divers had not returned. They checked the anchor rope and thought that they were still anchored as the rope extended into the water. A little while later they realised that the boat was adrift.
By this time, BP and ID had been on the surface for 40 minutes. The current had taken hold of them and they were now about two kilometres south-west of Pimpernel Rock.
Three times they saw the boat apparently looking for them, but they were not seen. Later, after a search, the dive boat called for help and soon there were other boats looking, including water police, marine rescue and other boats and ships. There was even a helicopter.
A coal carrier heading north apparently joined in the search, although it just slowed down. The skipper apparently did his own calculations based on what he had been told had happened, and then decided to search a spot well to the south of where the official boats were searching. Lookouts on this ship spotted the two divers in the water.
The helicopter came over and stayed with the divers till the police boat arrived. A photo of the helicopter was taken by BP using his camera which he still had with him. When the police boat arrived, they were taken aboard. Soon after the dive boat arrived and the divers transferred to it in preference to staying on the police boat and going back to Coffs Harbour (over an hour's drive each way).
By now it was later afternoon and the sun was low in the sky. The dive boat headed back to Wooli. The bar at Wooli is considered one of the most dangerous in NSW. The seas were not all that big, but considering that the dive boat skipper was probably very tired after all the events of the day and the searching, it can be assumed that he was possibly not as alert as he should have been,
As they crossed the bar, the boat broached and overturned. This was caught on video by the local TV station cameraman. The divers all safely made it to shore but the boat disappeared, as did the majority of their dive gear.
The dive boat was spotted by an aircraft from Border Force many months later way out in the Coral Sea. Many more months later, the boat ended up on a North Queensland beach after rolling over the Great Barrier Reef. It was still floating.
About a year after the accident, a person found BP's camera on a beach to the south of Wooli. He accessed the memory card and after seeing the photos of divers in the water and a helicopter, he ascertained that it was from the well-known accident. BP ended up getting his camera back.
Morale of the story is certainly people left on board need to keep track of what is going on. It should have been noticed straight away when the anchor line broke as the boat would behave differently.