Saturday, June 7, 2008

Lost divers

LABUANBAJO, Indonesia (AFP) - - Five European divers battled a komodo dragon during 36 hours stranded on an Indonesian island reserve for the deadly reptiles after getting caught in strong currents.

The divers -- three Britons, a Frenchman and a Swede -- endured two nights on the deserted eastern island which is infested with the huge monitor lizards before rangers found them around midday Saturday, a French survivor said.

Laurent Pinel, 31, said the group had to fight off one dragon with rocks and scavenged for shellfish as they waited to be rescued from the tiny island in the Komodo National Park, east of Bali.

"On the beach a komodo dragon came amongst us yesterday (Friday) afternoon," the Frenchman said, describing how the group had to pelt the dangerous reptile with rocks to scare it away.

"We had nothing to eat. We ate some kind of mussels scraped from the rocks," Pinel told AFP from a medical clinic in this sleepy port on Flores island where the divers were being treated after their rescue.

The Parisian said the divers had spent about nine hours adrift at sea late Thursday after being swept away from their dive boat in one of the strong currents for which the area is notorious.

They struggled against the rip tide to reach islands they could see in the distance but after several hours they stopped swimming and tied themselves together by their diving vests to preserve energy.

Late Thursday night they saw another island and decided to make one more effort to reach land, fearing they would be carried out of the relative protection of the Nusa Tenggara island chain and into the open sea.

"If we'd continued (to drift), it would have been the ocean," he said.

"We were exhausted. Everyone had cramps."

What they did not know was that they were heading to Rinca Island, a reserve for aggressive monitor lizards known as komodo dragons that can easily kill a human.

The largest lizard in the world, komodos usually feast in packs and can easily devour prey as large as buffalos. One bite can be extremely dangerous due to the virulent bacteria in their saliva.

Most of the stranded divers stuck close to the pebbled beach until they were spotted by national park rangers some 40 hours after they disappeared.

There were emotional scenes at this Flores port as the divers returned.

"They are really in good health with no wounds whatsoever. They walked by themselves and hugged each other and cried when they reached the port," local policeman Victor Jumadu said.

A British couple who own a dive shop in Labuanbajo were leading the divers when the wife's group was caught in the current.

Dive master Ernest Lewandowski told AFP he was ecstatic that his wife, Kathleen Mitchinson, and their guests had been found safe.

"They are all alive and medical services are on standby. Thank God. I just want to hear my wife's voice," he said before rushing to the port to wait for their return.

Lewandowski, who owns the Reefseekers Diving business on Flores, said he only noticed his wife was missing when his group surfaced an hour after entering the water.

A lack of fuel for aircraft had hampered the search and police had to call on fishermen to help after only three search boats could be deployed on Friday.

Komodo National Park lies about 500 kilometres (300 miles) east of the popular tourist island of Bali. It is well known for its teeming sealife at dive sites up to 40 metres deep.

Small reef sharks are common but divers say the main threat comes from strong currents formed by the combination of relatively shallow water, large depth variations and the channels formed between islands.

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