Back in January 1998, a married couple found themselves stranded in the ocean after a dive boat they were on left them behind. Their story ended up getting adapted into a film called Open Water
Dying in open water is a very common fear, but how about getting trapped in shark-infested waters with no way to get back to shore?
Eileen and Tom Lonergan, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, went for a day of exploration around the Great Barrier Reef on 25 January when they stopped in Australia on their way home from Fiji and Tuvalu.
Experienced scuba diver Eileen, 28, had persuaded 34-year-old Tom to take up the hobby and where better to go than the infamous coral reef.
There were a total of 26 passengers on a boat called ‘Outer Edge’ and they were looked after by skipper Geoffrey ‘Jack’ Nairn. They travelled 60km off the coast where the underwater adventure began.
After conducting a headcount of those on board, the boat returned to mainland.
Two days later, a bag belonging to the married couple was discovered on the vessel. This led to the suggestion that Eileen and Tom must have resurfaced from the last of the three dives to find the boat had left without them.
In the days that followed, a wide-spread air and sea search took place but, tragically, the couple were never found.
In February, a month after their disappearance, a wetsuit in Eileen’s size washed up on the northern Queensland shore with tears to it that experts said would have been a result of contact with coral.
After that, dive jackets, tanks and one of Eileen’s fins turned up as well. According to reports, nothing suggested their lives had come to a violent end (in the film Open Water, the couple are depicted as victims of a shark attack).
Months later, a fisherman found a dive slate 160km away which read: “[Mo]nday Jan 26; 1998 08am. To anyone [who] can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 98 3pm. Please help us [come] to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”
The date on the slate shows that the couple were alive for at least a day.
The Outer Edge skipper, Geoffrey Nairn was charged with manslaughter and explained how he had ordered a crew member to carry out the count, and the numbers had become confused because two passengers had jumped into the water halfway through.
He was later found not guilty by a jury. His company pleaded guilty to negligence and went out of business.
Just five years after the tragedy, American survival thriller film Open Water was released, inspired by the Lonergans’ story. It reopened a lot of wounds for not just the families, but for the dive industry in Queensland.
The film, starring Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, was about an American couple who went scuba diving while on holiday, only to find themselves stranded at sea in shark infested waters. Daniel is eventually killed by a shark and Susan removes her scuba gear and goes underwater to drown before the sharks can attack.
It won best thriller at the Golden Trailer Awards, and Blanchard won Best Actress for her performance at the Saturn Awards.
In 2018, Eileen’s mother Kathy Hains told the Courier Mail, on the 20th anniversary year of the Lonergans’ disappearance, that she held no ill will towards Australia.
The family also feel nothing but sympathy towards Skipper Nairn, who passed away in 2015, and believe it was the right decision that he wasn’t prosecuted over the tragedy.