Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa McKenzie
Locating a person adrift at sea is no easy task. With only a head visible, it can be difficult to spot someone bobbing on the water’s surface in the vast Pacific Ocean. Even magnified by binoculars, a shadow the size of a pencil eraser is nearly impossible to find amidst the waves and solar glare.
In the case of three divers who went missing off Molokai, Jan. 18, 2016, their sighting by a boat crew could be credited to a sharp lookout and a little luck. Well, a combination of a sharp lookout, luck and a whale.
This isn’t the typical Coast Guard rescue story: this is the story of three divers and the whale that saved them.
Our tale begins with four friends diving near Penguin Bank, Molokai, early on a typical Monday morning. They dressed in camouflage wet suits, gathered their fishing gear and drove their 20-foot boat offshore to spear fish. They found what they determined to be a good spot, stopped their boat and eagerly dove off the side.
Forty-five minutes later they surfaced and discovered they had drifted some distance from the vessel. One of the divers swam back to the boat, with the intention of returning for his friends. Of course, that didn’t happen. When he returned with the boat, there was no sign of them. The remaining three divers were caught in a strong current, drifting south.
“Finding someone lost or missing at sea is always a challenge and that’s the primary reason why the Coast Guard and other first responders encourage the public to use equipment such as emergency position-indicating radio beacons, dive floats and signaling devices when they go out on the water,” said Lt. Kevin Edes, command center chief at Sector Honolulu Command Center. “This equipment is much easier to identify from a boat, ship or aircraft than a person floating by themselves with no eye-catching characteristics.”
The friend searched for 90 minutes then realized the situation had escalated beyond his control and he needed help. Watchstanders at the Sector Honolulu Command Center were notified and launched a 45-foot Response Boat-Medium crew from Station Honolulu, an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew and an HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station Barbers Point and diverted Coast Guard Cutter Ahi to search.
The small boat crew followed their search pattern using binoculars to spot any visual signs of the lost divers. On the last leg of their search, a whale breached close to the boat’s bow. As a precaution, the crew slowed in speed and began monitoring the whale’s movement to ensure they didn’t collide with it. Upon closer inspection, the crew noticed something unusual beyond where they sighted the whale’s fluke and decided to investigate.
“Initially, we thought they were fish buoy antennas,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jon Quichocho, the boat’s coxswain. “When we got closer we noticed that it was the divers waving their spear guns.”
The divers were rescued nearly 18 miles away from land being swept farther out to sea.
“Emergencies at sea often happen when you least expect them to,” said Edes. “The ocean can turn deadly with little to no notice despite the experience level of the people involved.”
The small boat crew brought the divers aboard, confirmed they had no injuries and delivered them to their original vessel.
“These divers were extremely fortunate,” said Edes. “They had no signaling devices and were diving in the middle of the ocean in camouflaged wetsuits while their boat drifted with no one aboard. Thankfully, a whale breached during the last leg of the Station Honolulu search pattern, focusing the boat crew’s attention to the area where the three divers were noticed and ultimately rescued shortly before sunset.”
The divers spent approximately six hours in the water and were strong swimmers. However, had they not been seen by the RBM crew they might not have ever been seen again. The Coast Guard recommends always being prepared when you are at sea. Personal Locator Beacons are quite small and waterproof. For divers, they can easily slip into a pocket and won’t hinder your dive. If you’re in distress they send an immediate signal and we can vector in on your location alleviating the need for much of a search.
There are stories of sailors in distress being aided by whales, dolphins and even turtles. Perhaps this is another of those stories, a good tale to tell, but we’d ask you don’t depend on luck or whales.