License to Kill
Lost divers in Malpelo.
You have the right to kill… as long as you are in the arms of the Colombian authorities.
We arrived as usual after a very windy and bumpy sea crossing from Puerto Mutis, Panama to Malpelo, Colombia.
As usual, we tied up on the mooring at Altar de Virginia, a dive site on the northeast side of Malpelo that provides shelter from the wind (when it blows in the right direction). Weather had calmed down and conditions looked good, just a bit murky in the water.
As it was bumpy on the way in, we had decided to postpone setting up the dive gear and I had yet to give a briefing on how to dive Malpelo. (For those of you who don’t know Malpelo, it is a serious dive destination—the briefing needs to be clear and the divers, attentive.) Just when I was on my way to gather our guests for the briefing, a guest asked me, “Who is that in the water?” Our skiff was also out there, so at first I thought it was Juan, my colleague, checking the dive site and the visibility. It was not Juan. It was Peter Morse, a lost diver from the Colombian dive boat Maria Patricia. Lost since around 4:30 pm the day before, and it was about 7:30 am when we spotted him…
As soon as we got him onboard, we alerted the navy and the person in charge of the marine park of Malpelo. (Update: 24 September 2016 – Recorded testimony of Peter Morse provided below.)
The interesting part is that when our captain, as per procedure, reported in to the park ranger and the navy guys stationed on the island, they said they were busy. There were about 6 of them on the island at the time the captain called, and they didn’t mention anything about lost divers. However, when we informed them about the diver that we found in the water, we suddenly got the news that 5 divers were missing.
They knew we were coming because they had a copy of the schedule of the boats’ rotation in the park. Using my common sense as a seaman and diver, if they knew that we would turn up at dawn, why did they not call us at least 5-7 hours earlier as soon as they could establish radio contact? Or even before that, through our satellite phone, to tell us to keep our eyes open in case the divers had a flashlight? In my world it is common sense. I think they never raised the alarm because they were hoping to find them before they needed to do so. This is my personal opinion.
According to Peter, they did not have any lights or Nautilus Lifelines with them on the dive. The captain of Maria Patricia, on the other hand, said they had them onboard, but the divers never brought them on any of their dives… Why not??
They started the dive late. The captain of Maria Patricia said it was all a rush; they entered the water around 4 pm. They dove outside of the main island of Malpelo, at Three Musketeers, specifically by Cathedral, a swim-through cavern. According to the captain, the current was strong and the leading southeast wind was also strong at the time. Their skiff was a 4-meter inflatable dinghy with a 15-hp single outboard engine.
Here come the first mistakes: The dive guide was supposed to be very experienced, if we were to believe the captain. He was not. (He is dead today and I feel bad to say that.) He was known to other Colombian guides as inexperienced. He should have cancelled the dive and chosen a safer dive site, especially since it was the last dive of the trip. But the worse thing is, and I say this given my vast experience in Eastern Pacific diving, the skiff driver was waiting for the divers in an area where he would least expect to find them surfacing. On top of that Maria Patricia was just in front of Three Musketeers, to the north of Malpelo, and any responsible captain or crew member would have kept an eye out for the divers on the last dive, in hard weather conditions. Obviously, they did not.
Peter was diving with the others, including the guide, with sausages up, drift diving in the blue at a depth of about 10 meters. This is common in Malpelo when you have a good skiff driver and a good spotter.
When they surfaced they could hardly see the skiff, so they started to swim towards the island. This is where they got separated. Peter managed to get to the island after about 3 hours of swimming hard and ditching his dive tank. The rest got separated. Carlos, the guide, would have made it for sure, but sacrificed his life for the Colombian woman and stayed with her, I believe.
3-4 hours later, when Peter was just a few hundred meters away from Maria Patricia, the boat released the mooring and headed out to Three Musketeers, then turned east. They never saw him. He swam to the ramp, where there was a rope ladder to climb on to get to the navy station on the island, but it was drawn up. He tried to get on to the rocks, but got shredded by the barnacles. He swam back to the mooring place of Maria Patricia, but there was no boat; so back to the ramp. A big wave came in and washed him up on the rocks, where he managed to hold on and wait until our rescue. He commented, “It was like they did not care, like they were not looking for us!”
The Captain told me he sent out 3 skiffs to look for the divers. (Note: The “biggest” skiff was the 4-meter one with the 15-hp engine…) If that was the case, then Peter should have been found. But he never saw any skiffs looking for him. So I had the captain lying to my face… I had a lying park ranger telling me they sounded the alarm the moment they lost them. So why did they never seek our help until we rescued the first diver?Day 1: Organizing a search and rescue
We took the initiative to cancel our diving, which our guests saw as the right thing to do. Together with the captain and using my experience in searching for lost people at sea, we started a search pattern. We did it from around 8 am until dark; we stopped when darkness set in as according to Peter, no one had a light.
If I remember right, we had a plane searching overhead in the late afternoon, but far too close to Malpelo. Why were they not here first thing in the morning if the alert was done in the afternoon the day before? Where was the navy? Malpelo is almost 300 nautical miles from Colombia. If the alarm was raised, why did we not see them until more than 40 hours after the call was sounded?
That evening the captain and I went to visit the captain of Maria Patricia. We saw them coming back in the afternoon and tying up by their mooring, but they did not participate in the full-day search for their own lost divers because they didn’t have enough fuel to continue the search. It was during that particular visit when I got all the information on all the lies they were giving us.Day 2: Finding two other divers
We received the news that the navy and planes were on their way, so we started to do what we came to Malpelo for: to dive. The Colombian Air Force, US Coast Guard and private planes financed by families and divers in Colombia would be conducting the search and rescue operation, so I thought Good, now it’s in the hands of the professionals, although still wondering Where THE F@CK were you yesterday when it mattered?! Each minute, each hour, it got more difficult to find them. But I was glad that it was now in the hands of the pros.
We had a good check-out dive, with lots of animals. When we got back on the mother boat, the captain informed us that the marine park was closed and that we were forced to participate in the search and rescue.
So we did. On our boat we are real sailors and hardcore divers. Our guests had a lot of patience and everyone pitched in to help. Kudos to everyone.
Even if I felt we already did our part and our time was done, suddenly we were part of the team, together with two navy boats, the US Coast Guard, Maria Patricia—to whom we gave 1,000 GALLONS OF FUEL, OIL AND WATER BECAUSE THEY WERE OUT— and numerous planes buzzing around. We would never see this paid back, but we continued on for humane reasons. And honestly, we were on boat arrest by the Colombian Navy and had no choice. Either we cooperated or they would board our boat and take over.
Just before it got dark the US Coast Guard plane spotted two live divers in the water. They survived two nights and a day at sea. The plane dispatched an inflatable life raft; the navy and our boat reached them more or less at the same time. They were brought onboard the navy boat.Day 3: Finding the sausage of the Colombian woman… No-brainer or no brain?
We knew we should be in the area where the other two lost divers were found. Three days into the search, the Colombian woman’s sausage (as confirmed by fellow divers at the time) was found. But no diver. This should have been the time for the navy to use their brain and us experienced divers. If the sausage was found without a reel attached to it, the person who lost it would be upwind and up current, because your sausage would always travel ahead of you unless there was extreme current.
This is a fact. But the Colombian Navy kept on with the search pattern planned for the day before. They did not listen and they did not make any adjustments based on recent events and information that came in. We continued to search blindfolded.
I KNEW where to search. I wasn’t sure I would find them, but there was a much bigger chance to find them alive by listening to us old, experienced divers.
This was not the first time I had to do search and recovery in other operations. I have been guiding for 20 years now, with close to 10,000 dives. Thanks to the Creator I have not yet lost a diver.
But this is the worst example of how to run a dive operation close to 300 nautical miles away from Colombia. Sailing to a remote location with just enough fuel to reach the destination and then return to port is beyond stupid. (Aside: In exchange for 1,000 gallons of fuel, we received one bottle of wine, 3 cans of tuna, and a jar of peanuts. We heard they were running low on food; but they didn’t seem to be too worried, because they fished and caught their food inside the marine park!!!)
Shame on you all, I despise your lack of respect for human life. You want to kick out the only boat that has at least some kind of safety measures. How dare the Colombian authorities let a boat like Maria Patricia even leave port? And they are mandating Yemayá and Inula to operate from Buenaventura— known to be the slaughterhouse capital of Colombia, for which most countries have issued a travel ban because it is too dangerous for tourists— just so both operations would be forced to shut down and the Colombian boats could get more bookings.
Shame on Malpelo National Park. Shame on the Colombian Navy. Shame on Maria Patricia, who has repeatedly risked the lives of their guests onboard. (Should we tell you about the time when they forgot to pick up a French couple from their dive and only realized it hours later, when they were already having dinner?)
The captain of Maria Patricia is now considered a hero in Colombia. The simple-mindedness of the Colombian government was demonstrated in a recent meeting among boat operators and the Park. Everyone was hugging and congratulating him during the meeting. And his fellow Colombians passed the hat around so that THEY could reimburse us for the fuel that we transferred to his boat during the search and rescue operation.
I have once been a victim, lost at sea outside the coast of Nicaragua. And I know the feeling when your boat disappears beyond the horizon. I was lucky at the time.
I pray with the families of Erika Vanessa and Carlos.
Yemayá is your option to go diving with if you want to see Malpelo. This is the only boat that has safety measures and experienced guides I trust.
The Colombian government will kick Yemayá out after 2017, during which time you can go with Maria Patricia, which has the license to kill their guests, and get away with it.
I am so upset and disgusted by this. It did not need to happen.
I stand by my words. I was there, I tell only the truth.
Dive guide and a human being
Update: 24 September 2016 – Here is the testimony of Peter Morse, recorded on 1 September 2016, the day we found him.