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The reality of 'Open Water'

Getting separated from your dive boat and drifting into open ocean is the stuff of movies, but it really happened to Stephen Greer.

Published August 23, 2004

[Family photo]
It would be a long time before Stephen and Mei Greer, shown on vacation in Indonesia in 2000, would resume diving again.

The movie Open Water, which opened in theaters last week, tells the story of a young couple left behind by their dive boat during an excursion in the Bahamas. The movie claims to be based on true events, a nod, most agree, to the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who disappeared in 1998 when their boat accidentally abandoned them off Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Just what the Lonergans endured is impossible to know because they were never found.

The movie has riled the professional diving industry, which insists such incidents are exceptionally rare. Maybe so, but it happened to Stephen and Mei Greer when they went for a dive in June 2000 near the Amanwana resort in Indonesia. Stephen Greer, 36, who lives in Hong Kong, talks about sharks, fast current and what you think about when you're about to die.

Have you followed news about the release of Open Water?

Only that I got an e-mail from a friend, saying, "Hey, they made a movie about your story." I said, I don't think so. I remember the incident involving the couple in Australia. I remember reading the papers and being shocked by the story. When it happened to us, I was thinking, "Oh, my God."

Take me through the day. How did you decide you wanted to go on the dive?

Mei and I had dived together for a while. We were doing some basic diving (at Amanwana), but it was more like fancy snorkeling. We'd heard, though, that the currents were kind of strong at some of the more exotic dive locations. Mei was worried about doing it, so I sent Mei off with one of the diving instructors who did some dives with her over a couple of days. The dive instructor said she was fine, the currents wouldn't be a big deal.

Okay, I said, let's go see this midocean reef. The trick of it is, it's very high current. You jump off the boat holding onto a rope. You hit the water holding onto your mask, and you have to look into the current, because if you look to the side, the current can knock your mask off.

So then everyone grabs on to the anchor line and goes arm over arm down the anchor line to the bottom. When you're down to the bottom - about 50 feet - you're supposed to be out of the strongest part of the current. What you do is you swim against the current and then you ride the current back. It is an interesting dive, lots of interesting fish and sharks. It was the only time in 75 dives, it was the only time I've ever had a shark double back on me and do a very aggressive movement.

Normally your dive would take 45 minutes in shallow water, but we used so much air getting down and swimming against the current after 20 minutes we were nearly out of air.

Who was with you?

We were in two groups, four guests and two guides. The other couple was on their honeymoon. It was amazing, the husband was a guy named Matt Mellon. I happened to be wearing a hat from the Rolling Rock Club (in Ligonier, Pa.) and he said, "My grandfather founded Rolling Rock." It was an amazing coincidence.

Anyway, they go their own way with their guide. We're running out of air, we go up, but because of the current by the time we get up we're down current from the boat. We're not far from the boat, maybe 20 or 30 feet.

Where's your guide?

Next to us in the water. He waved for the boat, but they didn't see us. We didn't think anything of it. All of sudden, the guide's waving his fin in the air, and I hear him say, "See us! See us!" I thought, "That doesn't sound good." We kept drifting farther and farther away. We're yelling, but he said, "No point, we're downwind, they can't hear us."

Can you estimate the speed of the current?

Four knots and swells were a meter (about 3 feet) high. Every 30 seconds we're farther and farther from the boat. The boat is anchored, waiting for the other couple to come up. They're not looking for us. The people were supposed to be hawkeye looking for you, but they weren't looking. We didn't see them, so they weren't on the deck.

Still, I'm not panicked. I figure the boat goes looking for you, they pick you up, no big deal. Then the guide says, "We've got to swim for that island over there." I'm thinking, "Swim for an island? The boat's going to see us and come pick us up." I said to the guide, "That island's pretty far away." It's maybe a kilometer away.

Is the current taking you anywhere near the island?

No. Parallel to it. I said to Mei, "We've got to kick for it." She said, "No way, I'm tired." I said (to the guide), "I don't think we can swim to that island." He said, "You don't understand. It's a matter of life and death."

That must be hard to get your head around, especially when you can still see the boat.

Yeah, that's when I sort of swallowed hard. But I said, "We can make it to that island." We were both on our backs. We still had our tanks on. I'm holding on to the back of her tank. So she's not looking at me, she's looking at the sky. We're both looking at the sky and we're kicking and kicking trying to get to the island.

I'm looking over my right shoulder once in a while, looking at the island, and I'm kicking and kicking, look over, kicking and kicking, and then I look over and I don't see anything. I look over my left shoulder and I realize we've blown by the tip of the island and we're nowhere near it. No we're heading into open ocean and the boat's a speck. The swells are getting bigger.

How much time has elapsed?

I'd say half and hour. I said to the guide, "Okay, what do we do now?" He's white as a ghost. He says, "Next stop Sulawesi, mate." I said, "Where's Sulawesi?" He said, "A thousand kilometers." At this point the boat is out of sight.

I should say before that we could see that the boat was circling the reef. The Australian guide was saying, "They're circling the reef, the idiots. Don't they realize there's a current?" But they just kept circling. Now we're moving so fast, we're out of sight of the boat, of land. It's open ocean, we're just floating.

The Australian guy is muttering to himself and it was at that moment that I really misted up. My mask was fogging up. You're thinking about things. You're thinking about life, about your friends, your family. It was down to that.

Tell me about the conversation between you and Mei.

I kept telling Mei everything was fine, because I didn't want her to panic, but I think it's over. She was just very quiet. She was calm. I was holding on to her. When you realize that you're close to death, you don't panic and scream. You just go very calm. You can imagine what it's like in the water, the sun is reflecting off everything. There were moments where it was almost relaxing. You just arched your back and felt the sun. You don't struggle. You don't panic.

In early stages I thought about sharks a lot. When we were swimming for the island I kept thinking about the sharks down there.

In this movie there are fins everywhere. They say it's the best shark movie since Jaws.

Oh, God. We had seen them down below, but what I kept saying to Mei was don't look down, don't look down, because every time you looked down, all you'd see was this endless depth and the light disappears into the depths. You keep thinking your going to see this thing coming up.

Did you have life jackets on?

We had our inflatable vests. Actually, we had our air tanks on the whole time. Someone told me later we should have ditched our tanks to try to swim. But Mei was worried about being too light. The tanks gave us balance. If we were going to swim for that island, you'd ditch your inflatable, you'd ditch your tank and you'd swim for it. But it was a kilometer in a fast current, so if you try and fail, you're dead. So we decided to keep them on, but by keeping them on, you're at the surface, you can't swim well and you go a lot faster in the current. An experienced person would say, "Why didn't they take their things off and swim for it?" Well, because we didn't think we'd make it.

Did you have homing devices?

No. But this come's down to something we'll get into in a minute. First of all, the guide didn't have a full wetsuit on, so he would have died first from exposure. So the guide was not prepared. Second of all, he's supposed to have an inflatable balloon that you fill with your air tank, so people can find you. He didn't have one. Third, always have a mirror so if there's a plane coming over you can reflect the sun at it. He didn't have a mirror. He was totally unprepared. We even had black fins. The only one with colored fins was Mei, so we kept borrowing her fins to wave at the boat.

Describe your level of fatigue.

We'd been in the water about two hours at this point. Suddenly we see the boat on the horizon and he's coming at us. Maybe they see us. We're waving our fins. The boat pulls up and we're totally exhausted. I couldn't get in the boat. The guides were frozen. Matt dove off the side and helped us get in the boat.

What had transpired on the boat was that Matt and his wife, Tamara, had come up and said, "Where are the other guys?" "They haven't come up yet." "Impossible, we saw them going up," he said. So they're circling the reef and Matt realizes they don't know what they're doing. The captain of the boat was the guide who was with us.

Matt takes over the boat, goes up to the tower. Matt had gotten his captain's license when he was living in Florida. He throws a buoy in the water, sees the direction of the buoy, tries to time it, figures how long we've been in the water, says, "They're 5 miles that way."

He calls in a Mayday to the resort, which calls in all the planes in the area, the helicopters from the local mining company, they're all circling looking for us. You've got to remember, that at 4 knots as you go out it's like a cone. You could be moving in almost any direction exponentially. You can't think of it as a straight line, and, of course, he didn't know where we'd come up.

When we finally saw him coming, we thought, "He sees us, he sees us." But in those swells, he said he didn't see us until he was right on top of us. His plan was to go out 5 miles and turn left and go 5 miles in that direction and then come back the other direction. He said, "If I hadn't seen you, you'd have been finished, because by the time I got back you'd have been 10 miles in any direction."

By then it would have been 5 o'clock in the evening, sun coming down, light reflects off the water, you can't be seen from the sky. You're going to spend the night drifting at 5 knots into the middle of nowhere. Now you're going to have hypothermia, sharks, whatever, you'd be dead.

Have you been diving since?

We didn't go diving for a long time. We just recently did it again on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In Australia, they needed to see the certificate. If you hadn't dived in a year, which they checked on a computer, they made you do checkout dives. They were very strict. They couldn't find Mei's maiden name in the computer, and I said, "Look, she's been on a bunch of dives all over the place." And they said, "If anything happened, I could go to jail."

POSTSCRIPT: During their ordeal, Stephen had considered proposing to Mei. "But I didn't want her to think I'd only done it because we were about to die." Two months later he proposed. They were married in June the following year.

[Last modified August 20, 2004, 14:40:29]

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