NZ Orion crew saves four from shark-infested seas

SATURDAY , 10 JUNE 2006

By ARWEN HANN
Four people were rescued from shark-infested seas near Tonga yesterday after being spotted by the crew of a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Orion.

All four were clinging to the wreckage of their boat, and were not wearing lifejackets.

The Orion was on its way to the RNZAF Base at Whenuapai near Auckland when it received a report of an emergency beacon, about 50 kilometres west of Tonga.

The crew spotted the group, who were holding on to boat debris in a desperate bid to stay afloat, about 1pm. They dropped a liferaft, and all four clambered on board.

Aircraft captain Flight Lieutenant Nick Cooper said the group was very fortunate, as he had spotted a shark nearby.

"I saw the shark swimming around the flotsam the people had been holding on to just beforehand," he said. "There was only room for two or three of them on the flotsam at any one time, so one of them would have been in the water luckily we had managed to get the liferaft to them quickly so they were in a safer position."

Despite the Orion running low on fuel, the crew watched over the group and guided a fishing boat to the survivors before flying to Tonga to refuel. Cooper said the group was lucky that the Orion had been called out and was in the region.

The Orion was originally called out in the early hours of the morning to help a fishing boat, the Pacific Horizon, which had lost battery power. The Orion crew arranged a rendezvous with another local vessel for the Pacific Horizon.

"It is lucky we were in the area, as it only took us about an hour to get to the site," Cooper said.

"If we had been leaving from base, it could have been up to three hours and that could have made a lot of difference," he said.

The captain of the Pacific Sunrise had sent his "sincere gratitude" to the RNZAF crew for their help a gesture that Cooper said was great for morale: "It is awesome to get that kind of feedback not only for the guys but because of how it reflects on New Zealand as well.

"It has been about an 18-hour day for us, so it is great to know we have done a good job."