Sunset Divers has admitted failing to have a lookout on board its boat at all times on a scuba diving trip during which a tourist died a year ago.
The dive operator pleaded guilty to the charge, a violation of the Port Authority Law, and was fined $750 in Summary Court on Tuesday.
But they insist the breach of regulations had no bearing on the death of David Byles, the 57-year-old American diver who went missing, apparently after getting into difficulties swimming back to the boat following the dive in January last year.
Mr. Byles’s tank and dive vest were recovered after a search involving marine police and dive industry volunteers, but his body was never found.
Sunset Divers say there was a staff member on board at the time Mr. Byles went missing. The business’ general manager Keith Sahm, speaking after Tuesday’s hearing, said the company had acknowledged that there was a brief period, of “around 5-7 minutes”, where both divemasters had been in the water with guests.
But he said the safety of divers was never compromised and that a divemaster and several guests were on the boat when the diver was reported missing by his wife.
The Port Authority law states, “At least one person shall remain on board and act as a lookout on any dive boat or other vessel whilst divers therefrom are down.”
Crown counsel Scott Wainwright told the court Tuesday that Mr. Byles had gone missing during the course of the dive in question. He did not seek to make any connection, however, between the absence of a lookout and the disappearance of the diver.
Mr. Sahm insists there was none.
“Sunset Divers has always conducted its business in a manner which ensures the safety of all its guests and divers,” he said, “and the fact that a dive master was not on board for 5-7 minutes while the first diving team got on the boat and the second went down did not affect the safety and security of our divers and had nothing to do with the disappearance of the diver who surfaced with the second team.”
“The wife of the missing diver in question has always said how professional and safety conscious Sunset Divers were that day.” He said Mr. Byles’s wife continued to dive with Sunset Divers and would be visiting in the near future.
Mr. Sahm said the standard procedure on Sunset Divers boats was for one group of divers to go down first with one dive leader, while a second group waited on board with the other divemaster. When the first group returned to the boat, he said, the second group went down.
It was during this changeover period, he says, that there were a few minutes where both staff members were in the water and no-one was on board.
He said Mr. Byles was with the second group and there were several people, including one of the divemasters, on board when he surfaced.
At the time of the incident, police said Mr. Byles had surfaced, along with his wife, and was swimming towards the boat, which was around 100 yards away. When Mrs. Byles reached the boat, she realized her husband was no longer with her and raised the alarm.
A search of the immediate area by the boat crew failed to trace him and a full scale search involving marine police was launched. The body of Mr. Byles, a drummer with various jazz bands in North Carolina, was never recovered.