SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Seventeen hours after a Singaporean woman went missing while scuba diving in Indonesian waters, and after five hours of searching, a local diving guide spotted her body.
She was floating about 12 metres below the surface of the water.
When he got closer, he noticed that her diving regulator's mouthpiece was missing.
Miss Vera Neo Qiu Ping, 27, was part of a group of Singaporeans who arrived at Gili Lawa in Komodo National Park, West Manggarai Regency, last Saturday for a five-day diving holiday.
At 5pm on Sunday, she failed to resurface with the other divers and the authorities were alerted.
Local diving guide Putu Sudiartana, who led the group, and other divers searched for Miss Neo until 10pm but there was no sign of her.
When daylight broke at 6am the next day, Mr Putu, another local guide, Mr Agustinus, and two of Miss Neo's friends resumed the search.
It was about 11am when Mr Putu found Miss Neo's body, he wrote in a Facebook post yesterday.
"Her body was floating about 12 metres underwater, without her regulator in her mouth. The regulator's mouthpiece was also missing. It probably got stuck to something," he wrote.
A diving regulator allows a diver to breathe air from a tank while underwater.
Mr Putu had given his account of what happened on Facebook after online speculation that Miss Neo, who worked in finance, could have drowned after being caught in a whirlpool.
He said the group had set out on Saturday morning on a cruise boat run by tour company Komodo Trails to Sebayur Island to check-dive to ensure everyone could dive with ease.
Afterwards, the group was divided into two between Mr Agustinus and him.
"We also dove that night on the island of Gili Lawa Barat and all seemed fine," Mr Pulu wrote in Bahasa Indonesia.
On Sunday morning, they dove in Castle Rock, then spent the afternoon at Crystal Rock and reached The Shotgun, one of Komodo's famous diving sites known for its rip currents, at about 4pm. All three are popular diving sites near Gili Lawa.
At the time, Miss Neo was in Mr Agustinus' group.
"When we got off the boat, everything looked fine but when we were about to start, the currents got stronger," said Mr Putu.
He then led them to calmer waters. But they were in the water for only three minutes before they were called back to the boat.
"We were told that a diver was missing, so I dove again with the diver's buddy and two dive masters from another boat in the area.
"At the same time, the boat captain called the authorities to report the missing passenger," he said.
They gave up the search late at night.
"Two of the victim's friends, Agustinus and I continued the search at about 6 the next morning but she was still nowhere to be found," said Mr Putu.
About three hours later, the National Search and Rescue Agency (SAR) Republic of Indonesia started an eight-man search operation.
Mr Putu said: "I told the SAR team to snorkel around the water surface while the rest of us dove deeper."
Nine minutes later, Mr Putu, who was accompanied by Miss Neo's friend, found Miss Neo's body. He slowly pushed the body to the surface of the water where it was retrieved by the SAR team.
IN TOUCH WITH FAMILY
The agency told The Straits Times that Miss Neo's body was found near the dive site at about 11am on Monday and it was taken to Siloam Hospital in Labuan Bajo on Flores Island.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said it is in touch with Miss Neo's family and will continue to provide consular assistance to them.
"Our embassy in Jakarta has deployed an officer to Labuan Bajo, who will remain in close contact with the local authorities and help the other Singaporeans who are there," said the spokesman.
It is understood that Miss Neo's relatives have gone to the hospital to claim her body.
When contacted, Mr Ooi Kang Sheng, one of the Singaporeans on the trip, said it was too early to comment on the incident as "we are focusing on bringing Vera back to Singapore with us".
Mr Putu expressed his deepest condolences and apologised for not being able to save Miss Neo.
"I hope this post will explain the actual chronology of events that happened that day," he said.
Gear malfunction, panic can be fatal on dives: Instructor
Although uncommon, a mouthpiece could dislodge from its tube if it is not secured properly, said freelance diving instructor Edmund Low
The 43-year-old, who has more than 12 years of instructional diving experience, said: "When the mouthpiece comes off, the diver will start drinking water and may panic.
"Although divers are trained to retrieve their alternative air source, panic may prevent them from doing so."
An alternative air source is typically attached near the diver's chest in case of an emergency.
Mr Low said: "There are many 'maybes' in this incident. If the alternative air source is not secured properly, it will be flailing behind the diver, making it difficult for the diver to retrieve it.
"The diver (Miss Neo) may also have knocked against something and passed out before the mouthpiece was dislodged."
Despite media reports that Miss Neo was an experienced diver, Mr Low said she was nowhere near what would be considered an "experienced diver".
Miss Neo was reported to have became a qualified autonomous diver with Scuba Schools International in October 2014 and earned her Advanced Adventurer certification in December that year after going on at least 18 dives.
Mr Low said: "The syllabus for recreational diving is adequate. But experience is key for divers to be able to execute the right processes in a state of panic and emergency."
Another diving instructor, who has 22 years of instructional diving experience, said: "Even divers who have clocked 1,000 dives are only considered 'mid-stream'.
"Her Advanced Adventurer certification merely indicates that she has completed a certain number of dives," he said.
The instructor, who declined to be named, has dived at Gili Lawa and said that it is a popular diving site renowned for its beauty that is "like no other", its variety of marine creatures and the chance to see a Komodo dragon.
Possible causes for fatal dives include panic and gear malfunction, he said.
"A diver might not think rationally when he panics. When visibility suddenly becomes poor, the diver might swim around in circles looking for other divers instead of resurfacing," he added.
Recommended diving safety protocols include having a buddy system and a minimum ratio of at least one dive guide to four divers, he said.
But he was quick to add that safety protocols vary across countries and dive operators.
He suggests that divers who want to dive overseas should book tours with reputable and licensed dive operators in Singapore, not just for safety concerns, but also to avoid complications when making insurance claims if an accident occurs.
He also recommends that divers should thoroughly research a dive site before attempting to dive there and have some "self-awareness", which some divers lack, on whether they are suited to dive at particular sites.