Aussie family's holiday turns tragic

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 23, 2013

ON A quiet beach in Australia, a "nightmare" unfolded as two young children entered the water to join their parents, who had been snorkelling.

The family's idyllic holiday turned tragic as the children - a 10-year-old boy and a 13-year- old girl - discovered their mother and father both floating face down in the water.

In a shocking and mystifying ordeal, the children called for help and were forced to watch the desperate but failed attempts to save their mother Kathreen Ricketson, 41, after her body floated ashore. The body of their father Robert Shugg, 48, has not been found.

The tragic events in Western Australia last Wednesday have left a lingering mystery: How did the two parents, who were competent swimmers, die simultaneously?

Police said there were no suspicious circumstances and the death appeared to be a "tragic accident". However, the authorities are now looking at whether the couple may have been stung by a deadly jellyfish, the irukandji, believed to be the world's most venomous creature.

The incident occurred in waters off Elle's Beach near Ningaloo Reef, famous for its coral. Police said the parents, from Canberra, left their children, Otilija and Orlando, on the sand while they went snorkelling at 2.45pm.

Orlando was the first to spot his parents floating in the water about 45 minutes later. At first, he thought they were snorkelling, but he called his older sister and they could not get their parents to respond. They raised the alarm and were assisted by some nearby campers who rushed over to try to save their mother.

Western Australia police Inspector Dominic Wood said the ordeal would have been "horrific" for the children, and that it was "any child's worst nightmare".

"While the (campers) were trying to save the life of the mother, they noticed the father was also not moving in the water," Inspector Wood said. "They tried to get him out, but he disappeared under the water. The kids were obviously there and it would have been absolutely devastating for them."

A five-day search for Mr Shugg was called off on Monday after no trace of him could be found. The children have since been taken to Melbourne to be cared for by relatives.

The tragedy made headlines across the country, but there have been few clues as to the cause of the parents' deaths.

There has been growing speculation that they may have been killed by tiny irukandji jellyfish. The creatures, normally only 2.5cm in diameter, are most commonly found in north Queensland but have recently begun to travel further south along Australia's west coast, possibly due to warmer ocean temperatures.

There have been numerous recent sightings and stings in the area where the couple were snorkelling, about 1,200km north of Perth. The state's Department of Environment and Conservation last month issued a warning that irukandji had reached the reef and that people had been admitted to hospital. It said 13 people were stung last month and warned swimmers to exercise extreme caution or stay out of the water.

"While it is not unusual to have one or two suspected cases of irukandji syndrome in Ningaloo every year, to have multiple stings in less than a week is unusual and has prompted us to advise people to be careful," a spokesman said.

Deaths from irukandji are extremely rare. The first known death was in 2002, when a 58-year-old British tourist died after being stung in Queensland. An American tourist died from a sting later that year. However, most of the 70-odd people to have died from jellyfish stings in Australia in the past 50 years were stung by the larger box jellyfish.

Police are preparing a report for the coroner and will examine whether Ms Ricketson's death may have been caused by an irukandji. Others have suggested the couple may have drowned due to sudden strong currents. Ms Ricketson's body has been taken to Perth for an autopsy.

The family had been four months into a 12-month trip around Australia, which Ms Ricketson described in a blog as a "dream come true". She had signed a deal to write a book about the trip.

"The book is not just any old travel book," she wrote online. "Mostly it will be a whole bunch of fun projects that can be done in a day or a weekend by those who want to get away from it all and reconnect with their families."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 23, 2013

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