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I just came back from diving in the Riau Islands with Dive Riau, and I'm very sad to report that Carlson Lee, the owner of the dive operation, has been missing as of Saturday, 10 August 02, 2pm (Singapore time). The Indonesian Navy and commercial divers from nearby oil rigs are still out looking for him even as I type this message. Please join me in my prayers and hope that he will be found safe and sound.
I arrived in Batam on Friday, 9 August 02 and met Carlson for the first time. He is a nice, jovial man with a gregarious personality, and I have no doubt he is a great instructor/diver. He gave a short refresher course to my (new) buddy, who has not been diving for 5 years.
The next day, we set off to dive off Barelang, about an hour by car and half an hour by boat from Batam View Resort, Nongsapura, where we were staying. There were nine divers on the boat, plus Carlson, another dive instructor called Yann and a divemaster in training, Alice.
We were divided into three groups. There were four in the first group, four in the second group, and two in the third group. My buddy and I were in the second group. Only Carlson and Yann were in the third group, because they were diving with rebreathers (Draeger Ray).
The current was very strong in our first dive, and we constantly had to fin hard just to stay in place. My divemaster Alice decided to abort the dive, and we surfaced. We then moved to another site which had less current. We dived for 45 minutes, surfaced and got on the inflatable boat to get to the bigger boat. When we got to the bigger boat, the water was so choppy and the current was so strong it looked like a washing machine from the surface. We had to hold on for dear life as we climbed up the ladder.
When I was safely on the boat, I noticed that Yann was already up on the boat and I looked down the ladder. I saw Carlson handing ONE of his fins to his assistant, Zul. Then I turned around, thinking that he was already climbing up the ladder. I had my back to the ladder when I heard people saying that he'd gone down again for a little swim.
I have never dived with Carlson before, so I thought it was weird that he would go off diving on his own without a buddy. But people on the boat saying that he often does that after all the divers are on the boat, sometimes to look for missing equipments or just to have a look-see. So I kept my mouth shut, thinking that he must have know what he was doing. I still had that weird feeling about the fin, how can he dive with only one fin? Until this moment I regret not saying anything at that time.
About fifteen minutes later, people started realising that something was horribly wrong. Yann and another diver, Ang, started gearing up again to go down and look for him. They were worried, but still hoping that Carlson was just pulling a prank. They jumped into the water, and surfaced separately about half an hour later because of the strong current and low visibility. By this time people were panicking because there was no sign of Carlson.
Yann and Ang got back on the boat to gear up and go down again, this time with a rope so they don't get separated. They waited about 20 minutes before going down again. All this time, the inflatable boat went scouring the area, looking for any sign of Carlson.
Yann and Ang surfaced about 15 minutes later, because the current was too strong and they struggled just to stay in place.
Both boats then went around the area for about 2 hours to search for anything remotely resembling a human body. It was almost eerie on the boat; nobody had the mood to talk. We were all too distressed and terrified that the worst thing might have happened. It was especially bad for me because I was suffering from seasickness.
Eventually it was decided that the bigger boat go back to shore while the smaller boat with two men on it continues the search. We reached shore at approximately 5pm Batam time. Alice and Yann, along with two of the divers who volunteered to help, went back to the dive site to continue searching. On the way back to the resort, it struck me that 9 August was the start of the Chinese Ghost month. I'm not usually superstitious, but I thought it was an odd coincidence.
We went back to the resort, and got news from the manager of the resort, Ian, that the Indonesian navy arrived at the scene half an hour after we left and has been deploying search diver teams, but to no avail. The search was aborted around 8pm that night.
It was speculated that the rebreather may have failed somehow, and Carlson had a shallow water blackout. Some also said it could have been a heart attack, even though he never had any history of heart problems before. Carlson is Canadian, and was trained by US Navy Seals. He has been diving for more than 20 years and was previously a commercial diver.
On Sunday morning, the Navy deployed a chopper and a few boats to continue the search. They started at 6am in the hope that the low tide helps make the search easier. Arunika, an employer of Dive Riau even mentioned that a psychic was employed to help.
There was no further news when I left on the 6.30pm (Batam time) ferry back to Singapore.
I'm sharing this story in the hope that fellow divers will have Carlson and his family in your prayers and thoughts tonight. His Indonesian wife and two-month old baby are waiting for him to come back, and it breaks my heart to think that there's a very slim chance he will.
Thanks for reading and safe diving!
PS. Please note that these are my personal thoughts and experiences, and this story is not an official recount of what happened on Aug 10, 2002.