Missing diver: agency accused of slow response

Pulau Satang.

The brother of a scuba diver missing off Malaysian Borneo since Saturday (17 April) has accused emergency services of dragging their feet in their response, and says the family has been forced to arrange its own searches.

Karen Chong, 31, had been on a solo dive in the north-west of Sarawak, where conducting search and rescue operations is the responsibility of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

She had been with five other divers on a boat 23 nautical miles north of the small island of Pulau Satang. The group were said to be certified divers who dived together regularly.

Chong had already dived with two men in the group, but at around 4.20pm commenced a solo dive which she was said to have intended to continue for no more than half an hour. It was not clear from reports, though it seems likely, that this was a continuation of the dive from which the men had surfaced.

When Chong failed to resurface after more than an hour, the other divers had searched the area. They reported hearing a whistle early on, but could not tell from which direction the sound came.

The missing diver’s brother Brandon was informed of her disappearance at around 7pm, and later told the Borneo Post that a dive-centre operator had suggested he alert the MMEA. He said that after trying the agency’s number 10 times without reply he had called 999 and was told that the MMEA would return his call.

Other authorities had got back to him, he said, though not the MMEA. He had kept trying its number and said that after an hour he finally made contact and reported his sister missing. He was told that the agency’s nearest boat to the area was out of fuel and that an SAR operation could not be launched until 7.00 the next morning.

Giving up on securing help, Chong took a boat out with other divers and searched until weather conditions forced them to stop at around midnight. They resumed on Sunday morning but he said there was no sign of the MMEA in the area, only police. The agency called him at around 11am and asked him to meet at the jetty where its boat was moored – still, according to Chong, unfuelled.

It turned out that before commencing the search the MMEA wanted to hold a press conference, with Chong representing the family. Only after this did it begin a boat-based search over a radius of two nautical miles from where the diver was last seen, though to Chong’s disbelief this was called off at 6pm.

19 April 2021

“If that’s really the way that the authorities are conducting their SAR operation, I’d say it’s time for them to tighten their SOP [standard operating practice], because this is a matter of life and death,” Chong told the paper. The family had meanwhile arranged their own search by air, though without success.

An MMEA representative stated at its press call that it had been notified of the incident at around 8pm on Saturday through a 999 call and had commenced its SAR operation at 9.00 the following morning. It said that the Marine Police, Fire & Rescue Department and Civil Defence Force were also involved. Karen Chong remains missing.

At the eastern end of Sarawak yesterday (18 April) the body of another female diver, Ling Beng Wei, was found floating above a dive-site off Miri.

The 34-year-old victim had been on an hour-long dive with a group of 25 others around noon. All had surfaced, but a second dive had then begun, reportedly after a surface interval of only “a few minutes”, before being aborted after five minutes because of the water conditions.

The other divers had made it back to the boat and when Ling was found to be missing a search was carried out. Her body was taken to hospital for a post mortem examination.