A rebreather diver found unconscious near packages containing 50kg of cocaine later died – and Australian police have been trying to determine exactly what happened to him.
The diver was found yesterday morning (9 May) at the edge of the Hunter river in the port of Newcastle in New South Wales, 160km north of Sydney. Passers-by and paramedics tried to revive him using CPR, but the man died at the scene.
Australia’s Organised Crime Squad and federal police are now reported to have identified the man as South American but have yet to name him. They are investigating whether he had been retrieving the drugs from a ship’s hull in an operation that went wrong.
They also believe that the cocaine found with him was only part of a consignment that could amount to as much as 300kg, with an estimated street value of the equivalent of more than £11 million. They have already found a further 50kg in waterproof packages, but fear that some might already be in circulation.
The diver was found in the vicinity of a Marshall Islands-registered bulk carrier called Areti GR, which had arrived from San Lorenzo in Argentina the previous day after a month-long voyage across the Pacific carrying soya flour.
Two small boats had been observed near the Areti GR the night before the diver was found, and police were looking for at least two other people they suspect would have been working with him. “These people have fled, so it’s quite disgusting that this man's been left to die, regardless of what he was involved with,” commented Det-Superintendent Rob Critchlow.
Australian Border Force officers have searched the ship and questioned the crew, who were all now reported to have been cleared, while police divers continued to search surrounding waters.
Describing Newcastle as a “point of risk” for drug-trafficking, the police have indicated that it was a familiar – if “old-school” – approach for organised crime syndicates to transport illicit drugs on international vessels without the crews’ knowledge. Some 2,000 ships dock in Newcastle annually, because it is Australia's largest terminal for coal exports.
The police believe that the diver would have entered Australia independently of the ship. They did not specify the make of rebreather he was using, but asked dive shops that might have sold CCR equipment or a Sharkskin wetsuit recently to contact them. They will also want to find out how familiar he was with rebreather equipment.
Steve has been a scuba diver for 30 years and became editor of Diver magazine in 1996, following 10 years with BBC World Service and the 10 before that in motoring journalism.