Diver couldn’t save husband from shark
An inquest has been held into the death of an experienced diver following a great white shark attack in Western Australia early in 2020. Divernet reported the incident at the time, pointing out that such fatalities involving scuba divers were unusual.
Gary Johnson, 57, was president of Esperance Dive Club, and he and his wife Karen Milligan dived together from their boat most weekends. On 5 January they were out at a favourite site called Devils Rocks near Cull Island, about four miles out from their home town of Esperance, south of Perth.
According to a report on proceedings at the Coroner’s Court of Western Australia by WA Today, the couple entered the water at midday to set a supplementary anchor-line by tieing onto a rock at a depth of around 15m.
Although Johnson habitually deployed a ”Shark Shield”, a device based on a trailing 2m cord that creates an electrical field designed to repel sharks, he tended to turn it off while attaching the line because on a previous occasion the two lines had tangled and he had received a shock. Milligan had told police investigators that he would always turn the shield back on once the line was attached.
Milligan saw her husband swim away carrying the line but lost sight of him behind a mound. When he reappeared she also saw “a large shark-tail flapping up and down”, according to Senior Constable Craig Robertson, and described the water as filling with blood and sand.
She swam forward to try to ward off the shark with her camera, but in the stirred-up conditions lost sight of both it and her husband.
But heading back to the boat she found Johnson with eyes open but unresponsive, his right arm badly mauled and his mask and tank gone. She tried to get him back aboard the boat, attaching her own BC to him to help keep him afloat, but proved unable to lift him.
“Ms Milligan had formed the belief that her husband was no longer alive and her attempts to get him on the boat were futile,” said the police officer. “She released him from her grip and he sank beneath the waves.”
20 November 2020
Milligan issued a Mayday call from the boat, and was later treated in hospital for shock. Johnson’s body was never found, though subsequent searches turned up the remains of his wetsuit, fins, BC and tank. The presence of a great white shark was detected through DNA testing of the items.
Coroner Sarah Linton said she was satisfied that Johnson had died and would no longer be officially categorised as a missing person. “From the moment of the attack, there was nothing that you could have done – it was a sudden, fatal attack,” she told Milligan.
Since the incident the state government has installed three shark warning towers at popular beaches around Esperance, and there are plans to build an in-water memorial to Gary Johnson.