The owner of a dive centre at a well-known French Polynesian shark-diving location has been sentenced to a year in prison, fined 1 million French Pacific francs (more than £7,000) and disqualified from operating for five years – for installing an unauthorised buoyline now deemed to have endangered lives.
The dive centre itself, Tetamanu Diving in Fakarava, was fined 10 million francs (£70,000).
Located in the Tuamotu Islands, Fakarava is French Polynesia’s second-largest atoll. Its coral reef is a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and its southern Tumakohua Pass is recognised as one of the world’s great shark dives. Scuba divers go to see grey reef sharks mass in their hundreds at 30m on incoming tides, as well as the many fish and other sharks around the pass entrance.
According to an account presented at a criminal court this week, three years ago on 17 June, 2019, the engine of a 16m sailing yacht shut down as it entered the middle of the pass. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to restart it, the vessel finally ran aground on the reef. Islanders were able to rescue its seven occupants.
An investigation revealed that the boat’s propeller had become entangled in a buoyed line tied into the reef at a depth of 25m. It turned out to have been installed as a guideline for divers by the dive centre’s owner without official authorisation, though it had been in place for some 12 years. As a result the owner was charged with endangering the lives of others.
When the case was heard on 31 May, the magistrate deplored the fact that the defendant had neither shown up in court nor appointed a legal representative for himself or the dive centre, according to a report on the proceedings by Tahiti Infos.
The defendant was not named in the report, but Divernet has established that it was in fact Sané Richmond, the founder of Tetamanu Diving, who runs the diving and associated accommodation business with his wife and co-director Annabelle. Richmond is acknowledged as having been instrumental in turning Tumakohua Pass into a world-class scuba-diving attraction.
Referring in Richmond’s absence to his statements recorded during the investigation, the magistrate said that he had admitted installing the buoy “to prevent divers from getting lost”.
He had also maintained, in a statement described by the magistrate as “rather unpleasant”, that “if the skipper of the yacht had known a little about navigation, he would have been able to avoid the accident”.
The magistrate quoted a witness who had described the buoy as a “latent danger, because it was undetectable for boats”. The same witness also claimed that Richmond had behaved as if he was “the owner of the South Pass”.
After the incident the guideline had been removed, but Richmond was reported to have quickly replaced it with a new one in the same spot. In his statement, he had said that the previous line had been in place for 12 years without apparently causing a problem, and that the alternative to its presence would have been divers’ deaths.
Two representatives of the state took the stand to assert that permission for a permanent buoy tied into the reef would never have been granted even had it been requested.
Lawyer Anne Laurence Michel, representing the stranded yacht’s passengers, described Richmond as “conspicuous by his absence” and suggested that French Polynesia was “almost acting as monsieur’s lawyer. We are told to turn a blind eye because a plethora of tourists and divers are attracted to this place.”
She accused him of “running away from his responsibilities”, and considered that all rights in the pass had effectively been conceded to him because “no one could force him to remove his buoy”.
The magistrate said that the prosecution had effectively reframed the debate by suggesting that local dive operators appeared to have been left uncontrolled by the authorities.
For that reason, and because the defendant had not turned up to argue his side of the case, the sentence imposed exceeded that sought by the prosecution, which had looked only for a suspended custodial sentence and a two-year operating ban for Richmond alongside the fines.
‘Sentenced me severely’
Richmond disputes aspects of what was related in court. “It was my lawyer who did not show up to defend me – that’s why the judge sentenced me severely,” he told Divernet. “My lawyer lodged an appeal immediately.”
He agreed that he had installed the buoyline “at the side of the pass”, but said that it was used not only by Tetamanu Diving but by all the Fakarava dive centres – four others are based in the north of the atoll – and was mentioned on nautical charts.
“The yacht skipper wanted to go out at around 4am with a strong wind and an outgoing current causing 2m troughs,” said Richmond. “The skipper did not follow the alignment of the pass and he should have seen the buoy on his GPS.
“He came to the buoy when he had all sails out and could have continued on his way to the exit – it was down to lack of experience on the part of the skipper, so he was at fault too.”
Richmond said that Tetamanu Diving would continue to operate as usual “for at least six months or more until the next judgment. The charge is of endangering the lives of others and that is not the case – this buoy is there for the safety of divers, not for my business as the opposing lawyer alleged.
“My only fault is not to have the authorisation that I had asked for. We’ll see what happens next in this case.“
Divernet has also approached Michel and Tahiti Tourism for comment.
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