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Tour Boat Abandons U.S. Snorkeler on Australian Reef

SYDNEY -- Australian safety officials said Wednesday that they were investigating a dive boat company that accidentally left a U.S. tourist behind while he was snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, forcing the panicked man to swim to another boat for help.

A spokesman for the company denied Ian Cole was ever in danger. But the incident drew immediate comparisons to the infamous case of Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who died in 1998 after their tour boat left while they were scuba diving on the reef. Officials believe they drowned or were eaten by sharks.

Cole, 28, of Michigan, said he was snorkeling on Saturday when he lifted his head out of the water and realized his tour boat, the Passions of Paradise, was nowhere in sight.

"The adrenalin hit in and I had a moment of panic, which was the worst thing I could have done at that point," Cole told The Cairns Post. "I was able to calm myself just a little bit because there was another boat still out there and I made my way to that vessel. Lucky it was there because otherwise I may have drowned. I did not handle the situation well and I was tired."

A spokeswoman for the Queensland state government work safety agency, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, confirmed on Wednesday that the department was investigating the incident, but declined to comment further.

Passions of Paradise referred calls to Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators executive officer Col McKenzie, who did not immediately return messages from The Associated Press. But he told the Post that Cole was never in danger of drowning, since other boats were nearby.

A staff member who conducted a headcount aboard the boat broke the rules by failing to get Cole's signature to confirm he was on board before it left, McKenzie said. The staffer was fired.

Safety standards for recreational dive boat operators on the reef were strengthened after the Lonergans were abandoned in 1998. Their case served as an inspiration for the 2003 movie "Open Water."

Still, a handful of reef tourists have found themselves adrift since then. In 2008, a British diver and his American girlfriend became lost when they resurfaced from a dive on the reef and found themselves far away from their dive boat. They were rescued from the ocean by helicopter after spending 19 hours in the water.