Screaming into the wind with four-metre waves whipping at her body, Nicole Macdonald didn’t stand a chance of being heard.
A catamaran sailed past, oblivious, as the 33-year-old Sydney newlywed was left bobbing in the open ocean with her husband.
‘I was completely freaking out,’ Nicole tells New Idea. ‘I kept saying we’re going to die. I was screaming so much I was swallowing all this water. I just didn’t think we could survive.’
Nicole and Lance, 35, were on a diving honeymoon in the Philippines. Their romantic holiday had already been shattered twice by a typhoon and an earthquake, so the joke had been that nothing more could possibly happen.
But this was no joke.
A scuba dive gone wrong meant they had been left alone and adrift, hours from land.
‘Twenty minutes into the dive the dive master was making the cut signal and we surfaced,’ Nicole remembers.
‘The drift was stronger than he’d ever experienced so he said we had to finish early and the boat would find us.’
But as the minutes starting passing, Nicole panicked.
‘We were being swept along and the boat wasn’t coming,’ she says. ‘We could see an island in the distance and when the dive master said it was only 5kms away we decided to swim for it.’
But an hour in, things didn’t look good.
‘A typhoon was starting to whip up the ocean,’ Nicole shudders. ‘The waves were getting bigger and the island still looked a very long way.’
It was a long way away – 20kms in fact.
After a staggering five hours swimming Nicole and Lance were still in water so deep they couldn’t see the bottom.
‘I kept putting my head under to check if it was getting shallower and that’s when I saw the tiger shark cruising underneath us,’ Nicole says.
‘I kept quiet at first but Lance wanted to know why I kept looking. I just screamed at him “I’ve seen a shark!” He told me to keep swimming.’
The pair, both experienced divers, supported each other and their dive master.
‘Lance was the calmest,’ Nicole remembers. ‘I kept getting leg cramps and, at one point, I told him he had to leave me but he refused. He was sure we could make it.’
After seven hours of swimming they could finally make out trees and paths on the island. Their new problem was the surrounding rocks, which they’d be smashed on to by the huge swell if they got too close.
‘We had to decide whether we’d prefer to have broken bones, drown, or be eaten by the shark,’ Nicole says.
‘We went for the broken bones and kept heading for the island. It was starting to get dark so we had added incentive to swim harder.’
As they got closer, their dive master started screaming.
Unknown to Lance and Nicole, a caretaker, Rene, sometimes lived on the island. In an enormous stroke of luck he was there and heard the screams.
‘We were moments away from being smashed onto the rocks when we heard a little boat,’ Nicole says. ‘A man and his son had come from the other side of the island and were able to take us ashore safely.’
The drama was far from over though. After their gruelling eight-hour-swim, there was still no way of communicating with the mainland in the dark.
Nicole and Lance had to wait out the night, watching all the rescue boats circling, knowing their families would be frantic.
‘Mum and Dad had a visit from federal police at 2am. They were told we were missing – presumed dead. Dad had introduced me to diving and I knew he’d be blaming himself,’ Nicole shudders.
At first light the trio jumped in Rene’s boat and headed for a bigger island. Half way, they were picked up by a fishing boat and – at last – reached the safety of the rescue command centre.
‘I just wanted a phone to call my mum,’ Nicole says. ‘She couldn’t hear me at first but I just kept saying “I’m okay. I’m alive.”’
Nicole’s parents flew over the next day and spent the week reflecting on how lucky they’d been. Apart from dehydration and sunburn, both were okay.
Back home, their friends immediately drew parallels to the movie Open Water where two divers were stranded in a sea of sharks.
‘I couldn’t watch it though,’ Nicole says. Instead, the pair threw a joint ‘we didn’t die’ and 30th birthday party for Lance.
‘The experience brought us so close and we both realised how short life is,’ Nicole reflects. ‘We hadn’t been desperate for kids straight away but we accelerated our plans and Flyn came along 10 months later.’
They also have Elliot, now 15 months and Nicole is expecting another baby in July. ‘It’s changed my outlook massively,’ she says.