Cruise passengers rescued after dive boat sinks in Mexico
It was a chilly, early January morning when Thiago Koga disembarked Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas for a $120 diving trip off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico.
But early into the excursion, things started to go wrong.
The choppy water delayed the boats for an hour, said Koga, who lives in Weston.
When the dive boat did set sail, it lolled behind the others, making the 20-minute trip in 30 minutes instead. “What is happening?” thought Koga, who found himself thinking about a tour bus accident that also happened in the Yucatan Peninsula region two weeks prior, killing 11 cruise passengers and a tour guide.
Then, as the diving instructors started to give out directions to the cruise passengers aboard — all certified divers — water began to rise to his ankles.
Then it was by his knees.
Pandemonium ensued. The crew urged the passengers to move to the front of the boat to help counterbalance the weight. A man, whose wife had hit her head, began to shout for help. Meanwhile, the dive master yelled for divers to hurl their weight belts, used to keep them underwater, from the boat into the ocean.
None of it helped. In 50 seconds, Koga estimates, the boat was almost completely underwater.
“I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been diving for 12 years and never seen something like that before,” he said. “I was in shock.”
He clung to the bow of the boat and, when it was about 75 percent in the water, he jumped.
I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been diving for 12 years and never seen something like that before. I was like in shock.
Thiago Koga, cruise ship passenger from Weston
A few minutes later, another boat from the same company, Sand Dollar Sports, pulled up and started to haul the divers aboard.
“The way that I saw the other boats approaching, those guys were really scared,” he said.
In the chaos, Koga remembers a family of four inside the rescue boat whose son — a boy no older than 12 — watched in horror as Koga’s dive boat was swallowed by the waves.
“He was crying like a baby because he was not believing that that kind of thing was happening. His dad was saying, ‘Don’t worry son, this is not going to happen to us,’” Koga said. “When I saw that I couldn’t even believe that this was happening to us.”
The accident, which occurred Wednesday, was the second incident in recent weeks involving tour passengers from Royal Caribbean Cruises — in this case, four from Navigator of the Seas and six from Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Equinox, according to Royal Caribbean. Both ships sailed from Miami.
On Dec. 19, 12 people died after a tour bus to Mayan ruins south of Tulum flipped on a two-way highway. Among those killed was a 78-year-old woman from Coconut Creek, Fanya Shamis; her daughter, 46-year-old Anna Behar; and her 11-year-old grandson, Daniel Behar.
You are paying more because you want extra security. You want to make sure the partners are secure enough to take people where the want to go. But that is not what I felt when I choose to do this dive with them.
Thiago Koga, cruise ship passenger from Weston
In the most recent case, the passengers suffered only minor bruises and scratches. Koga said that despite attempts to salvage lost items, he lost his wedding ring, $400 to $500 in cash and other valuables in the process. Royal Caribbean reimbursed him about $2,000 for the losses, he said.
Cozumel’s Sand Dollar Sports said this was the first accident of its kind in the company’s 34-year history. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but the boat in question has been repaired, said supervisor Sandra Ramirez.
“We are all concerned and we are working on it,” she said.
Major accidents on shore excursions booked through cruise lines are uncommon because the lines vet excursion providers, experts say. But they do sometimes occur.
In October 2017, two passengers were killed in Croatia when a tour bus backed into them. In January 2016, one passenger died in a tour bus accident in Jamaica; another died in a November 2016 crash in Dominica. In 2012, a half-dozen passengers were injured in a bus crash in St. Martin. In 2006, 12 people were killed in Chile in a bus accident following a visit to a national park; in that case, the tour had been arranged privately and the cruise ship was not involved. The incidents involved passengers from various cruise lines.
“All the shore excursions [purchased on board] are more expensive than if you hire someone [at port] by the ship,” Koga said. “You are paying more because you want extra security. You want to make sure the partners are secure enough to take people where the want to go. But that is not what I felt when I chose to do this dive with them.”
Royal Caribbean Cruises spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said Monday the cruise line is still independently investigating what went wrong with the Cozumel diving trip.
After the incident Wednesday, Koga said his vacation ended.
“I was thinking about what happened,” he said. “Sometimes you blame yourself. Maybe I should have done something different.”