Swaffham diver's rescue bid row

Norfolk adventure diver Richard Neely - who survived for 19 hours in shark infested seas off Australia - said last night he was "happy to donate" to the cost of the rescue operation that saved him and his girlfriend, but denied any responsibility for the incident.

Norfolk adventure diver Richard Neely - who survived for 19 hours in shark infested seas off Australia - said last night he was "happy to donate" to the cost of the rescue operation that saved him and his girlfriend, but denied any responsibility for the incident.

Mr Neely, 38, from Swaffham, and his American girlfriend Alison Dalton, 40, survived a night floating off Australia's Great Barrier Reef, after becoming separated from their boat.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh suggested the couple should contribute to the costs of the rescue, which involved seven helicopters, three planes and six boats after it emerged Mr Neely profited from the ordeal by selling the story to a British newspaper after taking on the services of publicity agent Max Markson.

Mrs Bligh said: “If they are going to profit from their story I don't think a contribution back would go astray. It would be a very welcome gesture.”

The rescue is thought to have cost up to £200,000 and Mr Neely is believed to have received a six-figure sum from selling his story.

In an interview with Australia's Nine Network, Mr Neely denied accusations that he ignored a safety briefing by drifting out of a lagoon and away from the dive site.

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The couple said they surfaced to find themselves 200m away from the boat and out of sight of its crew.

Mr Neely added: "I don't believe they weren't looking for us.

"They might have been looking for us in the lagoon. I don't believe they were looking for us in the right direction.'

The couple have described their terror at the thought of being eaten alive by sharks.

They tied themselves together, tried to share body heat and stay calm and positive.

By the early hours of the morning they were freezing, weak and suffering hallucinations.

A venomous sea-snake provided the final scare, rearing up in Ms Dalton's face moments before they were rescued.

The couple were found on Saturday - nine miles from where they had been diving near the Whitsunday Islands off the eastern coast.

Mr Neely added: "We have dedicated dive insurance with Divers Alert Network (DAN) that have told us they will cover the entire costs of the rescue mission, but we are also more than happy to donate to them.'

But DAN's David Lippman said the network was willing to cover the evacuation costs from the time the couple were found, and may donate some money towards fuel, Australian media reported.

Matt Cawkwell, one of 18 tourists aboard the dive boat, told The Australian newspaper it was unlikely the couple could have surfaced 200m from the vessel and not been seen.

He said: "There were about 22 people standing on the roof looking for them. There were at least four pairs of binoculars, and it wasn't that rough.'

He said the divers were told to stay in the lagoon and when the currents started to pick up the other divers came back.

Mr Cawkwell said Mr Neely had boasted to other tourists about his experience and "you got the impression he thought he knew better'.

The newspaper said Mr Neely has been involved in a number of other dramatic incidents, having survived the Boxing Day Tsunami and having once spent eight hours in water off Thailand when his boat sank.

A Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) spokeswoman said: "Over here the RNLI goes out to anyone in trouble and doesn't ask for any payment.

"We hope that people who have been rescued would think very kindly of us, as we are a charity and our volunteers are dependant on donations.'

Mr Neely's father Stuart, 60, a cabinetmaker also from Swaffham, said suggestions Mr Neely should pay for the rescue were "ridiculous'.

"I am amazed at the suggestion,' he said. "How could it be their fault? Who would want to go through that?

"They are supposed to have made a lot of money but he is certainly not getting the kind of money they are talking about.”

Mr Neely said he was "amazed' that the boat had left his son and Miss Dalton behind.

He said his son had grown up in Swaffham but had been working as a diving instructor in Thailand for the past 10 years and was a professional and competent diver and instructor.

Mr Neely said his son was on his way to America to do interviews with United States journalists before beginning a new career teaching diving in Sacramento, California.

Neil Roberts, the emergency services minister for Queensland, told BBC Radio 4's PM: "We are overjoyed and thrilled that we were able to find these two divers. It is a wonderful story of survival.'

Asked whether the divers were being asked to pay towards the cost of their rescue, Mr Roberts said: "There is no actual requirement for them to do that and we have made no demands on them.

"But I think the general public opinion here in Australia is that where significant public resources have been used to conduct this rescue and where somebody is going to profit from that exercise, it would be nice if they were able to make a contribution, maybe to one of our volunteer organisations.”

Simon Phelan, Richard Neely's friend at the West Norfolk Sub Aqua Club in King's Lynn said Mr Neely would have “never flouted the rules.”

“I know Richard, he's just not that kind of person. He's trained to know the rules and the dangers out there. I just can't imagine him deliberately drifting away from the boat.”