American tourist left on Great Reef by tour boat company

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

An American tourist fought off panic when an Australian tour boat company accidentally left him stranded near the Great Barrier Reef in his snorkeling gear.

Michigan 28-year-old Ian Cole says he grew frightened when he surfaced and realized the Passions of Paradise tour boat was gone last Saturday. Since American couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan disappeared after being left behind by a boat in nearby Port Douglas in the 1990s, tour companies have followed strict head count rules, the AFP reports. You can watch an Australian TV news report on the incident in the video above.

"Panic kicks in, your heart rate goes up, and you don't know what's going to happen. I was sucking water back into my snorkel and was really trying hard to stay calm," Cole told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Cole saw another tour boat and says he swam about 15 minutes to reach it. ''When I got to the other boat they looked down like 'what the hell are you doing here?' They said my boat had left 15 minutes ago. I thought they were joking.''

The staff member who failed to do an accurate headcount has been fired, the paper says, and Cole was given a $200 restaurant voucher and a refund for the trip.

But the spokesman of a regional tour operators association told local Australian CairnsBlog that he thought Cole was exaggerating the danger he faced in the incident. Association of Marine Park Operators' Col McKenzie said Cole was ''making a mountain out of a molehill'' to get media attention.

"His response is very upsetting. I engaged in a professional and respectful way and all I sought was for this company to do the right thing following an incident that was totally unacceptable," Cole told CairnsBlog. He had asked for a letter apologizing for the incident and outlining what safety measures would be taken to prevent similar oversights from occurring in the future. Cole told NBC the skipper of the boat called him to apologize.

The horror movie "Open Water" was based on the story of the Lonergan couple, who disappeared after being left by a tour boat on the reef in 1998, and were presumed to have been eaten by sharks. The AP reports that in 2008, a British diver and his American girlfriend were lost nearby when they surfaced from a dive and couldn't find their tour boat. They spent 19 hours in the water awaiting a helicopter rescue.

You can watch Cole talk to NBC about his experience below:

(Cole: NBC)