What began as an enjoyable day of boating and hiking in the British Virgin Islands ended with one man dead and one hospitalized following a drowning and rescue attempt Saturday.
The 10 friends had sailed in the early morning hours from St. Thomas to the BVI with plans to hike the trails on the rugged north side of Jost Van Dyke. Prior to reaching the trails, the group joined other sightseers at the bubbly pool, a popular tourist attraction for visiting boaters to the island.
The unique geological rock formation at Diamond Cay on the northern coast of Jost Van Dyke funnels waves through a very narrow passage into a small, natural pool, resulting in a Jacuzzi-like display of bubbles and effervescence.
Jeff Lange, Jonathon “Johnny” Wheeler and Doug Stewart were joined by the others enjoying the calm shallow waters of the tidal pool. Lange climbed the rocks surrounding the pool to photograph the group, when a large wave crested the protective natural wall, sweeping Lange backwards into a large water-filled crevice. Seeing their friend in distress, Wheeler and Stewart immediately swam into the churning water to assist Lange out of the dangerous location.
"We saw that all three men were safe and sound atop the rocks, attempting to return to the group between crashing waves,” said trip organizer Trish Carr. “The fierce waves seemed to appear out of nowhere and in a split second, Johnny was gone.”
A rogue wave separated Wheeler from the group, immediately sweeping him under the surface and against the surrounding rocks where he lost consciousness. In Stewart’s attempts to reach Wheeler, he was pulled beneath the surface by the strong undercurrent, sustaining severe injuries, but managing to swim out of the potentially life-threatening situation under his own power.
Though VI Search and Rescue first responders were on the scene within minutes, efforts to resuscitate Wheeler proved unsuccessful. Stewart sustained severe bruising and a fractured hip, as well as a dangerous inhalation of sea water. He remained in a guarded condition at Peebles Hospital on Tortola as of Sunday.
Wheeler was a diving enthusiast, musician, coffee barista and popular bartender, and his friends and "island family," though shocked by the news, were not surprised that he had put himself in harm's way in order to rescue a friend.
“His training as a dive instructor would have played a role in him reacting so quickly in an emergency,” said former employer Duane Hausch of Admiralty Dive Center, “His devotion to his friends defined his character.”
A favorite stopover of charter yacht crews and hiking enthusiasts, the bubbly pool has known tragedy in the past. An American tourist drowned a year ago to the day in March 2012 while on charter and under the same high surf conditions. In September, the BVI Tourist Board announced that safety signage and public rescue equipment are now in place to provide added safety at the pool.
A high surf advisory remains in effect through Tuesday afternoon in the area, with the possibility of large breaking waves and dangerous surf conditions, according to the National Weather Service.