Aaron Smith, Cape York Weekly
A coroner’s report on the worst maritime tragedy in the Torres Strait since the sinking of the Malu Sara in 2009 was publicly gazetted last week and community leaders have voiced concerns over a lack of connectivity, affordable transportation and boat safety.
When a family of five from Dauan Island failed to return home by dinghy on the evening of July 31, 2019 family alerted authorities.
Their seven-metre banana boat Pana Boy was found the next day by water police some 5km from their destination, but without a trace of its passengers.
It was missing the outboard’s cowling cover and bung plug. A massive search and rescue effort was conducted, but police, volunteers, TSIRC, TSRA and PNG rangers were never able to find them.
Over the following days, the boat’s contents washed up on surrounding islands and PNG’s Western Province coastline, including fuel drums, an esky, a child’s life jacket and a grab bag containing an unused EPIRB and flares.
The official search ceased but members of Torres Strait and PNG Western Province communities continuing looking for the missing five people until August 27.
Skipper Donald Mooka, 44, his son Claude Mooka, 9, Telcy Mooka, 22, Gina Gaiden-Banu, 21, and Alan Maka Bigie, 22, were never found.
They were last seen alive leaving Badu heading home northwest to Dauan at around 3pm into deteriorating weather. That night, winds reached 30 knots and the sea had two-metre swells.
The coroner’s report factored poor mobile phone connectivity in the region, the absence of an outer island ferry service, and while acknowledging “…many Torres Strait Islanders are excellent mariners”, that there needed to be a cultural shift around safety.
Torres Strait Island Regional Council mayor Phillemon Mosby, said: “I totally agree with and fully support the findings of the coroner’s report, and it certainly will be used in our upcoming deputations with both state and Commonwealth ministers.
“The need for a commitment to investment into transportation within the Torres Strait is not a new conversation and this report certainly highlights this.
“I acknowledge that there is a need for a cultural shift in terms of personal responsibility to marine safety, and as I’ve continually stated, our people are seafarers who have maintained their connection to sea country for thousands of years, but there are significant gaps around safety and connectivity.
“Especially given the extreme weather conditions and complex topography of our region.
“All agencies must come together to support and invest in community awareness programs around boat safety.
“I see campaigns talking about the importance of wearing a seatbelt in the Northern Territory – well our highways in the Strait are our waterways.”
Cr Mosby said the high cost of living and intra-island transportation meant “it is costing people an arm and a leg to get in or get out, just to remain connected to family and go about their daily lives, hence people, such as the members of our Duaun community, who sadly found themselves in that predicament, under extreme weather conditions, where it cost five lives.
“This report clearly indicates that we need real solutions for real problems, because we have very real problems here. We don’t want talk, we’ve done away with talk – we want real solutions and real action,” Cr Mosby said.
NPARC mayor Patricia Yusia said the communities across the Torres Strait and NPA were devastated by the tragedy and have been supporting the victims’ families.
“Due to the strong connections between the NPA and Torres Strait, we will unfortunately continue to experience these tragedies,” Cr Yusia said.
“Being able to travel to destinations across the NPA and Torres Strait is important for families to strengthen their connections.
“While we have the government subsidy to assist with airfares, it still remains very expensive for families to travel between the region, especially with freight, so families will continue to take those risks to be able to connect.
“It is time for the state and federal government to recognise these issues and look at the safety of Australian residents across the NPA and Torres Strait to ensure there is something for families to utilise that is affordable to take more than four people to destinations across the region.”
“This is not the first time we have had a tragic incident such as this and incidents will continue to happen until there are more affordable methods for our families.”
Senior Sergeant Allison Williams, officer in charge of Thursday Island police station, said it was the worst maritime incident since the Malu Sara sinking in 2009. Five people also perished in the same passage of open water between Badu and Duaun islands.
“None of us will ever forget this, just as nobody has ever forgotten the Malu Sara tragedy,” she said last week.
“It is a terrible reminder that in the Torres Strait, in particular, we are at the mercy of the seas and the weather sometimes.
“It really was a horrible accident and the only ones that will ever truly know what happened are those who lost their lives that day.
“Because it is such a small community here, it’s not just the families that are impacted, but all of us in the community.
“The saddest part of it for me, is despite the extensive search and rescue effort we all made, we were not able to bring those people home.”
This article appeared in Cape York Weekly, 31 August 2021.