x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Family cling to hope for missing Emirati freediver

The search continues for Adel Abu Haliqa, the UAE's freediving champion, who went missing during a dive off the Greek island of Santorini on Tuesday.

A search is ongoing for Adel Abu Haliqa, the UAE freediving champion, who went missing on Tuesday while freediving to a depth of 70m off the Greek island of Santorini.
A search is ongoing for Adel Abu Haliqa, the UAE freediving champion, who went missing on Tuesday while freediving to a depth of 70m off the Greek island of Santorini.

ABU DHABI // The family of Adel Abu Haliqa, the UAE's freediving champion, has refused to abandon hope of finding him alive after he went missing during a dive off the Greek island of Santorini on Tuesday.

Mr Abu Haliqa, 40, is one of the main proponents of the sport in the emirates and is the co-founder of Freediving UAE, a company specialising in freediving courses and training.

The Abu Dhabi resident left for Greece on May 25 to train for the AIDA Individual Depth World Championship 2011 in September. He went missing on Tuesday while freediving to a depth of 70m, according to a report that the UAE Embassy in Greece sent to Mr Abu Haliqa's family.

A group of people who had accompanied him on a private boat to the dive site 450m from the coast reported him missing at about 1.15pm. Ports authorities dispatched rescue boats to conduct a search.

On Wednesday, AIDA International, an organisation that aims to further the development of freediving, issued a statement saying a diver did not return from a training dive and that the local coast guard was conducting a search operation.

It said the missing diver "appears to have released his safety lanyard at depth, and then separated from the sled".

Nada Abu Haliqa, his 35-year-old wife, told The National yesterday: "I've always worried about him. But I encouraged him to go.

"I wasn't unusually upset on the day he left because I knew he's always been training and he's also training people."

She said she received a call on Tuesday from Alex Boulting, the other co-founder of Freediving UAE. “He told me, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’,” she said. “Alex was so sad when he broke the news to me.”

But the family have refused to give up hope of finding him alive.

Adel’s brother, Hussain Abu Haliqa, 53, travelled to Santorini on Thursday to assist in the search. “For the family, we look forward to the official status,” he said. “For now, he’s missing and we have not lost hope. We can’t – we have to do something.

“We believe that God is in control of many things. Some things happen in a certain way ...Adel will be safe.”

Of all freediving disciplines, the one known as “no limit” enables divers to go to the greatest depths. It involves taking a breath and grabbing hold of a weighted sled connected to a cable that carries the diver down to the target depth. Then, the diver inflates a balloon carrying him to the surface.

In its report, AIDA said the missing diver had used a sled for several years, and had dived to below 80m.

“The sled surfaced without the diver: he had opened the tank and filled the lift bag before separating from it. The deeper of the two safety divers – at 35 metres – was unable to see the diver, in visibility of approximately 20 metres,” the report said.

“The counterbalance system was activated, but the diver was not attached to the line. Safety divers performed numerous search and rescue dives, including one variable descent to approximately 75 metres, but were unable to locate the diver.”

Hussain Abu Haliqa said the diving team told him that his brother did an 80-metre dive on Monday, a day before he was reported missing.

“It was a much simpler dive of 70 metres on Tuesday,” he said. “He reached 70 metres and there were two safety divers – one between 30-35 metres and another at 25 metres.”

The divers saw the balloon reach the surface, but his brother did not appear with it. Stavros Kastrinakis, a team diver, went to about 80 metres to search.

Hussain Abu Haliqa met yesterday with the director of the local coast guard, who assured him that nearby islands were involved in the search, as well as a diving association and volunteer scuba divers.

“It’s been three days and they have nothing,” Mr Abu Haliqa said. “Today I spoke to a professional company in Athens specialised in search and rescue operations. They have experienced divers and are well-equipped.”

The UAE Embassy in Athens sent two officials to assist him and other family members in Santorini. “We know our Government will not leave us,” he said. “It will continue to support us.”

Mr Abu Haliqa passed on the family’s gratitude to Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed.

“I have a strong feeling that they will find him,” Mrs Abu Haliqa said. “The whole family is praying and we believe our prayers will not go to waste.”

The couple has two sons, Mohammed and Ali, aged 10 and four, and a daughter, Amna, eight. “My son Mohammed believes someone has picked up his father and he’ll be back soon.”

Colleagues and friends yesterday described the Emirati freediver as a true professional who was “religious about safety”.

Mr Boulting, a qualified AIDA instructor, said: “Adel wasn’t the type who would push his limits. The key motto of AIDA is to know your limits. We have to instil that in our students. Knowing your limits is critical. Adel wasn’t pushing his limits on that day; he was very careful.”

Mr Abu Haliqa and Mr Boulting were seeking to assemble a UAE national team to compete in future freediving events, including the AIDA Individual Depth World Championship in Greece in September.

“Adel was the only UAE national who was competing and he wanted to get more people to compete with him,” he said.

The divers also planned to set up a UAE chapter of AIDA to organise freediving competitions in the Emirates.

Wassim Zein, 34, who began offering freediving training in the UAE in 2006, met Mr Abu Haliqa when he was a beginner in the sport.

“From day one, I saw the determination in his eyes, and he kept getting better and better,” Mr Zein said. “He went through all those challenges and got to where he is now.”

Mr Zein stressed Mr Abu Haliqa’s concern for safety. “In fact, he was religious about safety,” he said. “He’s more of a calm diver than an aggressive one.”

While freedivers stress that the sport seems a lot more daunting than it is, there have been a number of high-profile fatalities.

Audrey Mestre, a Frenchwoman who had set several records, died in 2002 while attempting to break a record of 162 metres off the coast of the Dominican Republic.

In April 2007, Loic Leferme, a French diver, died during a world-record attempt near Nice in France.

rruiz@thenational.ae