An 80-year-old diver spent 18 hours holding on to a buoy in the cold, rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean before a relative found him Sunday, ending an exhaustive search off the Florida Keys.
Ignacio Siberio said he survived with the help of a wetsuit and instincts developed from more than 60 years of free diving and spear fishing. He did not require hospitalization, but was recovering at his weekend home in Tavernier on Sunday night.
“I’m feeling OK, but I got back home pretty beaten up, because I was all night and all day in one spot without moving,” Siberio told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Siberio, a lawyer who immigrated to the United States from Cuba, went in his boat to one of his favorite spear fishing spots off Tavernier around 11 a.m. Saturday. By about 2:30 p.m. he realized the boat was no longer anchored.
Siberio said he furiously swam after the boat for about three miles before giving up, grabbing a buoy to a lobster trap and watching his boat drift away in roughly 300-foot-deep waters.
As night fell, the temperature dropped to the 50s in the coldest South Florida night this fall. Winds picked up from the north, churning the seas and tossing Siberio around.
Siberio, who dives nearly every weekend, said his experience helped him know how to handle the ocean currents and how to cope with the cold water by keeping his body moving.
“You have to concentrate mentally in an extraordinary way so that you don’t get to the point that the cold, the danger, and the fact you are helpless make you quit,” Siberio said. “When you quit, it’s over.”
Meanwhile, Siberio’s wife called his great-nephew Carlos Lopez to ask if they were together. Lopez realized there may be trouble and called the U.S. Coast Guard, which began a search with aircraft and boats.
Lopez and friend Roberto Garcia drove from Miami to the Keys, hopped on their boats and began looking for Siberio’s boat in 4- to 6-foot seas in the dead of night. They ran into trouble themselves, with Lopez’s boat running aground and needing a tow to shore.
The Coast Guard stopped its search about 2 a.m., but Siberio kept fighting. He mustered all his mental and physical strength to move his legs underwater to prevent hypothermia from settling in.
He battled until after daybreak, when he began swimming to shore, more than 10 miles away.
Siberio’s family grew even more worried Sunday morning, when the Coast Guard found his boat about 23 miles east of Elliott Key — roughly more than 40 miles from where Siberio began diving Saturday.
Lopez and Garcia continued searching aboard Garcia’s boat. At about 10:30 a.m., Garcia spotted Siberio about four miles offshore. They pulled him onto their boat and called the Coast Guard.
Lopez marveled at the strength of his great-uncle. Lopez says that medical personnel were concerned when they finding that Siberio’s heart rate was 56 beats per minute, but Siberio told him that was his normal rate.
Siberio said he survived by not thinking too much about his desperate situation.
“You can’t start thinking for one second what’s happening to you, because it will take over,” Siberio said. “The sensation that you can die at any moment is constant.”