A remarkable but bittersweet tale of courage, survival and loss emerged recently from remote northeastern Australia, where three children survived being marooned for six days on tiny deserted islands in the Torres Strait.
The three children — two sisters ages 15 and 10, and their 12-year-old brother — swam for several hours to a rocky outcropping after their family’s boat capsized in choppy seas. Their parents urged the trio to swim for safety while they remained beside the overturned boat, supporting their 3-year-old son with a single life jacket, according to reports. The area is known for strong currents and sharks.
“It was the last time we saw them,” 12-year-old Stephen Nona, who also is known as Bala, told interviewers.
The children spent three days on the barren crag, sipping small amounts of sea water and eating the few oysters they found. At night, they huddled together for warmth and tried to sleep. Stephen told ghost stories to take their minds off the situation.
On the third day, Stephen realized that without fresh water he and his sisters would have to abandon what they had dubbed “the rock” and swim to a larger island more than two miles away. All they could see of the island was the top of a lone palm tree.
“We have to swim, or we’ll die,” Stephen told his sisters, Ellis, 15, and Norita, 10. They waited for the tide and current to be in their favor and set off. Stephen instructed his sisters to “swim quietly” to avoid attracting sharks. When the girls tired, Stephen swam behind them and pushed them along.
“We swam all day,” Stephen told reporters. “We started in the morning, and we got to the big island in the afternoon.”
The so-called big island was Matu, an atoll described in various reports as being about the size of a football field with a single palm tree. Small as it was, the island proved to be an oasis compared to “the rock.” On the beach the castaways found five dried coconuts. Stephen peeled the husk off one with his teeth. They drank coconut water, ate berries known as wongai fruit, and waited for help.
Several days earlier, the Nona family had set out from their home on Badu Island in a 16-foot aluminum fishing boat for the roughly 25-mile trip to Thursday Island to attend a birthday party. The father, Naseli Nona, a local pastor, was reported to be an excellent waterman, former skipper of a pearl lugger, and the first registered coxswain on his island.
En route to Thursday Island, the boat’s outboard stalled, and Naseli set an anchor while he repaired the engine. Conditions were windy and rough. Once the outboard was fixed, the family had trouble raising the anchor. In the choppy conditions, the boat filled with water and capsized.
The accident happened on a Tuesday. No one grew concerned about the family until Sunday. It was assumed that Naseli and his family had stopped at another island to visit friends or help a church member. The children were rescued Monday by one of their uncles.
The Torres Strait is between the northern tip of Queensland off Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. The Torres Strait islanders have a strong seafaring tradition. “We teach all our children survival skills on the islands,” Wendy Phineasa, the children’s aunt, told the Reuters news agency. “It’s like teaching city kids to cross the road.”
The three survivors were dehydrated and sunburned, and Norita had cuts on her feet, but otherwise they were in good physical health.
Some have called it a miracle.