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Death of Underwater World diver ruled a tragic misadventure

SINGAPORE — A veteran diver at the now defunct Underwater World Singapore, Philip Chan had an “ideal” plan for transferring four leopard rays from their tanks into a holding area, before transporting them to a new home in Malaysia on Oct 4 last year.

At Philip Chan’s wake in Oct 2016, an old scuba diving suit was displayed next to his coffin as a reminder of his love of diving. TODAY file photo

At Philip Chan’s wake in Oct 2016, an old scuba diving suit was displayed next to his coffin as a reminder of his love of diving. TODAY file photo

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SINGAPORE — A veteran diver at the now defunct Underwater World Singapore, Philip Chan had an “ideal” plan for transferring four leopard rays from their tanks into a holding area, before transporting them to a new home in Malaysia on Oct 4 last year.

But when it came to moving the final ray, the team of six divers led by Chan struggled. The first attempt to guide it from a reef tank to a shallow 50cm-deep platform within the tank and then to capture it with a net failed, as the ray swam back to the deeper end of the tank after reaching the platform.

On the next attempt, the ray stayed put on the platform, but tragedy soon struck. Chan had climbed onto the platform and other divers heard him exclaim “Ah!” before he collapsed. 

They carried him to the quarantine area and he was unresponsive. After cutting open his wetsuit, they saw a stingray barb protruding from his chest. Chan was rushed to Singapore General Hospital, where he was declared dead at around 3.30pm. 

An autopsy found that he had died of excessive bleeding and cardiac tamponade, where an accumulation of blood around the heart affects it from functioning normally.

The stingray barb — measuring 22.5cm long — had punctured his heart and aorta, and caused 1L of blood to pool in the chest cavity, and 120g of blood clots to form around the heart. 

At the Coroner’s Inquiry on Wednesday (March 1), State Coroner Marvin Bay ruled the death a tragic misadventure. 

The court heard that Chan had been helping with the transfer of marine life to their new buyers after Underwater World Singapore closed last June. 

On the day of the accident, he had briefed a team of divers on the procedure to move the four rays. Three of them were already guided to the holding area. The last ray was in the reef tank and had to be moved to the shallow platform, and captured in a net — a plan that Mr Kwek Meng Tiam, former regional general manager of Underwater World Singapore, said was “ideal”, as the risk is minimised and the animal would be less stressed.  

The ray that stung Chan was a Leopard Whiptail Ray, a species that is typically shy and swims away from threats. However, should it be cornered or surprised, it would attack by flicking its tail upwards towards the threat and deploying a barb from near the tail. 

Mr Kwek told the court that there was no specific protocol on handling marine animals at the aquarium, given the wide-ranging species in captivity and their varied conditions.

Dr Frederic Chua, a veterinarian consultant for Underwater World Singapore, was part of the team that had to complete the transfer of the ray after Chan died. 

He testified that the ray had behaved out of the ordinary, by reversing in the waters upon detecting Chan. He said that the ray had been caught from another enclosure and placed there eight years ago, and was probably “devising ways to escape capture” given its past experience. 

In his findings, Coroner Bay said: “Perhaps the appropriate lesson here would be to recognise that despite their long-term captivity, a wild animal may revert to their hard-wired natural instinct to reflexively lash out and inflict fatal or severe injuries, in a situation when they are cornered, surprised, or perceive themselves to be under threat.”

He added that this case showed that an animal handler’s expertise, skill and experience would not “invariably insulate” one from animal-inflicted harm.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Chan’s widow Tong Siew Keng said: “It’s just unlucky that this happened...Life goes on.”

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