Tom and Eileen Lonergan: The American Couple Who Disappeared In The Great Barrier Reef

Published December 5, 2022
Updated March 13, 2024

Tom and Eileen Lonergan went on a group scuba diving trip to the Coral Sea in January 1998 — before they were accidentally abandoned and never seen again.

Tom And Eileen Lonergan

Wikimedia CommonsThe disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan later served as the inspiration for the film Open Water.

On January 25, 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, a married American couple, left Port Douglas, Australia by boat with a group. They were off to dive St. Crispin’s reef, a popular dive site in the Great Barrier Reef. But something was about to go terribly wrong.

During the dive, they were abandoned at sea, reportedly unintentionally, and left in the open water. Neither was ever seen alive again and their exact fate remains a chilling mystery to this day.

How Tom And Eileen Lonergan Ended Up On That Fateful Dive

From Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tom Lonergan was 33 and Eileen was 28. Avid divers, the couple was described as “young, idealistic and in love with each other.”

They met at Louisiana State University, which is also where they married. Eileen was already a scuba diver and she got Tom to take up the hobby as well.

Coral Sea

pxhereAn aerial view of the Coral Sea, where Tom and Eileen Lonergan were abandoned, inspiring the film Open Water.

On that day in late January, Tom and Eileen were on their way home from Fiji where they had been serving in the Peace Corps for a year. They stopped in Queensland, Australia on the way for the chance to dive the world’s largest coral reef system.

Through the diving company Outer Edge, 26 passengers boarded the scuba boat. Geoffrey Nairn, the boat’s skipper, led the way as they set out to their destination 25 miles off the coast of Queensland.

After arriving, the passengers put on their diving gear and jumped into the Coral Sea. That is the last clear thing that can be said about Tom and Eileen Lonergan. What one could imagine is, after a scuba diving session of about 40 minutes, the couple break surface.

They see a clear blue sky, clear blue water all the way to the horizon, and nothing else. No boat in front, no boat behind. Just two disoriented divers who realize their crew has left them.

What Happened To Tom And Eileen Longeran?

Tom And Eileen Lonergan

YouTubeTom and Eileen Lonergan.

Leaving divers behind isn’t necessarily a death sentence. But in this case, the amount of time it took for someone to recognize that Tom and Eileen weren’t on the returning boat was too long.

Eerily, the day after the incident, another dive group taken to the area by Outer Edge found dive weights at the bottom. The discovery was simply described by a crew member as a bonus find.

Two days passed before anyone realized that the Lonergans were missing. It was only realized when Nairn found a bag aboard containing their personal belongings, wallets, and passports.

Alarm bells rang; a massive search was underway. Both air and sea rescue teams spent three days looking for the missing couple. Everyone from the Navy to civilian vessels took part in the search.

Rescue members found some of the Lonergan’s diving gear washed up ashore. This included a dive slate, an accessory used for making notes underwater. The slate read:

“To anyone who can help us: We have been abandoned on Agin court reef Reef 25 Jan 1998 03pm. Please help us come to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”

But Tom and Eileen Lonergan’s bodies were never found.

Theories About The Lonergans’ Disappearance And The True Story Of Open Water

Like most unsolved disappearances, chilling theories arose in the aftermath. Was it a matter of negligence on the part of the company and captain? Or was there something more sinister lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly do-gooder couple?

There was some speculation that they staged it or that perhaps it was a suicide or even a murder-suicide. Tom and Eileen’s diaries had disturbing entries that added fuel to the fire.

Tom seemed to be depressed. Eileen’s own writing was concerned with Tom’s apparent death wish, writing two weeks before their fateful trip that he wished to die a “quick and peaceful death” and that “Tom’s not suicidal, but he’s got a death wish that could lead him to what he desires and I could get caught in that.”

Their parents disputed this suspicion and said the entries were taken out of context. The general consensus was that the couple was left dehydrated and disoriented, leading to either drowning or being eaten by sharks.

In a proceeding court case, coroner Noel Nunan charged Nairn with unlawful killing. Nunan said that the “skipper should be vigilant for the safety of passengers and ensure safety measures are carried out.” He added, “When you combine the number of mistakes and the severity of the mistakes I am satisfied a reasonable jury would find Mr. Nairn guilty of manslaughter on criminal evidence.”

Nairn was found not guilty. But the company was fined after it pled guilty to negligence, which caused them to go out of business. Tom And Eileen Lonergan’s case also prompted stricter government regulations in regards to safety, including headcount confirmations and new identification measures.

In 2003, the film Open Water was released and is based on the tragic events of the Tom And Eileen Lonergan’s last dive and fateful disappearance.

If you enjoyed this article about Tom and Eileen Lonergan and the true story behind Open Water, check out these daredevils who took an up close video of a great white shark. Then read about the mysterious disappearance of Percy Fawcett, the man who went searching for El Dorado.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Ithaca College and hosts a podcast for Puna Press.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Goldfarb, Kara. "Tom and Eileen Lonergan: The American Couple Who Disappeared In The Great Barrier Reef.", December 5, 2022, Accessed May 23, 2024.