It happened on October 7 last year. A 46-year-old Russian woman was snorkeling at Alifu Alifu atoll Thoddoo's Bikini Beach when she was suddenly hit by a nearby speedboat. The speedboat was driven by an 18-year-old man without a license.
The speedboat that collided with the woman belonged to Relax Residence Guest House on the island; the collision nearly amputated her arm and her leg. When she was pulled out of the sea, the bones of one leg were visible. The propeller caused serious injuries to her shoulder and back.
The woman, who had come to the Maldives alone on vacation, was brought to Malé City and underwent successful surgeries at ADK Hospital. She was hospitalised for five weeks and was away from her family while being treated for injuries.
Illarion Igorevich Girs, a Russian lawyer who was on holiday in Thoddoo at the time of the incident, is now representing the woman. The victim did not want her identity revealed.
The lawyer said when the speedboat started moving towards the woman, she had tried to dodge it. However, the speedboat was too fast. With no other choice left, the woman tried to dive deeper, although the area was shallow. The lawyer said that the woman did not lose her life because of her own efforts to avoid the oncoming vessel.
The police, after investigations, said the incident occurred due to the recklessness of the driver. The driver had no licence and had been driving too fast. The case has been sent to the Prosecutor General's Office for criminal prosecution. However, it is not known whether the charges were filed.
Illarion is now preparing to sue the driver for compensation with the help of local lawyers. The lawsuit is against the owner of the Relax Residence Guest House and the Thoddoo Council.
Lawyer Ilarion said the woman who was injured in the life-altering accident, was prevented from earning an income through her work. After the major surgery she is now forced undergo physiotherapy and relearn how to walk and function in everyday life. She is currently undergoing 18 months of rehabilitation at home. The physical injuries sustained require expensive treatment and additional surgeries.
After the incident, the speedboat driver and the guest house to which the vessel belonged did not apologise to the woman or express sympathy, Ilarion said. He accused them of trying to avoid responsibility and changing the account of the incident.
According to Ilarion, the guesthouse owner is being sued because he is responsible for the incident by handing over the speedboat to an unlicensed minor. The man who was driving the speedboat was not the usual driver but was part of its crew.
The lawsuit is also pursuing the Thoddoo Council for failing to take necessary measures to ensure safety. He said such an incident would not have occurred if the island had rules for the safety of tourists swimming in the area.
Ilarion said he tried to negotiate a settlement with the guesthouse owner for USD 75,000 in compensation out of court, but made no progress.
The woman is now suing for a total of USD 300,000 (MVR 4.6 million). Two-thirds of that is for her medical expenses. The rest includes lost income due to physical and mental injury, as well as attorney's fees.
Noting that a large number of tourists come to the Maldives from Russia every year, Ilarion said the systemic problems in the tourism sector need to be solved. There are no rules to ensure safety for tourists when swimming and snorkelling on many local islands.
He said that there is no way to monitor people without licences or minors driving speedboats, and there is no third-party boat insurance available.
One of the points highlighted in the Police's investigation report of the incident is that some people do not look out for people snorkelling on the west side of the island when travelling in speedboats. It said that the council has no policy or procedure to ensure the safety of tourists who go to the beach in the area.
However, Thoddoo Council President Ahmed Karam said the incident occurred in an area that was previously separated by buoys for water sports. He said the buoys that had been installed to separate the area had been cut off by the flood.
Karam said the woman was hit by the speedboat while she was swimming outside the boundary beyond the pelagic area. The driver also said they saw the woman too late.
He said that although there is no area specified for snorkeling, the area is considered as a separate location.
"We are starting and slowly developing things, even though there are no specific rules gazetted directly, there is a common understanding that the area is separated, it had been separated by buoys in the past," he said.
In the past, tourists have drifted far off and had to be rescued after attempting to snorkel by themselves to see the mantas, Karam said. Therefore, regulations, awareness, and monitoring should be improved to reduce such incidents in the future, he said.
According to Karam, temporary buoys have now been installed in the area and permanent buoys will be installed within the next two weeks. Developing a rescue/life guard station is also being discussed in the tourist area, he said.
The owner of Relax Residence Guest House could not be reached for comment on the incident.
Such incidents will have an adverse impact on tourism in the Maldives. Last Wednesday, a Polish tourist was killed when a speedboat hit him while he was swimming near Thulusdhoo. The driver of the speedboat in the incident has been arrested in connection with the death of the 52-year-old.
Tourism Minister Dr. Abdulla Mausoon said the issue of tourists' safety should not be solved by "extinguishing fires". The ministry is working to find a permanent solution and will give special attention to it this year, he said. The Minister said he would hold stakeholder meetings soon.