A ferry skipper has told a coronial inquest into the drowning deaths of two Indian fathers off Penguin Island that he always warned his passengers against walking across the unpredictable sandbar linking the island to the mainland.

Justin Downie was the skipper of Rockingham Wildlife Encounters' ferry vessel the MV Penguin Express on December 28, 2010 when friends Pavan Kumar Ganasala, 37, and 31-year-old Praveen Kumar Pagadala Shiva died after being swept off the sandbar.

The men and their wives had decided to walk back to the mainland using the sandbar rather than take the ferry.

Mr Downie today told the Coroner's Court that he had rescued about six people during the day, but did not describe them as life-threatening situations.

He said it was a typical busy summer's day with a strong afternoon sea breeze and he noticed a lot of people were using the sandbar.

Mr Downie said just after leaving Mersey Point in Rockingham to make another 700m run to Penguin Island at about 3pm he stopped to rescue a man and daughter in distress. Mid-rescue he heard screams and saw two people in deep water closer to Penguin Island.

As he was helping the other pair, he said he could not make it over to them and called the ticket office, asking them to get the island ranger to help the people in his dinghy.

Ranger Murray Banks pulled Mr Ganasala, his wife Aruna and Mr Pagadala Shiva's wife Mahdavee Adapa out of the water by himself and tied Mr Pagadala Shiva to the boat with a rope and rushed them to shore.
The men had had their wives, who could not swim, on their shoulders.

Mr Downie said he went to the beachfront and helped perform CPR on one of the men for up to an hour before an ambulance officer told him to stop.

He said passengers often asked him about the safety of the sandbar and he always told them it was unsuitable to walk on, especially if they did not know the area well or was not a strong swimmer, because of winds, high tides and the unpredictable depth of the sandbar.

"I always tell them ... it's far safer to use the ferry and under no circumstances should they be walking on the sandbar," he said.

Mr Downie said while rescuing people who had encountered trouble crossing the sandbar was not part of his job, it was human nature to stop and help someone in distress.

He said generally he saw a lot of international groups visit the island, including Indian, Chinese and Japanese.

The island is managed by the Department of Environment and Conservation.

The men's wives told the inquest yesterday they could not recall seeing the warning signs on the mainland and island advising against using the sandbar, but if they had they would never have tried to cross it.

They said other island tourists had told them the sandbar was safe to cross and they had seen people with young children on it just before they started walking.

The couples left their three young children with their grandparents who returned on the ferry.

A decision to close the sandbar to the public had been made but signs were not able to be erected before the men drowned.

The inquest was told the department cannot enforce the closure and often people ignore the signs.

The inquest continues.

The West Australian

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