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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith

Overview on the movement of a human body in the waters surrounding Philip Island/San Remo, Victoria,

Background: On 23 September 1986, Elizabeth Barnard was murdered at her home on McPhee’s Road, Phillip Island/Rhyll. The main suspect in this case is Vivienne Janice Cameron.

Late in the afternoon of 23 September 1986, family and police recovered a vehicle suspected of being driven by Vivienne. It was parked near Forrest Avenue, Newhaven, near the San Remo Bridge.

There were some unsubstantiated reports that this vehicle could have been at that location at about 5am on 23 September 1986.

Subsequent findings by the relevant coroner in 1988 determined that Vivienne Cameron had murdered Elizabeth Barnard, and that Vivienne Cameron was dead as a result of jumping from the San Remo Bridge into the channel separating Westernport Bay and the open ocean.

Investigation methodology: In order to better understand the circumstances of this aspect of the case the methodology will be to examine all information and evidence available to be assessed by exploring the following objectives.

(a) Identify all environmental details relating to tide, current, and water depths in the channel passing below the San Remo Bridge.

(b) Identify the probable movement behavior of a female body entering the water from the San Remo Bridge.

(c) Identify the possible behavior of a human body post mortem after entering the water from the San Remo Bridge.

(d) Detail the dive and Search and Rescue considerations.

Objectives addressed: ‘A’ Identify all environmental details relating to tide, current, and water depths in the channel passing below the San Remo Bridge.

Information Acquired Date: 23 September 1986 is on the four-week changeover period from summer to autumn and is generally warm and still dry.

Weather: 23 September 1986 = minimum of 8.0 and a maximum of 16.40 24 September 1986 = minimum of 6.3 and a maximum of 21.60 Rainfall recorded at Ventnor was, 23 September 1986 = 0mm 24 September 1986 = 6.2mm

Beach temperatures: The beach water sea temperature around Phillip Island peak around mid-February at about 17 to 20 degrees Celsius and hit their minimum about mid-August 12 to 15 degrees Celsius. This would likely put sea temperature in late September 1986 at about 13 to 15 degrees Celsius, i.e., on the cusp of just moving upwards from the coldest time.

Tides: The low tide would have probably peaked at about 1.00 AM, so the tide at about 2-3am would have been mid-range going out, or on the cusp of a change reaching High (incoming) tide around sunrise. (note: the slack water period between tide changes lasts for only about ten to twenty minutes – this is the prime diving time for rescuers and scuba divers.) Tide/current speed runs at about 6-8 knots (i.e. 11 to 14 kmh), this is quick and is equivalent to a high-performance jogging speed.

Lunar activity: The lunar activity reached a new moon on 18 September 1986, and an early waxing moon of about 75% visibility heading into the third quarter on 23 September 1986.

Sunset: Sunrise at Phillip Island on 23 September 1986 would have been about 6am. (1971 was the year that daylight saving was introduced)

Fauna/Flora: The concentration of thought is on water-based risks in September.

From a fauna perspective the only identifiable top-line predator about Phillip Island in September are sharks, the most notable being the Great White. The Australian resident shark population ranges wide, certainly taking in the Southern flank of the Australian coast, it is noted that Great White sharks have been tracked from South Africa to Australia, a journey of about 9 months.)


Shark attacks on humans are extremely rare, however this does not include those humans believed lost to drowning and/or eaten by sharks’

Comment and Assessment The waters around Phillip Island Victoria, are notoriously treacherous. The coastal area is influenced by open ocean tides, with the inlets into Western Port Bay on the Phillip Island side restricted to a deep fast channel.

The depth of water at or near the San Remo bridge ranges up to about 16 metres deep, with a current speed of 6-8 knots, which is the equivalent rate to that of a strong jogger.

Anecdotally the rule of thumb for divers in any fast waters is that, “If you are having difficulty handling a small boat in the water, then it is not safe to dive.” This leaves the SAR search diving window at the 10 minutes or so of slack water between the tide changes.

The tidal time movement in 1986 is difficult to accurately assess, however it is likely that the outgoing tide would have concluded about 6am on that morning.

‘B’ Identify the probable movement behavior of a female body entering the water from the San Remo Bridge. Body movement: ‘How many times has a rescue squad come to a waterfront and heard the family say’, “We just looked away for a second and he was gone?” A common misconception is that a swimmer will stay on the surface struggling and then slowly sink beneath the surface of the water.


They mistakenly believe that a witness will easily have enough time to see the drowning and make a rescue.

When someone drowns they sink to the bottom as the body is less buoyant. This is called negative buoyancy. Salt water holds up a body in a different way to fresh water, but this is only in the positive buoyancy stage, which occurs when the body gasses up after about a day.

Issues which can affect the sink time include such issues as body density which differs with factors such as age and body type, current flow, and density of the water. As an example, salt water has a higher density than fresh water and therefore will have an impact on sink time. Continuing this example, a very fit twenty-year-old male will sink faster in fresh water than a very young female in salt water. Relevant to this case a well- known study estimates that an adult female would take about 5 seconds to sink to the bottom in 2metres of water. See Table 1.

It should also be remembered that, based on the laws of physics, drowning victims do not go part way down and stop once they lose positive buoyancy. They go all the way to the bottom. Emergency personnel need to be aware that drowning victims are either on the surface, moving quickly (in seconds) toward the bottom or on the bottom. A Canadian SAR based study in fresh water lakes drownings suggests that an SAR search area should be relevant to the radius from the known point of entry equal to the depth of the water.

In relation to the Phillip Island seaboard environs it is well known to SAR specialists that bodies in that area move, in one recent case a human rib cage was reported as being seen in Western Port Bay, but by the time SAR police got there it had moved. “Bodies are hard to find, they move along with the tide, sometimes going out and then coming back again. If they get out into the open ocean, the chances of recovery are not high at all...rough water, and big sharks.” A body heading out of the San Remo Phillip Island channel could also be expected to zig zag with the tides on the way out.

In relation to surviving a drop from height into water a comparison on drops to the water and survivability can be obtained from studies of the Melbourne West Gate Bridge, which until recently was a regular suicide drop. The West Gate Bridge is @ 50m high, with a ‘lethality rating of about 95%. So San Remo Bridge at about 12m is survivable, but then there is the drowning factor.

Comment and Assessment The first thing to consider is that presuming Vivienne (a female) jumped from the San Remo bridge into the channel, would she have survived the jump. The short answer to that question is that it is very possible that she did.

Accepting that Vivienne survived the jump then what would have happened to her once she hit the water. In this scenario it is likely that, regardless of suicidal intentions, if she was not weighted down by bagged rocks etc. she would have gone into ‘instinctive drowning response’ which includes attempting to hold her breath under water and trying to thrust upwards towards the surface.

In addition, there needs to be some consideration for clothing that may trap air or provide some limited floatation, such as casual sports shoes.

Even considering the clothing, expiration of air, body type and weight of the drowning victim the drop to the bottom would be rapid, with a female body in 2 metres of water estimated to hit the bottom within about five seconds of drowning.

Generally speaking, SAR divers can expect to find a drowning victim very close to the point of entry into the water, with a fresh water rule of thumb that says the body should be located within a radius of the point of entry that is equal to the depth of the water.

The issue at Phillip Island is that it is salt water, not fresh, therefore this increases the buoyancy slightly and when adding this to the depth of the water at about (10 – 13 metres), as well as a tide pull of about 12 kmh, the body of a female (Vivienne) could be somewhat further than the depth ratio applicable to fresh slack-water drownings.

Even when considering the likelihood of Vivienne sinking further out from the bridge and sinking at an angle greater than in slack-water, it is still reasonable for the divers to have expected success, especially if there is any ledges heavy kelp or edges on the bottom that often snag and anchor a body. The challenge in this case is that the usually accepted non-movement of bodies at the bottom does not apply where this a fast deep smooth water channel, with no bottom restrictions.

‘C’ Identify the possible behavior of a human body post mortem after entering the water from the San Remo Bridge. Sea lice and other carrion eaters work extremely fast, also fluctuating water temperature predicts how a body will sit, to be directed by the tides. The speed of body destruction in salt water is dependent upon a number of environmental influences, in some cases a body could be consumed to bones within 24+ hours. Another example provided was that of a drowning victim in East Gippsland, who was recovered in a kelp bed after two weeks, all that was left was part of the spine, the pelvis and one leg bone, everything else was gone.

Recent experiments conducted in Canada in 30 metres of water off Vancouver, using pig carcasses under video surveillance, revealed crab and some fish activity able to reduce a pig carcass to skeleton in deep water in as little as three days.

A rule of thumb for a body on the bottom moving is that if a diver struggles to hold station against the current then a body will likely move.

Clothing (especially heavy winter clothing) can trap air and provide buoyancy. If the bottom is ‘smooth’ sand and/or mud the body could move along. (30 minutes to Griffith’s Point is possible but unlikely)

Putrefaction (‘gassing up’) varies according to ambient temperature and gastro- intestinal contents. (rule of thumb here and police culture worldwide is 3 days for a body to float.)

Deeper and colder the water, the less ‘gassing up’, due to refrigeration and compression of the gasses.

As a body gains some buoyancy, they will move gently, starting like a ‘push-up’ position and bump along the bottom (sometimes gaining abrasions on fingers face and feet) and or float mid-water.

Some bodies are recovered just resting on toes, not far off floating away.

In SAR parlance they also talk about the ‘motor-bike rider’ position. (body resting on its back with arms and legs raised).

A body in the water at San Remo in September might begin to move in stages towards the Heads, and if it gained the surface, it may not have been noticed (as there will have been less beach-goers or recreational boating traffic in the area).

Bodies, with full buoyancy, generally float on surface face down almost 45 degrees angle with only the back of the head and maybe shoulders visible. Very hard to see from shore level if you are not expecting them.

Buoyancy of a body is a variables estimation=guesswork.

Comment and Assessment Much of the detail above is similar to objective ‘B’, therefore the comments are applicable for both, (read ‘B’). The considerations added here includes the behaviour of a body in water for longer than a few hours.

Considering the 3 days’ rule of thumb when a ‘gassed up’ body rises, we could expect that Vivienne would likely rise within or close to that time. Only the back of her head and shoulders would be at the surface, in dark deep moving choppy water this would likely not be seen. Given the water depths she would likely not have bounced along the bottom, instead just floating with the tidal currents in the upright, slightly angled position.

Given the currents and tides it is quite likely that if Vivienne did not head out to the entrance in the early stages of her drowning, it is quite possible that she would have once ‘gassed up’.

At some time, depending upon conditions, a body sinks back to the bottom and is then subject to a rapid continuance of deterioration from the elements and invasive/predatory creatures in the environment. SAR and other search experts are well aware that the breaking down of a body in Victorian coastal waters is extremely fast and can occur in days/weeks, rather than months.

The travel of a body from out of the Phillip Island channel could easily have gone with the tidal pull and drifted to the Eastern side of Griffiths Point.

‘D’ Detail the dive and Search and Rescue considerations. SAR divers should expect to find a drowned body very close to the point where it has gone in to the water. A positively buoyant body will move with the tides, in the Phillip Island Murder case, due to the quick diving response the body should have been expected to have been found, however the fact that it was not found does not mean that the victim (Vivienne) did not enter the water at the San Remo Bridge.

Discussion 1 There are several factors which can cause the time to decrease. In this discussion it is assumed that the body goes to the bottom in a horizontal position as what was calculated was for when the center of gravity of the body to hit the bottom. Since the center of gravity is located in the pelvic region and the center of buoyancy is located in the mid chest region, there is a turning moment placed on the body. As the body sinks, the victim will come to a more upright position as the two forces of buoyancy and gravity attempt to line up. This will cause the feet to hit the bottom first. This in essence shortens the distance to the bottom and thus the time. Once this happens, the body will gradually sink into a more horizontal position. A common sinking sequence is to have the feet contact the bottom, then the lower leg. Sometimes the torso will be slightly elevated due to the presence of air in the upper body region. The head will hang down and the arms will either sink or float up a bit depending on the physiological characteristics of the body. Over time, as air continues to evacuate the body, the body may sink to a point where most of the body contacts the bottom.

1 Time Required For a Drowning Victim to Reach Bottom John L. Hunsucker PhD, PE Scott J. Davison MBA, ME, NREMT-P, LP PO Box 458, Dickinson, TX 77539 United States of America Email: sjdavison@att.net

Another factor which may well shorten the time to the bottom is if water replaces air space inside the victim. If water fills the mouth, throat, lungs, stomach or any other internal air cavity of the victim, then the buoyant force will be decreased as will the time to the bottom. This model was developed primarily around water that was eight feet deep. Deeper water would, of course, lengthen the sink time and the corresponding drift distance that the body will move. Said another way, the deeper the water and the faster the flow then the longer the drift distance and sink times.

The second implication for search and rescue is that the very quick transition from on or near the surface to the bottom means that the victim’s body is less likely to drift or move far away. Even in a current, once the victim comes to a hole or eddy, they tend to stop. Holes and eddies on the bottom of lakes and rivers tend to keep what is in them. This implies that the victim has a good chance of being found on the bottom at or close to the place they were last seen on the surface. One exception to this is if a victim falls into a storm sewer or man-made flood system where there is a lot of moving water and smooth sides and bottom. The body then tends to roll and may end up far downstream. The same situation can occur with the extreme current flows often found in flooding situations.

The third implication is that the current in a river can move the body downriver while it is sinking to the bottom. Lakes and swimming pools don’t normally have currents. Many recreational rivers only have a current of 2-3 miles per hour while a fast river may reach 6-7 mph. A fast stream may only be flowing at less than 1 mph. (Marietta, 2012) The rapids above Niagara Falls run about 25 mph. (Niagara Parks, 2012) You can estimate how many feet a body might move in a river if you find the speed of the current and multiply by the number of seconds the body takes to sink. The conversion from miles per hour to feet per second can be done by multiplying miles per hour by 88 and then dividing by 60. Table 2 shows how far a body may move in various currents during the descent. As an example, in a fairly common flow of 2 mph, a body will move between 11.7 and 20.5 feet downriver before contacting the bottom, assuming a 4 to 7 second sink time. Once the bottom is contacted, downriver movement will be minimized by irregular bottom contours. Regardless of the current flow. The table below emphasizes the point that body searches should begin in the immediate vicinity of the best estimate of the point the victim was last on the surface. See Table 2

While this model does not yield a formula that shows as precise a time as a more sophisticated simulation would, it does show an approximate estimate of the time to the bottom. More importantly, it shows that the time to sink to the bottom is fairly short.


Different combinations of variables show times of less than 7 seconds for sinking and only extremely small chest size changes could increase the time to as long as 10 seconds. This model provides an estimate of where to begin the search. Other factors such as water depth, current flow, body type, and water density should be considered which may lengthen the sink time and promote extended movement of the body.

Drowning people's mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people's mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.

Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. This response was summarised by Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia PhD in their article “How to Recognize the Instinctive Drowning response”; the Instinctive Drowning Response will cause the following actions in a drowning person: Breathing as quickly as possible whenever the mouth actually manages to go above the water, this means there is no time to shout - only time to breathe as fast as possible. The breathing action takes precedence over any vocal ability.

The arms will extend to the sides in an attempt to try and get above the water. Then the arms will actually press down, to try and gain lift up and out of the water for the mouth to breathe. This doesn’t leave time of energy for waving arms above the head.

A drowning person is not in control of his or her motions. The arms and the attempts to breathe are both involuntary actions to save the victim from drowning. This means that there is no time to think about voluntary actions to draw attention to the act of drowning. In fact this even EXCLUDES the ability to voluntarily reach for a piece of rescue gear!

If the instinctive Drowning response takes over, the drowning person won’t kick to support their body. The body is upright in the water, and the arms are doing all the work to try and stay afloat.

Within 20 to 60 seconds the person will submerge if not rescued!

Comment and Assessment The diving at San Remo in 1986 on the Cameron case would only be effective for 10-20 minutes at slack water, twice a day.

When we don’t know exactly how the victim acted, it is still worth diving at slack water in case the victim weighted themselves down (thereby anchoring themselves in situ, quite common with planned suicides, back-packs with rocks etc. inside).

There is also a consideration regarding suicide rituals, tidying up affairs etc. SAR usually say that if keys, wallet/purse and mobile phone are located these days, you can be pretty sure they’ve done it.

This does not mean that not finding personal effects means she didn’t jump. It just means they weren’t found.

Conclusion There is a lot to consider regarding the possible/probable scenario regarding the disappearance of Vivienne Cameron. Mr. B.J. Maher S.M, (The Coroner) in his findings of 1988 determined that Vivienne jumped from the San Remo Phillip Island bridge, which appears to be based solely on the vehicle she was suspected of driving being found abandoned unlocked, with keys and other personal items within it, on a grass verge opposite Forest Road, Newhaven.

Whilst it is true that the abandoned vehicle was within a short walk to the bridge, it is also true that Vivienne had 360 degrees of choice regarding which direction she would travel if she had left the vehicle there.

One consideration that appears to have not been examined is that the distance from the Forrest Avenue area where the vehicle was parked to the approximate centre of the Bridge is about 430metres, whereas the distance to the Jetty area of Beach Crescent, where the search was not concentrated is about 323metres.

The raising of the Jetty area access to the channel is mentioned is to highlight the 360 degrees of choice and the impact that consideration could have on the investigation and search outcomes.

Approaching the bottom line, let us consider the following questions and answers. Q: What is the likelihood of Vivienne being found near the considered point of entry to the water from the San Remo bridge?

A: The SAR divers had every reason to be professionally confident of finding her.

Q: Is it possible that Vivienne moved away and towards the entrance before the SAR operation had started?

A: Given conditions regarding buoyancy, tide, water depth, any time spent on the surface before succumbing to drowning and the absence of obstructions, it is possible.

Q: Is it possible that Vivienne did not enter the water from the San Remo bridge?

A: There is no direct evidence that places her on the bridge, plus she had other options.

Q: Is it possible that a body entering the Phillip Island San Remo channel could end washed up on a beach? A: Yes, given the tidal pull, current and drift, it could end up to the East of Griffith Point or alternatively, if it zig-zagged with the currents and drifts it could end up towards San Remo. (See Appendices ‘A’ and ‘B’)

Q: Where would a body on a beach wash up relating to the sand dunes? A: It could be expected to end up as skeleton remains on the beach of in tidal influenced dunes.

Q: Is it possible that a body in these circumstances would never be found?

A: Yes, the statistics support this outcome.

Report compiled by: Valentine Smith APM Date: 28 June 2021 Valentine Smith APM Founder and CEO M: +61 418 207 789 PO Box 1272 Surrey Hills North Vic Australia 3127

Note: The author of this document appreciates a number of anonymous contributors to this paper; all who are experienced SAR diving professionals.


Appendix ‘A’ = Aerial photograph of Phillip Island, Newhaven area and including the San Remo bridge in the top left hand corner and Bore Beach indicated by marker in the bottom right hand corner.

Appendix ‘B’ = Nautical map of the Eastern entrance to Western Port bay, showing the San Remo bridge. Griffith Point is indicated at the centre of the map. The green areas are sand and mud flats often exposed during low tide.


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