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‘Ocean vet’ Burnie dies in diving incident

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Dr Burnie seen here during preparations for a scene in the series "Ocean Vet" that is due to be broadcast

Dr Neil Burnie, the noted veterinarian and fisherman who is well known for his research on marine species, died yesterday after running into difficulties while diving at Horseshoe Bay Beach.

The incident, which involved a group of free divers on the South Shore beach, occurred shortly after 11am.

It is understood that Dr Burnie was attempting to retrieve a lobster pot when the tragedy occurred. When he failed to return to the surface, a diver went down and found him unconscious at the bottom.

Dr Burnie, 60, was taken by ambulance to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly before noon.

Dr Burnie’s passion for the water was unsurpassed, whether it was in his determination to safeguard marine life or set records on high-speed powerboats.

Spectacular footage of Dr Burnie interacting with local marine species, including tiger sharks, was to be included in a new TV show dubbed Ocean Vet which recently completed production and is due to air next year.

Of his dalliance with an 800lb tiger shark, Dr Burnie had said: “We swam with that fish for probably over an hour — he ate 60 pounds of marlin, and took this 45lb piece in his mouth and tried to swim off with it.

“The video footage we got of the shark trying to get it free is spectacular — he’s shaking and thrashing the water to a foam with this head in his mouth.”

Dr Burnie noted that the point of close-up, personal shots of sharks with humans was to ultimately to change people’s perceptions of them.

“We want to abolish the myth of them as mindless predators and get rid of this idea that the only good shark is a dead shark,” he said. “They’re worthy of respect, as any major predator is.”

Years earlier, in 2002, Dr Burnie skippered the catamaran Prowler to a record crossing from New York to Bermuda. It took 22hr 23min and stood unbroken for ten years, before being bettered by 44 minutes by Chris Vertig, an American from Virginia Beach.

Dr Burnie’s record-setting crossing was well recalled by William Ratliff, who travelled as a passenger. The most harrowing part of the journey was when they struck something in the ocean.

“We were 250 miles out of New York when we hit something,” Mr Ratliff was quoted as saying by The Royal Gazette. “It shook the whole boat; I think it may have been a whale.”

The death of Dr Burnie comes as his television career was on the brink of taking off.

He was the host of Ocean Vet, along with Choy Aming, the co-founder of his Bermuda Shark Project.

British production company gassProductions had just finished filming the series, which is in the process of being considered by multiple TV networks. The series was presold to Cineflix Rights, a division of Cineflix Media Inc and a leading independent UK television content distributor to be broadcast worldwide in 2015.

Ocean Vet explores Bermuda’s marine environment while highlighting environmental issues and finding solutions to the problems.

The series, which has been filming since March, begins fittingly with an episode on tiger sharks, a species very close to Dr Burnie’s heart.

Using satellite tags, Dr Burnie and Mr Aming were able to report groundbreaking data on Bermuda’s visiting sharks.

“I was shocked and saddened to hear about Neil’s tragic death today and know I speak for the entire aquarium family [BAMZ, BZS and ACP] to say our love, thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time,” said Dr Ian Walker, the principal curator at the Bermuda Zoological Society.

“Neil had a zest for life that was unparalleled and he lived life to full. He was an excellent veterinarian and also used those skills and his showmanship to tell an amazing story about Bermuda’s marine environment. Bermuda lost a great ambassador today and many Bermudians lost a great friend. We will miss him and the close relationship that he had with the aquarium. I will miss him as a friend and for the kind and big-hearted person that he was.”

Dr Burnie, a Liverpudlian, moved to Bermuda more than 20 years ago and was employed as a government veterinarian before working for Endsmeet Animal Hospital as a senior partner. He was also a keen musician and performed in the band Bones with fellow members Andrew Chamberlain, Graham Pewter, David Skinner and Leroy Richardson.

They appeared most recently in September at the well-received Peace Day Concert put on by Tony Brannon. Dr Burnie stole the show on the saxophone, much as he did throughout his lifetime.

Dr Burnie and Dylan Ward on the set of "Ocean Vet"
Dr Burnie catches a ride
An 800lb tiger shark takes interest in Dr Burnie and the filming of "Ocean Vet" (Photo by Choy Aming)
Dr Burnie inspects a shark for a scene in “Ocean Vet”
Dr Burnie riding a rare six-gilled shark for a scene in “Ocean Vet”
Dr Burnie playing the sax with Bones band at the Peace Day Concert in September (Photograph by Nicola Muirhead)