‘Miracle’ rescue off coast of WA turns into drug hunt

Manhunt for men connected to cocaine haul

The apparent “miracle” rescue of three men clinging to an Esky in rough seas off southern Western Australia has turned into a transnational drug trafficking investigation.

The trio were winched to safety on February 1, after being found clinging for their lives to the Esky off the coast of Albany.

It was initially touted as a miraculous story of survival, with rescuers saying it was only the men’s emergency position indicating radio beacon that saved them from near-certain death in the deep, cold ocean.

But questions didn’t take long to emerge.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force said WA Police had raised concerns that the men’s story of their boat capsizing while they were out fishing “appeared inconsistent”.

Pictured is the cocaine on the boat

About 365 kilograms of cocaine was found off WA’s southern coast.

Then, on February 7, a black-plastic wrapped package washed ashore near Denmark, also on WA’s south coast. It contained many smaller packages of cocaine

A day later, a seven-metre boat was found overturned off Peaceful Bay, 45 kilometres west of Denmark.

“When police retrieved and searched the cabin cruiser, they allegedly found another eight similar plastic-wrapped packages, each containing about 40 kilograms of cocaine,” Wednesday’s media statement said.

In all, the total cocaine haul linked to the boat added up to 365 kilograms.

Police believe the haul was allegedly collected from the ocean and then loaded on to the seven-metre boat. They are still investigating how and where the drugs were dropped in the water.

Authorities have appealed for public help to the three men plucked from the ocean before the shipment was discovered.

Two – Mate Stipinovich, 49, and 45-year-old Karl Whitburn, are from WA. The other is Aristides Avlontis, a 36-year-old from the Northern Territory.

All three have been urged to contact police.

Pictured from left to right is Aristides Avlontis, 36, Karl Whitburn, 45, and Mate Stipinovich, 49.

Police are seeking (from left) Aristides Avlontis, 36, Karl Whitburn, 45, and Mate Stipinovich, 49. Photos: AFP

Cocaine interception a ‘significant blow’

AFP acting Commander Graeme Marshall said authorities believe the cocaine was destined for distribution across Australia.

“The interception of this amount of drugs would be a significant blow to a well-resourced syndicate, and prevents millions of dollars of drug profit from flowing back into the group to fund their next criminal venture or lavish lifestyles,” he said.

“The AFP estimates this seizure has saved the community more than $235 million in drug-related harm, including associated crime, healthcare and loss of productivity.

“Organised crime syndicates employ a variety of methods to try to smuggle large amounts of drugs into Australia without detection.”

Acting Commander Marshall said organised criminals who “prey” on Australia were “undermining our national security, economy and social security system”.

“The AFP and our partners will continue to target and disrupt criminals based locally and offshore who are importing drugs, to ensure we can protect the Australian community,” he said.

Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or the AFP Investigations Team on (02) 5126 9979, or email: [email protected]

  • For free and confidential advice, call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.
  • Free 24/7 drug and alcohol counselling:
  • For information about addiction treatment or support, go to
Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.