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Jake Bridson (23), of Heriot, died at popular Catlins snorkelling spot Owaka Heads about noon on December 27, after he became separated from a fellow diver.
An Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter arrived from Dunedin about 1pm, and located Mr Bridson’s body by about 1.40pm.
However, Newhaven crib owner David Pearson said this week a second, charter helicopter was also present from about noon, only 1km from the search area.
He said he believed only "politics" had prevented it from taking part in the operation, and beginning the aerial search much earlier.
Mr Pearson said his family had chartered Highland Helicopters, of Dunedin, to carry a sick relative to their Surat Bay Rd crib that day, and quickly became aware an incident was under way about 1km across the estuary, due to the activity of multiple search vessels.
The charter helicopter was flown by Highland Helicopters owner Paul Williams, accompanied by wife and trained observer Kirsty.
Mr Pearson said although the Williams had offered to begin the aerial search almost immediately, he understood they were unable to do so as the helicopter had not been "tasked" for the rescue mission by police.
"I have a problem with the fact there was a helicopter [near the incident site], and it was not utilised in the search. The machine and observer were ready and available at least an hour before the rescue helicopter arrived."
He said although he did not believe its use would have changed the outcome, it could have saved those waiting "a lot of grief".
"The people of Newhaven were extremely upset to watch the drama unfold, as were the pilot and crew from Highland Helicopters.
"When it comes to saving a life or easing the burden of grief for a family, surely politics or contracts should not enter the equation?"
Highland Helicopters declined to comment in detail on the situation, but confirmed Mr Pearson’s statements regarding times, personnel and availability.
Otago Coastal SAR co-ordinator Sergeant Nathan White said search and rescue operations favoured partner agencies, such as the Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter, with whom police trained regularly.
"During the formal planning phase of an operation, we will always look to see what search assets we have available and what we might require.
"We were not immediately aware of the presence of the charter helicopter during this incident."
Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter chief pilot Graeme Gale, who monitored the incident from Dunedin, said yesterday it was unrealistic to expect an unequipped charter helicopter to conduct a formal search and rescue operation.
"The helicopter we sent had water rescue personnel, winch operators and intensive care paramedics on board, and infra-red detection equipment available.
"To imagine a local helicopter without the proper resources could just jump in is unrealistic at best."
Mr Gale said he and his team would conduct the operation "exactly the same way" if it occurred today.
"Our team was airborne within three or four minutes, and on-site 20 minutes after the initial alert.
"The operation was conducted as rapidly as possible, given the information available.
"Unfortunately the outcome is very, very sad for the family."