A mayday call that sparked a major air and sea search was a hoax, the coastguard believes.
The coastguard received an emergency call at around 5.50pm on Monday, reporting that three people were having to abandon their boat in the Moray Firth area.
An extensive search was launched, involving RNLI lifeboats from Buckie, MacDuff and Fraserburgh, the Banff coastguard rescue team, the coastguard helicopter from Inverness and local fishing boats.
Nothing was found during the operation, which lasted for nearly five hours in rough weather conditions, and the hunt was suspended shortly before 10.30pm that night.
Coastguard teams now say they believe the initial alert was a hoax call and have issued a stern warning about the serious consequences of illegally making false emergency calls.
Matthew West, duty controller for HM Coastguard, said: “Given the fact that no further information has come forward regarding last night’s incident in the Moray Firth, we are now fairly confident that this was a hoax call.
“If we get an emergency transmission we always treat it as real. If we think someone’s in danger or in trouble we will always search for them rather than risk loss of life.”
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He went on: “We would like to take this opportunity to remind people that making deliberate, false or misleading calls is against the law and we treat it very seriously.
“We keep a record of these calls and hold those records as evidence for future prosecutions. Have no doubt, if you’ve been identified as making a hoax call, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency will seek to prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.
“Not only do hoax calls waste the valuable time of our coastguard officers, volunteers and resources, such as the RNLI and our aircraft while searching; it also may be putting other lives at risk by diverting our resources away from genuine emergencies.
“It also puts our emergency services’ crews lives at risk as they searched for nearly five hours in rough weather conditions with nothing found.”
The RNLI said the area from Troop Head to Portsoy was searched by the three lifeboats, beginning inshore and finishing more than six nautical miles out at sea.
Chassey Findlay, the coxswain at the helm of the Macduff lifeboat, said: “Visibility was good during the search and the sea state was moderate, so if there was anything to be found by the lifeboats, HM Coastguard or the search and rescue helicopter I am confident that it would have been spotted.
“I would like to thank the skippers and crews of Sardonyx and Fisher Boys who came to assist during the search.
“The crews of these fishing vessels put their trips on hold to help with the search and this goes to show what a strong bond there is within the fishing communities along the north east coast.”