TOKYO (AP) – Rescuers since a tourist boat carrying 26 people apparently sank in the far northeast of Japan have found the body of an 11th victim – a child – as questions intensify over why the ship sailed with bad weather in a known dangerous location.
The child was found Sunday night and later confirmed dead, the Coast Guard said on Monday. The bodies of 10 victims – seven men and three women – were found on Sunday.
The Kazu 1 with two crew members was taking 24 passengers, including two children, on a scenic drive in Shiretoko National Park on the north side of Hokkaido, Japan’s main northern island, when it sent a distress call Saturday afternoon saying that was sinking.
The location was close to the Kashuni Waterfall, which is known as a difficult place for boats to maneuver because of its rocky coastline and strong tide.
The Transport Ministry is investigating the boat’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, who suffered two accidents in the past year, including one that also involved the captain of the sunken boat. The ministry said it was reviewing safety standards and the decision to carry out the tour despite bad weather on Saturday. Japanese media reported that the Coast Guard was considering a criminal investigation on suspicion of professional negligence.
Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise has been instructed to improve its safety after previous accidents. In June, a boat ran aground without injury, and in May, a boat collided with an object, causing minor injuries to three passengers. The June accident involved the same captain as the sunken boat.
“We will thoroughly investigate what caused this situation and what kind of security supervision was involved to allow the tour in order to avoid another accident,” Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito, who visited the area on Sunday, told reporters.
Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise says its three-hour tour offers views of the west coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula and the chance to see whales, dolphins and brown bears. The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the southernmost region to see drifting sea ice.
Average sea temperatures in April in the area are just above freezing. Experts say the low temperature and strong wind decrease the chances of survival.
The bodies recovered on Sunday were found in the same area near the tip of the peninsula, about 14 kilometers north of where the boat sent out a distress call. Some were ripped from the sea, and others were found where they were washed up on the rocky shore.
Orange and square floats with the boat’s name were also found on the rocks, the coast guard said. The coast guard said the operator told them that everyone on the boat was wearing life jackets, but some of the victims found were without them.
Experts and local fishermen and boat operators also say they believe the boat likely ran aground after being thrown into high waves and damaged.
High waves and strong winds were forecast as the boat left port, and Japanese media said the fishing boats had returned to port before noon on Saturday because of bad weather.
The head of the local fishing cooperative, Kazuhiko Fukayama, told NHK television that it was unthinkable that the tour would have proceeded in such harsh weather that passengers would have a hard time staying still.
A tour boat crew belonging to another operator told NHK they had warned the Kazu 1 crew of rough seas and told them not to go. He also said the same boat ran aground last year and suffered a crack in the bow.
Accounts from local fishermen and tour boat operators suggest the Kazu 1 was the only boat in the area where no other boats were around to help the sinking boat until Coast Guard first responders arrived on the scene from elsewhere in Hokkaido three. hours later.
Saturday’s tour was the operator’s first this season, and the accident just before Japan’s Golden Week holidays starting in late April could hurt local tourism, which has slumped during the pandemic. Japan is still largely closed to foreign visitors.
Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki told reporters on Sunday that he planned to request security checks by tour operators in the prefecture before the holidays.