The search for the others continues after the ship sent out a distress call Saturday afternoon saying it was sinking. The location, near Kashuni Falls, is known as a difficult place to maneuver boats due to its rocky shoreline and strong tide.
There were two crew and 24 passengers, including two children, on the 19-tonne Kazu 1 when it ran into trouble while traveling off the western coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. The coast guard said all 10 victims, seven men and three women, were adults.
The Transport Ministry has launched an investigation into the operator of the ship, which had two accidents last year. The ministry said it was looking into safety standards and the decision to hold the tour despite bad weather on Saturday.
The operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, has been instructed to take steps to improve its safety following previous accidents in which it ran aground in June without causing injury, and another in May, when three passengers suffered minor injuries when the ship collided with an object.
“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.
After an intensive search involving six patrol boats, several planes and divers overnight, rescuers found four people near the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula early Sunday and then six more in the same area, about 14 kilometers (8.7 mi) north of where the ship sent out a distress call. Some of them were plucked from the sea, while others washed up on the rocky shore.
An orange, square-shaped lifebuoy bearing the boat’s name was also found near the rocks, the coast guard said.
Footage from public broadcaster NHK showed one of the victims arriving by helicopter and being carried to an ambulance on a stretcher. Rescuers put up blue plastic shields to protect the victim’s privacy.
The tour boat made an emergency call early Saturday afternoon, saying its bow had been flooded and it was beginning to sink and list, the coast guard said. Contact with the ship had since been lost. The coast guard said the operator told them everyone on the boat was wearing a life jacket, but some of the victims found were not.
Average April sea temperatures in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing, which experts say could cause hypothermia.
“It’s a very serious condition, especially when they’re wet,” Jun Abe, vice president of the Aquatic Rescue and Survival Research Society, told TBS TV.
Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of marine science at Tokai University, said the ship likely ran aground after waves tossed and damaged it. A boat that size typically doesn’t carry a lifeboat, he said.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cut short his attendance at a two-day summit in Kumamoto, southern Japan, and returned to Tokyo. He told reporters early Sunday that he instructed officials “to do everything possible for the rescue.”
The cause of the accident is under investigation, but officials and experts suspect negligent safety.
Strong waves and strong winds were forecast when the ship departed and Japanese media reported that the fishing boats had returned to port before noon on Saturday due to bad weather.
The crew of a tour boat belonging to another operator told NHK that they warned the crew of the Kazu 1 about rough seas and told them not to leave. He also said the same ship ran aground last year and suffered a crack in the bow.
Saturday’s tour was reportedly the operator’s first this season, and the accident just before Japan’s Golden Week holiday that begins in late April could affect local tourism, which has plummeted 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 from tour operators in the prefecture before the holidays.
According to the operator’s website, the tour takes around three hours and offers panoramic views of the western coast of the peninsula and the chance to see whales, dolphins and brown bears. The national park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for being the southernmost region to view drifting sea ice.
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