Child's body found after tour boat sinks off coast in Japan, bringing death toll to 11

Emergency personnel transfer a person retrieved from the tour boat accident in Shari, in the northern island of Hokkaido. Credit: AP

A child's body has been found after a tour boat sank off the northern coast of Japan on Saturday having got into trouble in choppy waters.

The grim discovery, made on Sunday, brings the confirmed death toll of the accident to 11. The bodies of seven men and three women were recovered earlier that day.

There were two crew and 24 passengers, including two children, on the tour boat when it ran into trouble near the tip of Shiretoko Peninsula.

The location is known as a difficult place to maneuver boats because of its rocky coastline.

Japan's transport ministry has launched an investigation into the boat's operator over its safety standards and its decision to conduct the tour despite rough weather off the northern coast.

A helicopter hovers over the tip of Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Japan to conduct the search operation on Monday. Credit: AP

High waves and strong winds were forecast when the boat left port, and Japanese media said fishing boats had returned before noon on Saturday because of the bad weather.

Local fisheries cooperative head Kazuhiko Fukayama told NHK television that it was unthinkable for the tour to have gone ahead in weather that was so rough passengers would have found it difficult just to stand still.

Some of the bodies recovered on Sunday were plucked from the sea, and others were found where they had washed onto the rocky coast.

Orange, square lifesaving floats with the boat’s name on them were also found on the rocks, the coast guard said, adding the tour operator told them that everyone on the boat was wearing a life vest but some of the victims were found without them.

Firefighters transfer a rescued person from a helicopter in Shari, in the northern island of Hokkaido. Credit: Koki Sengoku/Kyodo News via AP

The ministry will also investigate if or how Saturday's accident was related to two previous accidents involving the same boat last year.

The same boat went aground in the area last June, though nobody was injured in that accident, the coast guard confirmed. In May, the boat collided with an object at sea, causing minor injuries to three passengers.

The June accident involved the same captain of the sunken boat, according to the coast guard.

The operator had been instructed to take steps to improve its safety following the incidents.

The coast guard said it is prioritizing the search and rescue of those still missing, while gathering evidence toward making a criminal case on suspicion of professional negligence.

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What happened to the Kazu 1 tour boat?

The 19-ton Kazu 1 made an emergency call early Saturday afternoon, saying the ship’s bow had flooded and that it was beginning to sink and tilt, while traveling off the western coast of Shiretoko Peninsula on the northern island of Hokkaido, the coast guard said.

The tour boat then lost contact. The coast guard said the operator told them that everyone on the boat was wearing a life vest.

Fishing boats leave a port to search for a missing tour boat in Shari. Credit: Kyodo News via AP

Average April sea temperatures in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing. Experts say the low temperature and strong wind make the chances of survival low.

So far, company officials have not appeared publicly to explain the accident.

The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but experts suspect there may be a safety negligence, and the boat ran aground and was damaged in rough seas in an area known for strong currents and a rocky coastline.