WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Five people died in New Zealand on Saturday after the small charter boat they were on capsized, authorities say, in what may have been a collision with a whale. Six other people on board the boat were rescued.
Police said the 8.5-metre (28ft) boat overturned near the town of Kaikōura on the South Island. Police said they are continuing to investigate the cause of the accident.
Kaikōura Police Sergeant Matt Boyce described it as a devastating and unprecedented event.
“Our hearts go out to everyone involved, including the victims and their families, their local communities and emergency service personnel,” Boyce said.
He said police divers recovered the bodies of all those who died. He said all six survivors were assessed as being in stable condition at a local health centre, including one transferred to a Christchurch city hospital as a precaution.
Kaikōura Mayor Craig Mackle told The Associated Press that the water was calm at the time of the accident and it was speculated that a whale had surfaced under the boat.
He said there were sperm whales in the area and also humpback whales passing through.
He said locals had been helping with the rescue efforts throughout the day, but the mood in the town was “grim” because the water was so cold and they feared for the fate of anyone fell overboard.
Mackle said he’s thought in the past about the possibility of a boat and a whale colliding, given the number of whales that frequent the area.
“It’s always playing in your mind that it could happen,” he said, adding that he had never heard of any such accidents.
Mackle said the boat was a charter vessel typically used for fishing trips. Press Agency Things reported the passengers belonged to a group of bird watchers.
Police said they were still notifying relatives of those who died and could not yet publicly name the victims.
Vanessa Chapman told Stuff that she and a group of friends watched the rescue efforts unfold from Goose Bay near Kaikōura. She said when she got to a vantage point she could see a person sitting on top of an overturned boat waving their arms.
She said two rescue helicopters and a third local helicopter circled before two divers jumped out. She told Stuff that the person on top of the boat had been rescued and a second person appeared to have been pulled from the water.
Kaikōura is a popular destination for whale watching. The seabed moves precipitously away from the coast, creating deep waters near the shore. A number of companies offer boat or helicopter tours so tourists can see whales, dolphins and other sea creatures up close.
Compliance agency Maritime New Zealand said it had sent two investigators to the scene and would carry out a full investigation once recovery operations were completed.
Lead investigator Tracy Phillips said the agency “offers its deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of those who died.”