WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Five people died Saturday in New Zealand after the small charter boat they were on capsized, authorities say, in a collision with a whale. Six other people on board were rescued.
Police said the 8.5-meter (28-foot) boat capsized near the South Island town of Kaikōura. The police announced that they are continuing to investigate the cause of the accident.
Kaikōura Police Sergeant Matt Boyce described it as a devastating and unprecedented event.
“Our thoughts are with everyone involved, including the victims and their families, their local communities and emergency services personnel,” Boyce said.
He said police divers recovered the bodies of all those who had died. He said all six survivors were assessed as being in a stable condition at a local health centre, while one was taken 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 the assumption was that a whale had surfaced under the boat.
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He said there were a few sperm whales in the area and also some traveling whales.
He said local people helped with rescue efforts throughout the day, but the mood in the town was “gloomy” because the water was so cold and there were fears for the fate of anyone who fell overboard.
Muckle said he had previously considered the possibility of a boat-whale collision, given the number of whales that frequent the area.
“It always crosses your mind that it could happen,” he said, adding that he had not heard of any such accident before.
Muckle said the boat was a charter boat typically used for fishing trips. The Stuff news agency reported that the passengers belonged to a group of bird fans.
Police said they were still notifying relatives of those who died and could not yet publicly name the victims.
Vanessa Chapman told Stuff that a group of friends also watched the rescue efforts unfold from Goose Bay, near Kaikōura. He said that when he reached a lookout point, he could see a person sitting on an overturned boat waving his arms.
He said two rescue helicopters and a third local helicopter circled before two divers jumped out. He told Stuff that the person on board was rescued and a second person appeared to have been pulled from the water.
Kaikōura is a popular destination for whale watching. The sea floor drops away from the shore, creating deep water near the shore. Some businesses offer boat tours or helicopter rides 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 conduct a thorough investigation once recovery operations were complete.
Lead researcher Tracey Phillips said the agency “offers its deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones of the people who have died”.