Sonar used by the Japan Coast Guard has detected what appear to be several sunken ships in an area off Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula where a tour boat disappeared, coast guard and local officials said Tuesday, a day after the death toll from the incident rose to 11.

The JCG said objects that appear to be vessels have been detected in various locations, including at a depth of around 30 meters, but it could not determine whether the readings were connected to the 19-ton Kazu I, which went missing off Japan's northernmost main island on Saturday with 26 aboard, including two crew members.

Four JCG divers started searching the area where the boat issued its first rescue call but had to suspend the operation due to high waves.

An object detected by sonar in that area was judged not to be the lost boat, and a Japan Coast Guard official said later that "the possibility is low that Kazu I can be found" in that area.

The coast guard is planning to dispatch on or around Saturday a vessel installed with sonar that can search up to about 100 meters deep.

The search has expanded to waters controlled by Russia, with the coast guard notifying the Russian authorities on Monday in line with the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference that Russia had told Japan it would share any relevant information.

Beyond the peninsula lie four Russian-held islands claimed by Japan. The islets in the long-standing territorial dispute are called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.

Matsuno said the search operations were "not affected" markedly by Japan's relations with Russia amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The green light

As the search continues for the remaining 15 passengers and crew, investigators are looking to build a criminal case against the boat's operator on charges of professional negligence resulting in death as well as boat damage due to negligence.

An expert on marine accidents has said the incident was due to human error caused by Shiretoko Yuransen's poor judgment in going ahead with the tour despite bad weather and high waves.

“I felt it was all right” to go ahead with the tour, the president of Shiretoko Yuransen was quoted as telling the families of passengers.

Before the ship departed on Saturday morning, several acquaintances warned Noriyuki Toyoda, 54, the vessel’s skipper, to either call off the tour or to be extra cautious. The sea was expected to be rough that afternoon.

“Got it,” Toyoda said.

But the vessel left the port of Utoro in the Hokkaido town of Shari at 10 a.m. Around 2 p.m., the vessel told the operator that it was listing 30 degrees, and subsequently contact was lost, according to the coast guard.

A boat searches for passengers of a missing sightseeing boat who are still unaccounted for, at the Shiretoko Cape in Hokkaido on Tuesday. | KYODO
A boat searches for passengers of a missing sightseeing boat who are still unaccounted for, at the Shiretoko Cape in Hokkaido on Tuesday. | KYODO

According to the Meteorological Agency, a northwest wind of 16.4 meters per second was observed in the nearby coastal city of Abashiri at around 1:00 p.m. Utoro port saw waves of 2 to 3 meters high, causing local fishermen to stop fishing in the morning.

"It’s really bizarre to set out to sea under conditions like on Saturday,” one tourism industry worker said.

According to a source close to the matter, the boat operator and three other local companies comprise a Shiretoko tourist boat group that shares information on weather and sea conditions. They have been helping each other out in case of emergencies and have taken similar safety measures, including canceling ship tours if the conditions are deemed too dangerous.

Among the group, Shiretoko Yuransen was the only company that started ship tours before the Golden Week holidays, which normally signal the start of the season.

“It’s probably because they thought they could attract more customers,” said the source.

Rocky shore

The area where the boats operate is known to have a number of huge rocks.

“But all of the operators know the locations of those rocks well,” said the president of another company organizing boat tours.

Another official at a similar company said that “as long as operators use the designated route they reported to the local transport bureau, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Fishing boats go out to search for passengers of a missing sightseeing boat who are still unaccounted for, in Shari, Hokkaido, on Tuesday. | KYODO
Fishing boats go out to search for passengers of a missing sightseeing boat who are still unaccounted for, in Shari, Hokkaido, on Tuesday. | KYODO

According to the transport ministry, the Kazu I passed its regular inspection on April 20.

But in May 2021, the vessel collided with a floating object, which caused injuries to three passengers. In the following month, the vessel ran aground in shallow waters shortly after leaving the port.

Following the accidents, the ministry instructed the operator to make sure it follows safety rules, after GPS data showed that the boat veered off from the route it was supposed to take by several meters.

Hidetoshi Saito, chairman of an academic group that investigates marine accidents in Japan, who has seen video footage of the area where the boat disappeared, speculated that the vessel might have crashed into a huge rock or object in the sea, creating a hole in the boat.

“Even if they were careful, the ship may have drifted toward the shore due to the northwest wind,” Saito said. “It is also possible that it may have collided with floating debris because they were being too careful not to collide with the rocks.”

Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of oceanography at Tokai University, however, was more critical of Shiretoko Yuransen’s decision to go ahead with the tour on that day.

“They shouldn’t have left the port in the first place,” Yamada said. “It’s human error.

“Is the skipper a pro? There are countless questions about the company's decision to go ahead with the tour,” said Yamada. “I wish they had had the courage to call off the tour.”

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