- Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
- BBC News, Tokyo
It’s an old cliché, but accurate: disasters aren’t caused by a single mistake. Several things have to go wrong at the same time for a tragedy to happen.
This appears to be exactly what happened on Saturday afternoon (23/04) off the coast of Hokkaido in northern Japan.
The Shiretoko Peninsula is a spectacular place. Located in the northern Pacific, it is covered by densely forested mountains with waterfalls that tumble from high cliffs straight into the ocean.
The northern half of the peninsula is a national park and a world heritage site. It is also home to Japan’s largest population of ussuri grizzly bears, close relatives of the North American grizzly bear (also called the grizzly bear or grizzly bear).
In addition to the stunning natural beauty, it’s the bears that tourists come to see. And the easiest way to see them is by boat. Some companies claim to have a 90% to 95% success rate.
At around 10 am on Saturday morning, the Kazu 1 tour boat left the small fishing port of Utoro — heading for the peninsula.
The vessel had a capacity for 65 passengers, but on Saturday only 24 tourists were on board. They came from different parts of Japan. There were two small children, one just three years old.
The weather was bad. There were strong winds and ten-foot waves.
As Kazu 1 headed north on stormy seas, local fishing boats were heading in the other direction, returning to harbor for shelter.
The captain of another tour boat claims to have told the captain of the Kazu 1 that it was too dangerous to get out. But it would have been ignored.
The captain of the Kazu 1 was inexperienced in piloting at sea.
According to the Japanese press, he had training to operate boats on the lakes, but ended up being hired by the Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise company to replace the more experienced captains who had been fired by the owner.
The company was already under investigation after two previous security incidents, including a grounding, in 2021.
Shortly after 1 pm on Saturday, the coast guard received a distress call. Kazu 1 was adrift with a broken engine and entering the water near Kashuni Falls.
This is a particularly rugged part of the peninsula, with few beaches and cliffs that plunge straight into the sea.
In April the water is still very cold, just a few degrees above zero.
One might think that in Japan, where safety is almost a national motto, a passenger boat operating in icy waters would be required to have lifeboats on board.
But not. This is not a legal requirement for this type of vessel.
The Kazu 1 only had life jackets and floats for passengers to hold. Immersed in the frigid waters of northern Hokkaido in April, the average adult would not survive more than an hour, experts say. A child much less.
The first coast guard helicopter didn’t reach Kashuni Falls until more than three hours after the first distress call was received.
The northeast coast of Hokkaido is known as a “blind spot” for rescue services.
The nearest helicopter base is 160 km away. But on Saturday the nearest coast guard helicopter was on another operation.
He had to fly back to his base, refuel, and then head north to Shiretoko. By the time he arrived, there were only 90 minutes of daylight left.
At the time of writing this report, there are 15 passengers and crew still unaccounted for. An intense search continues.
But any hope of finding anyone alive is gone. It gave way to anger and self-reflection.
Important questions need to be answered: Why was an inexperienced captain allowed to enter the sea in treacherous conditions with completely inadequate safety equipment en route to the icy waters of northern Japan?
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