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Five women on an ocean bird-watching trip died when what is believed to be a whale collided with the small charter boat they were sailing on in New Zealand , reports said.
Police said six other passengers on the trip, including its skipper, were rescued after the 28-foot craft overturned in Goose Bay near the South Island town of Kaikōura. The survivors were taken to a local hospital and later released with only one suffering minor injuries.
The remains of the five women were recovered inside the vessel. They were part of a larger group of all-female birder watchers over 50, reports said.
Police said they’re still investigating the cause of the collision, but Craig Mackle, the mayor of Kaikōura, told national broadcaster RNZ he believed the boat collided with a whale.
“We have an upturned boat tipped over by a whale from what we can understand, come up from underneath,” he said.
“We’ve shut the harbor down, so that [authorities] can carry on working.”
Mackle also told Associated Press that local residents helped with the rescue efforts, but the town’s mood was “somber” because the water was so cold that rescuers feared anybody who had fallen overboard was doomed.
Kaikōura Sergeant Matt Boyce called the incident an “unprecedented event” and a tragedy and that police were working to formally identify the dead, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Vanessa Chapman told Stuff she and a group of friends had watched the rescue efforts. She said that when she arrived at a lookout spot, she could see a person sitting atop an overturned boat waving their arms.
She said two rescue helicopters and a third local chopper were circling before two divers jumped out. She said the person atop the boat was rescued and a second person appeared to have been pulled from the water.
Kaikōura is a popular whale-watching destination. The seafloor drops away precipitously from the coast, making for deep waters close to the shore. A number of businesses offer boat trips or helicopter rides, so tourists can see whales, dolphins and other sea creatures up close.
“It always plays on your mind that it could happen,” said Mackle, referring to the possibility of a boat slamming into a whale.
However, the mayor added that he hadn’t heard about any previous such accidents.
With Post wires