Thirteen Costa Ricans drowned last Saturday 23 January when a tourist boat capsized off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. According to the Nicaraguan authorities, an official storm warning had been issued prohibiting sea travel.
“They were tourists vacationing in Little Corn Island and they headed off even though, according to our navy, they were told they shouldn’t,” said government spokeswoman and First Lady Rosario Murillo.
Located 70 kilometers from the mainland, Little Corn Island is a popular but remote tourist hub renowned for its white sand beaches, coral reefs and laid-back Caribbean culture.
Its nearest offshore neighbor, Big Corn Island, is almost four times larger than Little Corn and more heavily populated, home to the region’s only long-distance transport links, including a small airport and seaport.
The only way in and out of Little Corn Island is by high-speed pangas, which sail the 11 kilometers between Big and Little Corn several times daily in good weather.
When weather is poor, travelers risk being stranded.
The ‘Reina del Caribe’ was 7.5 kilometers from Little Corn when it capsized in massive waves, trapping some of its 32 passengers underneath it.
Wind speeds on the day reportedly ran 25 to 30 knots, which can be categorized as a strong breeze or a moderate gale capable of producing 3 to 5.5 meter waves, according to the 12-point Beaufort scale.
One survivor, Florence Castro, described the accident:
“’The waves were huge, around four to five feet high. The boat was crashing down into a sort of hollow which formed between the waves and in one of those it overturned.”
“It overturned as everyone went to one side of the boat and they all fell into the water. I pushed myself with my feet and fell about six feet on the other side when I saw it was going to overturn. Some people were trapped under the vessel and weren’t able to come back up to the surface.”
According to a report in daily La Nación, Costa Rica’s foreign minister, Manuel González, has said that some of the travelers had not been wearing life vests.
One survivor has apparently disputed official accounts, however, telling AFP that reports of bad weather were ‘false’.
The search continues
So far, nine bodies have been recovered with an additional four passengers missing but presumed dead. U.S. Southern Command are reportedly assisting in the aerial search for their remains.
Last Sunday, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís met 13 survivors of the tragedy upon their arrival in Juan Santamaría Airport in Alajuela. Monday 25 January was declared a national day of mourning in Costa Rica.
Other survivors included one Brazilian, one Nicaraguan, two U.S. citizens and two Britons on their honeymoon.
The boat’s captain, Roger Hilario Blandón, 52, was also lifted to safety along with his crewmate, Eliot Absalon Prats Carter, 30. They are now both under arrest and facing charges of manslaughter.
According to the Nicaraguan police, Roger Blandón previously served five years for cocaine trafficking.