OXNARD, Calif. — Officials in Southern California say that 26 people were unaccounted for after a diving boat caught fire near the state’s coastline early Monday morning.
The fire began at about 3:30 a.m. on a 75-foot boat anchored in the waters near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands, a national park about 20 miles off the California coast near the cities of Oxnard and Santa Barbara, the Coast Guard said.
Coast Guard officials said they believe there were 39 people aboard the vessel — the Conception — at the time of the fire and that five people were rescued, all of them crew members.
Later on Monday, the Coast Guard said eight bodies had been recovered.
Spokesman Capt. Monica L. Rochester told reporters that the crew was awake and on the ship’s bridge when the fire began and that they jumped off the boat as the blaze engulfed it.
The passengers were below deck and likely asleep, Rochester said. The boat has many bunk-style beds capable of hosting dozens of passengers.
Bill Nash, a spokesman for Ventura County, said that officials believe the boat was on a scuba trip in the area. A website for the company that owns the boat listed a charter for the long Labor Day weekend, an excursion advertised as a liveaboard dive trip to the scenic waters around the islands. The boat was scheduled to return to Santa Barbara on Monday afternoon.
Such liveaboard trips allow divers to make several dives per day and to anchor near popular dive sites without having to return to shore in between. They typically allow divers to eat, sleep and relax while traveling to and from the sites.
The boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor, about 20 yards from the shoreline on Santa Cruz Island, Nash said, raising hopes that some of the missing had made the swim to shore. But officials expected more fatalities, he said. Emergency workers from the counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara were assisting in the efforts, and a search was underway for those who are still missing. The boat sank in about 65 feet of water after the fire.
Mike Eliason, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said that the boat is registered to Truth Aquatics, a company that runs diving trips and also charters boats for private excursions. A person who picked up the phone at the company’s offices declined to comment Monday morning.
The Conception is one of three dive boats operated by Truth Aquatics, a 35-year-old company based in Santa Barbara. The fleet, used for anything from days-long dive expeditions to day fishing trips, is well-known among locals and visitors with offices along a pier at the edge of the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The boat is built for utility rather than comfort. Much of the deck space is dedicated to a wide area behind the wheelhouse where divers have the space to prepare tanks and gear before entering the water. There are more than 30 bunks below deck where charter guests, who can book in groups or individually, stay for overnight island trips. It can sleep up to 36 people on 13 double bunks and 20 single bunks that are stacked in rows of three and three.
The boat has a large galley and a pair of air compressors to fill the divers’ tanks. At a relatively slow speed of 10 knots, the Conception can make it out to Santa Cruz Island in a few hours, a trip it has made countless times since launched in 1981.
Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Captain Brian McGrath said that officials were in the process of getting a more accurate manifest for the ship and cautioned that preliminary numbers of those aboard and missing could change.
The Channel Islands is a popular destination for lovers of the outdoors and marine life. A trip itinerary on a California-based dive company said it had chartered the ship this weekend. The ship departed in the early hours Saturday morning, headed for a series of islands in the national park in search of quality scuba diving.
“Nutrient rich waters bathing this island bring BIG fish: halibut, bugs, rockfish, wolfeels, lingcod,” the trip description said. “The precipitous geology at Boomerang, Skyscrapers, Richardson’s and Wilson’s Rock will blow you away. The island also hosts pristine shallow reefs hosting an incredibly diverse collection of sea life. Night dives are delightful; octopi roam the reefs and bioluminescent zooplankton flash colors to silhouette the diver.”
It was scheduled to return on Monday afternoon. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment early Monday.
Robert Wilhemy, of Tahoe City, Calif., said Monday that he had been on diving trips on all three of Truth Aquatics’ boats in the 1990s, including the Conception.
“Basically, down below there’s sleeping areas, the crew sleeps up above,” Wilhemy said. “It’s a beautiful boat, but a bad idea if you have a tragedy like this.”