US Coast Guard crews searching for 39 people reported missing when a boat capsized off the coast of Florida have found one body so far, officials said Wednesday.
“We did recover one deceased body… and we continue to search for other survivors,” said Coast Guard captain Jo-Ann Burdian.
The boat left Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday and capsized after hitting rough seas 45 miles (65 kilometers) east of the city of Fort Pierce, said Burdian.
She said the failed journey was considered a suspected human smuggling venture, as it took place along a route commonly used for such clandestine trips from the Bahamas to the United States.
Burdian said time is of the essence in the search, as these people are trying to survive in cold water without supplies and exposed to the sun and sea.
“Every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and unlikely that anyone can survive,” said Burdian.
The Coast Guard sounded the alarm Tuesday morning after receiving a report from a commercial vessel that had rescued a man clinging to a capsized vessel.
The survivor, now on land and in stable condition, said there were 39 other people on the boat, and no one was wearing a life jacket.
Search conditions Wednesday were good, and a plane taking part in search operations spotted a debris field, which is being investigated in hope of finding more bodies or survivors, Burdian said.
An image released Tuesday by the Coast Guard shows the capsized vessel in the water with a man straddling the hull.
Human smugglers are known to use the Bahamas — a group of islands near the Florida coast — as a jumping off point for getting people, many from other Caribbean countries such as Haiti, into the United States.
Bimini, the westernmost district of the Bahamas and its closest point to the mainland, is approximately 130 miles from Fort Pierce Inlet.
On Friday, 32 people were rescued after a boat capsized some five miles west of Bimini in another suspected human smuggling attempt, according to the US Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force.
The US Coast Guard tweeted that its vessels patrol the waters around Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas “to ensure the safety of life at sea.”
“Navigating the seas in overloaded and less than seaworthy vessels is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” it warned.
Spikes in the number of people trying to reach the United States from the Caribbean have accompanied upheavals in the region.
US authorities noted an increase in migration from Cuba by sea in recent months. In July, the country saw scores of demonstrations triggered by economic strife, medical and food shortages and anger at the government.