A massive search operation is underway after a boat carrying 31 people – mostly Chinese tourists – went missing off the coast of Sabah in Malaysian. The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said that it had received a distress call on the disappearance of the vessel late on Saturday night (28 January).

Authorities said that 28 of the people on board the vessel are Chinese tourists, apart from the captain and two crewmen. The boat was en route to the popular tourist island of Pulau Mengalum from Kota Kinabalu in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. When the boat failed to arrive at the island following its 60-km voyage, authorities launched the search operation.

"The search area covers 400 nautical square miles and involves waters between Kota Kinabalu and Pulau Mengalum. The Royal Malaysian Air Force will be notified to carry out aerial surveillance," said Lieutenant Awil Kamsari, spokesperson for MMEA in Sabah. Malaysian naval vessels have also been pressed into action.

The Consulate General of China in Kota Kinabalu confirmed the news of the missing vessel and said it is monitoring the situation closely. Although it is not clear what could have caused the boat to have lost contact with agencies, local reports suggest that weather conditions in the there were not good.