Rescuers plucked more than 200 people from the sea off Papua New Guinea on Thursday after a ferry sank, leaving more than 100 missing and many feared dead, Australian authorities said.
"This is obviously a major tragedy - 350 people on board a ship that has gone down," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters in Melbourne. "It is likely a very high loss of life here."
Australia's Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said 219 people had been rescued after eight vessels and three helicopters were diverted to the scene where MV Rabaul Queen went down early on Thursday.
AMSA spokeswoman Carly Lusk however said a greater loss of life may have been avoided as sea conditions were good, with a 10 knot (18kmh) wind and a light swell.