In the ninth day into the search, 171 people have been confirmed dead, leaving 140 still missing. The number of those rescued is unchanged at 174 since the 6,825-tonne ferry Sewol capsized and sank off Jindo island in the country's southwestern tip April 16, Xinhua reported.
The toll has been growing as search operations were aided by favourable weather conditions. The tidal currents have slower since Monday. The waters around Jindo island are known for the country's second-fastest currents. The currents are forecast to become faster from Friday. It is also expected to rain from Saturday.
The wind speed was moderate in the morning, the waves were around 0.5 metres high and the water temperature was around 12 degrees Celsius.
On Wednesday alone, 38 bodies were recovered from the submerged vessel, with 36 found Tuesday and 28 retrieved Monday.
Koh Myung-seok, director general of the South Korean Coast Guard, said at a press briefing that divers will mainly search passenger cabins on the third and fourth floors of the five-storey vessel, noting that a lot of bodies were found in staircases leading to the two floors.
The vessel submerged on the port side at some 90 degrees to the surface. Divers had to drill holes through the thick steel plates to enter the passenger cabins.
Among three blocks of the vessel, the search in cabins on the starboard side was completed Wednesday and divers were focusing on the second block in the middle of the ship. Cabins on the port side had yet to be reached, said Koh.
Volunteer divers have been banned from underwater search operation due to lack of skills. Among 343 volunteer divers who came to the scene, 16 were allowed into the waters but came up less than 10 minutes later. Some volunteer divers were just taking photographs without making efforts to enter into the waters, the Coast Guard said.
Families of the missing passengers demanded that volunteer divers be barred from the search operations. Only private divers, called technical divers and employed by the government, have been allowed to join the search operations.
Some volunteer divers have claimed that the rescue authorities prevented even technical divers from taking part in the search.
Around 700 coast guard, navy, special forces, firefighting and private divers were conducting search operations in the tough and murky waters, the coast guard said. One navy diver got decompression sickness after diving for a long time.