Kiribati authorities have confirmed a small canoe found in the Pacific Ocean was that which six young people were in when they were swept away.
The group - two 19-year-old men and four girls aged eight, nine, 12 and 14 - disappeared on Friday.
The empty traditional canoe was found on Saturday by local fishermen who retrieved a small float from it, which was today confirmed by family members of the missing as belonging to the craft.
Searchers are now holding onto hope that the group managed to get into a small aluminium dinghy which was being towed behind the canoe.
Fishermen found the empty traditional canoe on Saturday and retrieved a small float from it, which was today confirmed by family members of the missing as belonging to the craft.
A RNZAF Orion plane was expected to arrive at the search area about 3pm (NZT) for its fourth day of searching, but the operation would be taken over by the US Coast Guard from tomorrow and the Orion would go home. The Coast Guard would also have a search plane in the air this afternoon.
New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre spokesman Ross Henderson said although the identification of the canoe was somewhat distressing, it would aid rescuers by narrowing-down the search area, and they were still hopeful of finding the group alive.
"It is essentially a very large area of ocean so it's a very challenging place to search.
"But we always hold out hope, we're still actively searching and we'll be making every effort that we can."
Maritime director Oscar Omirete yesterday told NZPA the group was only 20 to 30 metres off the beach and had probably been blown out to sea.
He said the canoes were meant for lagoon use only and not designed to be used in the open sea.
He said they were not believed to have food or water, lifejackets or paddles.
"It was a heavy swell, maybe one or two metres. The wind was quite strong at the time. They might not be able to counter the effect of the wind."
They were making a journey of about 4km between two villages, collecting palm leaves for roofing, using a pole to propel them off the reef.