A team of Australian navy divers is poised to head to Tonga to help authorities recover as many as 64 bodies possibly trapped inside a sunken ferry.

The Princess Ashika was heading from the capital Nuku’alofa to Ha’afeva, in the Nomuka Islands, when it sank just before 11pm local time on Wednesday.

Fifty-three people were rescued and two bodies have been recovered, but 64 people remain missing, presumed drowned.

The ferry has been located in 35m of water, about 86km northeast of Nuku’alofa. Navy divers from Australia and New Zealand have been asked to help recover those feared to have drowned.

Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelly said the help was needed because the local military and police lacked the capacity to reach the Princess Ashika.

“A major issue is that vessel is in 36m of water – that’s over 100 feet, and we don’t have the capability to get to that depth in the Tongan navy or police,” he is quoted on the Matangi Tonga website as saying on Friday.

A Royal Australian Navy clearance diving team of 16 will leave RAAF Richmond in Sydney for Tonga on a C-130 Hercules on Friday night.

The clearance diving team can operate to a depth of 50 metres, a Department of Defence spokesman said in a statement on Friday.

Defence Minister John Faulkner said: “As the depth of water appears to be relatively shallow where the ferry is located, it should be possible for the Royal Australian Navy clearance dive team to operate.

“The recovery of the bodies is an unpleasant but necessary job, but it will allow families the opportunity to farewell their loved ones.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who wrapped up the Pacific Islands Forum on Thursday, said he and his fellow leaders were distressed at hearing the news.

“This is a large human tragedy for what is, at the end of the day, a small community,” Mr Rudd said.

A team of 12 New Zealand navy divers and a three-member remote search team will also leave for Tonga on Friday evening aboard an RNZAF Hercules.