Whale watching tragedy that killed 5 came 'out of the blue': boat's owner
The whale watching boat that capsized off Tofino, B.C. over the weekend, killing five British nationals, had a flawless safety record leading into the tragedy, according to its owner.
The Leviathan II vessel sank with 27 people on board – 24 passengers and three crew members – near a popular sea lion-watching spot called Plover Reefs around 4 p.m. Sunday.
It’s still unclear what caused the deadly accident.
A 27-year-old Australian man is still missing.
Jamie’s Whaling Station, the company that owns the boat, said the Leviathan II visited the same location twice daily for years without incident.
“This vessel’s operated for 20 years with an absolutely perfect safety record. This is something just totally out of the blue,” owner Jamie Bray said at a press conference Monday.
“There was no indication yesterday that would say that it was any different than any other tour that happens either in the spring or the fall.”
The spot is on the far side of Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound, an area where the waters can become rough and choppy – though locals said the weather was mostly clear when the vessel capsized.
Bray said the accident, which claimed the lives of four men and a woman, with another passenger still unaccounted for, has left him and his staff shocked and traumatized.
“I think the whole community has experienced the same emotions,” Bray said, his eyes tearing up. “We’re all traumatized.”
The BC Coroners Service said the victims, who were all British nationals, ranged in age from 18 to 76. One of the men was residing in Ontario, and the woman had been living in B.C., but no other information is being released until all the victims’ families have been notified.
Bray said the Leviathan II was equipped with about 50 adult lifejackets and 20 children’s lifejackets. Because of the size of the boat, passengers were not wearing them when the ship went down.
“Transport Canada advises not to wear a lifejacket on a vessel with enclosed compartments,” he added. “In the event of a sinking, it would be very difficult to exit a vessel when you’re being held up on the sealing or the deck with a lifejacket on.”
According to Jamie’s Whaling Station, the skipper on the boat has 20 years’ experience, and the two deckhands have five and three years, respectively.
Members of the Ahousaht First Nation, local boaters and fellow whale watching operators jumped into action after hearing the mayday call over transmission radio.
Francis Campbell was among the first on the water, trying to do everything he could do to help.
“I picked up the survivors, eight of them,” he told CTV News.
Another boater, Richard Little, described seeing the overturned boat “bobbing up and down in the water.”
“I went as close as I could to it,” he said.
The Joint Rescue Co-Ordination Centre in Victoria dispatched a Royal Canadian Air Force Cormorant helicopter and an RCAF Buffalo aircraft, while the Canadian Coast Guard sent out four fast-rescue craft.
Lt. Paul Trenholm of the JRCC said the quick response from nearby boats saved lives.
“Without the collaborative effort of the people that were living nearby, rendering assistance, this could have been much worse,” he told CTV News Channel.
Sheila Simpson, who is trained as a nurse, was at the dock when First Nations boats started bringing in passengers.
“Thank God they were out in their boats,” Simpson said.
“Some of them ferried in the survivors and there were people who were very wounded. And some others that didn’t make it died on the dock. It was incredible to watch how everybody worked together.”
Simpson said ambulances were making trips back and forth from hospital as paramedics and first responders assessed who needed urgent treatment.
“It was chaos, but it was handled very well,” she said.
Eighteen people were transported to the Tofino General Hospital, according to the Vancouver Island Health Authority. All but one was released by Monday afternoon.
Three more seriously injured passengers were transported to hospitals in Nanaimo, Victoria and Vancouver and were listed in stable condition.
Alec Dick, the emergency coordinator for the Ahousaht First Nation, said he was surprised to hear of a 20-metre vessel capsizing, saying that in all his years of responding to marine emergencies, he had never heard of a boat that big being flipped over.
Previous fatal accident
Jamie’s Whaling Station has a long history in the area, offering guiding tours for more than 30 years.
Sadly, Sunday’s tragedy isn’t the first time the company has suffered a fatal accident. In 1998, an operator and passenger died after a smaller vessel capsized during a sightseeing tour.
That also took place off the west coast of Vargas Island, not far from the scene of Sunday’s sinking, but Bray said the similarities end there.
“The 1998 incident happened in a Zodiac, a totally different kind of vessel. It was struck by a rogue wave and the passengers were thrown out,” Bray said. “It’s a totally different scenario.”
A 27-year-old German tourist and the 25-year-old captain drowned when the six-metre inflatable vessel was swamped with water.
The company said it will be cooperating with the Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators arrived in the area Monday afternoon to launch a probe.
Marc Andre Poisson, director of marine investigations for the TSB, offered condolences to the victims’ families and said the team would be mindful of them.
Poisson said understanding the cause of the tragedy will take time, however.
“We understand people want answers rapidly,” he said at a press conference in Tofino Monday.
“TSB investigators have to examine all the information before drawing any conclusions. we don’t speculate and it’s much too early to say what the causes and contributing factors of this accident might be.”
Poisson said the TSB will be interviewing crew and survivors, examining the wreckage, reviewing operation policies, examining the vessel’s maintenance history, and reviewing current regulatory requirements.
A Transport Canada record for the Leviathan II indicates it was built in 1981, but rebuilt in 1996.
A community in grief
Tofino Mayor Josie Osbourne said a community gathering will be held Monday night as a way for the tight-knit community of 2,000 people to process what happened.
“The outpouring of the community is amazing,” she told CTV Morning Live.
Osbourne said people offered food, shelter, blankets and clothing to survivors and first responders.
“Everyone is just thinking so very much about all the people who are involved," she said.
Osborne said the local tourism industry is well-regulated and she’s “confident” that the boats operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station have been regularly inspected.
Right now, “the community of Tofino is very much focused on the passengers and survivors,” Osborne said, adding that counselling services will be offered to those affected.
Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau sent a message of condolence to the victims and their families.
"I know firsthand of this coastal area's natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world," Trudeau said in a statement.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, the crew, and their families at this most difficult time."
B.C. Premier Christy Clark added her voice to the chorus of concern.
"My thoughts and my prayers and those of all British Columbians go out to the families and the loved ones of those that were lost or injured," she said in a statement.
"My thanks to all those involved in the rescue and the response and for their efforts during this tragic incident."