VANCOUVER — Five British nationals are confirmed dead and one person is missing after a tour vessel from a Tofino whale-watching company sank Sunday afternoon with 27 people on board.
Three of the dead were tourists in Canada, while one lived in Ontario and the other in B.C., according to the BC Coroners Service. The victims include four men and one woman between the ages of 18 and 76.
An official with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said that 21 people were rescued before the search was called off late Sunday night. Mounties have taken charge of the search for the one remaining missing passenger, and RCMP crews, along with Coast Guard and local search and rescue workers, were all out on the water Monday morning.
The Leviathan II, a 65-foot covered cruiser operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station, was near Plover Reef, west of Vargas Island, when it sent a mayday call shortly after 4 p.m. Passengers on the vessel would not have been required to wear lifejackets while on deck.
Jamie Bray, the owner of the whale-watching company, issued a statement early Monday morning about the disaster.
“It has been a tragic day. Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved,” he said.
“We are doing everything we can to assist our passengers and staff through this difficult time.”
Bray thanked first responders and members of the local First Nations and Tofino communities for helping with the rescue efforts, and said his company is cooperating with investigators to determine what happened.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond expressed deep sadness about the deaths in a statement early Monday morning.
“My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident. Consular staff in British Columbia are supporting the family members of those who have died and we will remain in close contact with Canadian authorities as further information becomes available,” Hammond said.
Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau has also issued a statement, saying he was “shocked and saddened” to hear of the boat’s sinking, and thanking those who helped with the rescue efforts.
“I know firsthand of this coastal area’s natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world. My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, the crew, and their families at this most difficult time. We will continue to offer them support in the days ahead,” Trudeau said.
At its height, the rescue effort involved dozens of volunteers from local First Nations and the surrounding community.
Fishing guide Lance Desilets was out on the water until sundown, helping to recover debris from the crash. He said the boat was capsized so just the bow was visible, sticking about 3.5 metres out of the water.
Two lifeboats were floating nearby, completely empty.
“There was lots of personal belongings floating around, purses, backpacks, cameras, that sort of thing. Pretty grim,” he said.
As the number of confirmed fatalities rose, Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said “all hands are on deck” with emergency support from “search and rescue, the Tofino fire department, local hospital, RCMP, and all relevant groups.”
“Everybody’s heart is just breaking for what’s going on here and wanting to be as helpful as possible,” she said.
The rescue effort continued into the night. The air force aircraft being used in the waters off Tofino had equipment to search in the darkness.
“The Cormorant helicopter has bright lights and the Buffalo aircraft can launch flares so with that and the vessels on the water … that’s enough to cover the area,” Craig said.
Independent water taxi drivers from nearby Ahousat First Nation were among the first to see a flare go up and answer radio calls for help. They joined larger Coast Guard vessels and helicopters taking passengers from the partly submerged Leviathan to shore at Tofino.
Ahousat Coun. Tom Campbell was on the waterfront and watched as rescue personnel brought several of the survivors ashore.
“Their looks tell the whole story,” he said on the phone from Tofino. “You can’t describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost.”
Campbell, who wasn’t on the water, said a cousin pulled at least eight people from the water into a boat on Sunday afternoon.
John Forde who runs The Whale Centre, another whale-watching operation in the community, responded to the call for help and was told they were looking for four or five missing people.
“It’s a pretty sad situation when you’re doing a grid pattern to an area hoping to see something,” he said adding “The Cormorant helicopter has bright lights and the Buffalo aircraft can launch flares so with that and the vessels on the water … that’s enough to cover the area,” Craig said.
Campbell said the First Nation was holding a meeting to discuss launching further rescue operations this morning.
Brandon Hilbert from Tofino Water Taxi said local companies all pitched in to help in the rescue effort.
He said he had no idea what might have happened.
“Over the course of a season and years we take out thousands and thousands of people on these trips in conditions similar today. I have no idea what the issue was or what actually happened.
Forde said Jamie’s was one of the first such whale-watching operations on the west coast of Vancouver Island and had been around for many years.
Osborne said there are about a dozen whale watching operators in Tofino with “Jamie’s being one of the larger ones.”
Jenn Hamilton, a spokeswoman for British Columbia Emergency Health Services, said she did not have details about the deceased, including nationalities.
Valerie Wilson, a spokeswoman for Island Health, said 18 people had been admitted to Tofino General Hospital.
Another three patients were transported to out-of-town hospitals for treatment — two by air ambulance and one by ground ambulance. Hamilton did not have any further information on their condition.
Staff at Tofino Whale Centre assisted in the rescue efforts until dark. Company co-owner Jennifer Steven said it wasn’t clear yet what had happened to the vessel.
“This is very sad, because this is a very tight-knit community,” she said.
“All the whale-watching companies, we all watch out for each other.”
Fishing guide Desilets described the area where the boat went down as very dangerous to navigate, peppered with submerged reefs and jagged rocks. He speculated that the vessel had stopped to view the sea lions that frequent the area before it went down.
“I’ve been a fishing guide in Tofino for 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s disturbing,” he said.
But Desilets said local residents rallied to help with the rescue, and more than a dozen volunteers’ vessels were out on the water.
“The town really came together,” he said.
By nightfall, rain had started to fall off the west coast, but Steven said Coast Guard, RCMP and other rescue vessels were still out on the water.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said it will send a team of investigators to Tofino to investigate the sinking.
The company’s Leviathan II is described on the company’s website as “Tofino’s largest and most comfortable whale watching vessel.” It has a fully licensed crew and can accommodate up to 46 passengers.
At this off-season time of year, the Leviathan departs from the company’s marina in Tofino once a day at 1:30 p.m., taking whale watchers through Clayoquot Sound.
Jamie’s Whaling Station website says it “has been professionally guiding adventure seekers from around the world to explore the nooks and crannies of Clayoquot Sound and Barkley Sound since 1982.”
It operates waterfront stations in both Tofino and Ucluelet, but the Ucluelet one has closed for the season.
In March 1998, a driver employed by Jamie’s Whaling Station and a 27 year-old German tourist died after a series of waves swamped their boat as they approached a reef after sighting grey whales off Vargas Island. They were the first fatalities ever in B.C.’s multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry, which attracts tourists from around the world.
The company was also involved in an accident in 1996, when a small, unlicensed boat en route to pick up passengers for a whale-watching excursion ran aground on Flores Island. The operator, who was the only person on board at the time, had apparently fallen asleep at the helm and was severely injured in the crash.