Five dead in sinking of whale watching boat with 27 aboard off Vancouver Island

Canadian Coast Guard crew arrive at a dock in Tofino, B.C., shortly after midnight Monday October 26, 2021 following a search and rescue operation on Sunday involving a whale watching boat and 27 passengers that capsized near Vancouver Island. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Canadian Coast Guard crew arrive at a dock in Tofino, B.C., shortly after midnight Monday October 26, 2021 following a search and rescue operation on Sunday involving a whale watching boat and 27 passengers that capsized near Vancouver Island. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

TOFINO, B.C. - Five people are dead and another was missing after a whale watching ship capsized Sunday off the west coast of Vancouver Island, triggering a rescue effort that saw 21 others who were on board the vessel brought ashore.

Lt.-Cmdr. Desmond James of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre said the search was called off late Sunday night and the RCMP was handling it as a missing-person case.

“Fortunately, we did manage to rescue 21 people,” he said.

A lone candle at the edge of Tofino’s wood piling First Street Dock flickered in the darkness early Monday as the cloud shrouded full moon cast beams of light out into the harbour.

“I saw them save someone’s life. They saved a woman’s life, I’m sure of it,” said Sheila Simpson, who was strolling on the dock with her husband when rescue boats roared up carrying people from the whale watching vessel.

“One didn’t make it,” said Simpson about a man whose body was covered by a blanket.

Simpson, who lives on Denman Island, said she was in Tofino visiting a friend at the local hospital when she saw people arriving in boats and ambulance and police at the dock.

She said she managed to comfort some of the people who were on the capsized vessel as they stood on the dock awaiting transport to hospital or to their hotels.

“They were in absolute shock,” said Simpson. “You could see it in their eyes. This didn’t happen. We came on a holiday.”

Nearby boats that attended the ship’s mayday call on Sunday around 4 p.m. found it partially submerged about 15 kilometres northwest of Tofino.

Some of the first boats to arrive were from the nearby Ahousaht First Nation, said aboriginal Coun. Tom Campbell.

He was on the Tofino waterfront and watched as rescue personnel brought several of the survivors ashore.

“Their looks tell the whole story,” he said by telephone 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 his cousin pulled at least eight people from the water into a boat on Sunday afternoon.

Valerie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said 18 people were brought to the Tofino General Hospital.

Three who were more seriously injured were transferred to other hospitals on Vancouver Island and were in stable condition, Wilson said. The condition of the others wasn’t known.

Joe Martin, a member of the Tal-o-qui-aht First Nation, was near the dock in Tofino when the rescue boats began returning to the tourism community.

“I did see a boat come in with three bodies on board and then another one arrived and there were two.”

Martin said two people were brought in on a Zodiac, where workers tried to resuscitate them but eventually covered them with blankets.

He said his brother and nephew were out halibut fishing when they saw the overturned boat and tried to help. Instead, the men pulled in three bodies, he said.

The ship was on the far side of Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound, an area that Martin said could get really rough.

“It wasn’t even blowing hard (Sunday). This is the largest boat in Tofino and I was really surprised that it went down.”

Various sources including the Transportation Safety Board and the area’s newly elected MP identified the boat as the Leviathan II, a 20-metre vessel belonging to the local whale watching outfit Jamie’s Whaling Station.

The company issued a statement late Sunday saying its entire team is heartbroken and it is doing everything possible to assist passengers and staff.

It also said Jamie’s Whaling Station is co-operating with investigators to determine exactly what happened.

In the statement, owner Jamie Bray promised updates when they are available and also offered his sincere thanks to first responders, Tofino residents and local First Nations communities who assisted with the rescue.

The Leviathan had 24 passengers and three crew members on board at the time of the incident, said emergency officials.

Meanwhile, community members in Tofino rallied to offer help, bringing food, blankets and clothing to survivors and rescuers alike.

The mayor of Tofino commended locals for their contributions.

“Everybody’s heart is just breaking for what’s going on here and wanting to be as helpful as possible,” said Josie Osborne in a telephone interview late Sunday.

John Forde, who runs The Whale Centre, another whale watching operation in the community, also responded to the call for help.

“It’s a pretty sad situation when you’re doing a grid pattern to an area hoping to see something,” he said, adding that he didn’t know 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 Whaling Station was one of the first such whale watching operations on the west coast of Vancouver Island and had been around for many years.

This isn’t the first fatal incident on the company’s record. In 1998 one of their smaller vessels capsized during a sightseeing excursion, sending all four people on board into the water, the Transportation Safety Board said. The operator and one of the passengers died.

The board confirmed it was investigating Sunday’s incident.

— with files from Geordon Omand and Terri Theodore in Vancouver

© The Canadian Press, 2015

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