The BC Coroners Service says five people have died after a whale watching vessel sank off the coast of Tofino, B.C., Sunday, while 18 were sent to hospital. 

RAW Tofino B.C. fatalities1:12

The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre confirms that the MV Leviathan II, operated by Jamie's Whaling Station,had 27 people on board when it sank west of Vargas Island

Of that total, 21 have been rescued, while one person remains missing.

JRCC says the search has been called off while the RCMP will assume responsibility for the person still unaccounted for.

Meanwhile the company, in a Facebook post signed by owner Jamie Bray, says, "Our entire team is heartbroken over the incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved."

The statement goes onto say that the company is co-operating with authorities to find the cause of the accident, and it also thanks the multiple rescuers who helped at sea.

The Canadian Coast Guard, local water taxi companies, the Ahousaht First Nation and other private vessels all helped in the search.

"Several members of Ahousaht First Nation bravely went out in their motor vessels in the waters near Tofino," Rob Bullock of the Ahousaht First Nation said in a release.

Weather moderate

"Weather conditions were moderate, with cloud, some wind and light rain. However the waters on the west side of Vargas Island can be unpredictable." 

John Forde, who owns the Tofino Whale Centre and is a captain at the local fire department, was on a hot springs tour with customers when he heard about the MV Leviathan II.

He changed course to help with the search and said, upon arriving, that he saw the vessel all but submerged.

"It was quite close to the rocks and you could still see part of the vessel above water," he said. "There was a lot of injured and hypothermic people being brought in Ahousaht water taxis, at least a dozen boats out there if not more."


The MV Leviathan II sank off the coast of Tofino, B.C., on Sunday with 27 passengers on board. (Jamie's Whaling Station)

Paramedics confirmed three deaths at 5:10 p.m. PT, about an hour after the boat sank. Since that time, two more deaths were confirmed.

Survivors re-warmed

Of the 18 victims transferred to hospital, many needed to be warmed by first responders after spending time in the water.

A critical care transport crew arrived to fly two patients to a hospital outside of Tofino.

Meanwhile, BC Ambulance Service says some survivors were treated and warmed up in local residences under the supervision of paramedics.

Tofino General Hospital only has 10 acute care beds and five emergency stretchers.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne posted a thank-you message on Twitter to all the people who helped in the tragedy as the district's emergency operations centre was activated.

Rami Touffaha, who owns Burnaby Tours and Charters, was a witness to efforts being made on the dock in Tofino off of 1st Street by responders.

"There was about three ambulances down at the dock," he said. "I think that's pretty much all of Tofino's resources." 

MV Leviathan submerged Albert Titian

This photograph of the MV Leviathan II was shot by Albert Titian as Ahousaht First Nation boats scrambled to help those forced into the water by the sinking ship. (Albert Titian/Facebook)

He says the vessel that sank was far enough from shore that it could not be seen.

"You could see the smaller boats going back and forth to try and help bring people back to shore," he said.

Touffaha says it was a beautiful day in Tofino with sunny skies.

"The waters weren't choppy so I don't see what could have caused the boat to sink, but you never know in these waters unfortunately," he added.

Canada's Transportation Safety Board says it will send investigators to Tofino on Monday.

This isn't the first accident for the whale watching company.

In 1998 one of their vessels violently rolled during an excursion, sending all four people on board into the water. The operator and one of the passengers died.

With files from The Canadian Press