Fishing captain who helped save Tamil refugees passes away

Captain Gus Dalton, of Admiral's Beach, helped rescue more than 150 Tamil refugees back in 1986 when he found them adrift in two open life boats.

Gus Dalton had never seen anything like it, but he didn't hesitate to help

Admiral's Beach fisherman Gus Dalton was the first to spot the two lifeboats adrift off the Avalon Peninsula. He coordinated the rescue effort with the Canadian Coast Guard. (CBC )

Gus Dalton, a fishing captain who was by most accounts — including his own — an accidental hero for saving the lives of more than 150 Tamil refugees off southern Newfoundland, has died. He was 87. 

Dalton made international headlines in August 1986 when a routine fishing trip on a foggy evening took a fateful turn. 

Scores of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees may have perished had it not been for Dalton, who came across their open boats about six miles off St. Shott's, on the southern tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula.

Gus Dalton kept in touch with the Tamils, who visited him at his home 30 years after the rescue. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"Where we picked those people up — it's known over the world as the graveyard of the Atlantic, there's been that many lives lost out there," he told CBC News months after the rescue. 

Dalton, who fished out of Admiral's Beach, said at the time that he almost couldn't believe what he saw when he first encountered the refugees, who had been dropped in the Atlantic Ocean by a human trafficker. 

"I didn't know what to think," he said. "Thirty-odd years fishing on the water, and I [have] never seen the like." 

The Sri Lankan refugees were brought back to St. John's on a coast guard vessel. It was a story that made headlines around the world. (CBC file )

He may have never seen anything like it, but he and his brother knew what to do. They took as many people as they could, about half, on their boat and called in the Canadian Coast Guard to help rescue the rest. 

Kept in touch

Those refugees all left Newfoundland for Ontario and Quebec, but Dalton didn't have to wonder what became of them.

Many kept in touch with him over the years, returning most recently to mark the 30th anniversary of their rescue. 

Dalton passed away on Tuesday night.

His funeral will be held on Saturday morning in his hometown of Admiral's Beach. 

About the Author

Fred Hutton

CBC News

Fred Hutton works with CBC's bureau in St. John's.