British Columbia

1998 Tofino whale-watching accident sparked call for regulation

The B.C. Coroners Service will be reviewing a 1998 whale-watching tragedy as part of its investigation into a deadly accident this week involving the same company. Details of the earlier incident show just how quickly the ocean can turn deadly.

Coroner says earlier incident that left 2 whale watchers dead will be reviewed as part of latest tragedy

In 1998, the Ocean Thunder (pictured) was suddenly swamped near Tofino, throwing its four occupants into the ocean. Two died. (Transportation Safety Board)

The two accidents happened nearly 17 years apart.

But the B.C. Coroners Service will be reviewing a 1998 whale-watching tragedy as part of its investigation into a deadly accident Sunday that left five British tourists dead and one Australian man missing.

Two people died in the earlier incident, which also involved a boat operated by Jamie's Whaling Station, the same company that owned the doomed Leviathan II.

A coroner's report into the 1998 accident shows just how quickly one of the West Coast's premier tourist attractions can turn deadly.

Wave 'over 10 feet high'

The Ocean Thunder was a different kind of vessel: a seven-metre rigid hull inflatable built to hold 12 passengers. 

There were four people on board on March 22, 1998: operator Robert Larocque; B.C. tourist Kathleen Howes; and a young, newly engaged German couple, Yvonne Kloevekorn and Stephan Reimers.

They all wore "floater suits," but as coroner Patricia North noted, passengers were "given no instructions" about how to use them.

"The water conditions they encountered were rough," North wrote.

"A passenger from a returning boat mentioned that they had gotten completely wet and she was frightened. Others looked 'green' to the people preparing to leave."

Larocque had experience and certification in both first aid and the operation of whale-watching boats.

Jamie Bray is the owner of Jamie's Whaling Station, the company that operated both the Ocean Thunder and the Leviathan II. (CBC)

The Ocean Thunder travelled first to the open water, where they saw whales, and then to an area near the site of this week's tragedy. A large curling wave crashed from behind and the boat turned as another wave approached.

It was approximately 1:47 p.m.

"The wave appeared to be over 10 feet high," North wrote. "As the boat rode sideways up the wave, the incline was too great for the passengers to hang on."

'They will find us'

They all fell in the water: "The occupants all survived the dumping and several talked back and forth."

The German couple were separated. Larocque and Kloevekorn stayed together.

"They hung onto each other for a period of time. He advised they should stay put as he assumed help would soon be arriving. They kept wondering where the rescuers were, saying things like 'Ya, they will know' and 'They will find us and know where we are.'"

Eventually, Kloevekorn chose to swim to a reef and their boat. She managed to climb inside, noticing a plane overhead. She waved.

Meanwhile, Howes floated on her back. She was spotted from the air.

"Her vision was restricted by the hood she had on and only remembers looking across her body and seeing the toes of her boots."

At approximately 4 p.m., rescuers found Larocque floating face down in the water. Shortly thereafter, they found Reimers's lifeless body nearby. Both women survived.

In her report, North noted that there were "precious few regulations/standards which attempt to guide" the burgeoning West Coast whale-watching industry.

She recommended the adoption of industry-wide operating standards applicable to local conditions as well as suggestions specific to the smaller type of vessel Larocque was operating.

'It is not risk-free'

At the time, the Nanaimo Daily News reported that the Association of Marine Underwriters welcomed the recommendations, as did Jamie Bray, the owner of Jamie's Whaling Station.

Speaking after the latest accident, Bray told reporters there was nothing to tie the two tragedies together.

B.C. regional coroner Matt Brown said he believed the two incidents may not "be entirely similar," but said he would continue to investigate as more is learned about the Leviathan capsizing

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said safety is a primary concern for the industry. Jamie's Whaling Station is not part of the association.

Harris cautions against drawing any conclusions from the earlier incident.

"It may just be bad luck," he said. "This company knows what they're doing. They've been doing it for a long, long time."

Capt. Brian Silvester met Robert Larocque when he was operating a whale-watching vessel off Telegraph Cove; Larocque was his deckhand. He describes him as being "enthusiastic" and experienced.

If anything, Silvester, a longtime mariner and safety instructor, said the separate tragedies underscore the risk inherent in any activity involving the open ocean

"Even those that go whale-watching out of Victoria in the Zodiacs and dressed up in their anti-exposure suits, they're going into a hostile environment," he said.

"People think, 'I've paid my money and I'm comfortable with the operation.' But it is not risk-free." 

Read the coroner's report.

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