British Columbia

Tofino, nearby communities prepare for start of whale watching season

First Nations communities near Tofino have been working with Canadian Coast Guard officials to improve search and rescue coordination since the effort to save people aboard the Leviathan II in October.

Mock search exercise during off season helps coordinate local knowledge with coast guard operations

Even sitting in his Ahousaht kitchen, Alec Dick keeps an ear on what is happening on the water around Tofino. 

A marine radio hangs from the upper row of cabinets, like it does in many homes in the Ahousaht First Nation, just north of the tourist town on Vancouver Island's west coast.

The chatter on the local radio channel is about to pick up as whale watching boats start heading out from the docks in Tofino for another season. Dick says his community is ready to help again, should the need arise.

"You are called out and you do what you have to do," Dick said, of the local rescue effort that is largely credited with saving 21 people when the Leviathan II capsized in October. Six people didn't make it.

When two Ahousaht fishermen spotted the only flare that went up from the boat, Dick helped to direct as many boats as possible from Ahousaht, Tla-o-qui-aht communities and Tofino to the scene.

Coast Guard cooperation

Responding to emergencies off the West Coast of Vancouver Island is part of everyday life in the First Nations communities near Tofino.

Following the October incident, there were calls for First Nations to have a more formal search and rescue role. That has not happened yet, but the Canadian Coast Guard did reach out to the communities around Tofino over the winter months.

Alec Dick, is the emergency co-ordinator for Ahousaht. He helped organize local boats to rescue people from the Leviathan II in October using a marine radio that's always on in his kitchen. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

During a recent training exercise in Tofino, boats from Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht communities worked alongside coast guard and Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue vessels to conduct a mock search for overdue kayakers.

The focus was on better communication, said Dick, Ahousaht's emergency co-ordinator. 

During the rescue for the Leviathan II, the first people to the scene initially had trouble communicating the location to coast guard radio operators in Prince Rupert, he said.

The local names for landmarks did not match what was on coast guard maps, Dick said. During the recent training exercise, those local names were added.

Jamie's Whaling Station, the company that operated the Leviathan II, plans to start offering whale watching tours again on March 12, according to a sign on the door of the building. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

"Coast guard realizes the importance of recognizing those names in our terms," he said. "We are here locally, we are here 24/7 and this is how we communicate our locations."

Equipment still needed

There were also promises to look at better equipping First Nations communities to respond to marine emergencies in the aftermath of the Leviathan II tragedy.

Many of the boats that rushed to the scene were water taxis. They are designed to load people and cargo from docks, not to pull people from rough waters.

"The majority of our boats that are out there are water taxis, and they are quite high and it's pretty difficult to retrieve anyone that is in the water."

Joe Martin, a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations member, often takes tourists out to see bears on the shorelines around Tofino. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Dick said Ahousaht has asked for a couple of inflatable rescue vessels to station in the community. He had hoped that would happen before the tourist season begins again in Tofino.

"Those are the final things that we need in our line of work that we do as volunteers. Everybody knows when you are volunteering, your life is on the line," he said. "We want to be fully prepared for the next season coming up."

Whale watching season opens

The Leviathan tragedy came at the end of the last tourist season for Tofino. Some operators offer limited boat trips during the winter months, but the whale watching season starts in earnest in the month of March with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival.

Jamie's Whaling Station, the company that operated the Leviathan II, is scheduled to start trips again on March 12, according to a notice posted on the front door of the building.

Tofino Mayor Jose Osborne said people in town took the winter months to process the tragedy, and now they are looking forward to welcoming tourists back.

"There's an element of maybe almost nervousness in the air, not knowing exactly what questions people will ask, but everyone is very receptive and open to being asked those questions," Osborne said.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne says the town is looking forward to welcoming tourists back, but people know there will be questions about the accident. (Megan Thomas, CBC)

The accident is also not far from the minds of those who spend time on the water.

"Certainly people are always aware every time you do go out on a boat that there is a risk," said Joe Martin, who sometimes takes tourists out to spot wildlife.

"People slow down a little bit and take a look and see what our behaviours may be on the water."

Back in Ahousaht, the routine chatter continues on the radio in Alec Dick's kitchen.

Should he hear of a fishing boat in trouble, a mayday from a tourist vessel, or lost kayaker, people in his community are ready to respond as they always have, he says, regardless of whether more rescue equipment ever arrives.

"We will always do that no matter what."