British Columbia

Coroner rules deaths of 6 in Tofino whale-watching tragedy as accidental

The Leviathan II, run by Jamie's Whaling Station, sunk after it was overcome by a rogue wave on Oct. 25, 2015.

Recommendations passengers wear life-jackets on outside decks

Six people died when the Leviathan II capsized near Tofino in 2015. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The drowning deaths of six people during a whale watching trip off British Columbia have been classified as accidental by the province's coroner's service.

The Leviathan II capsized near the resort community of Tofino on Oct. 25, 2015, sending all 27 aboard into the water, killing five Britons and a man from Australia.

The coroner's service is making two recommendations to Transport Canada based on its investigation aimed at preventing fatalities in similar circumstances.

It found not all passengers were wearing flotation aids, which is optional for passengers on an outer deck according to Transport Canada regulations.

The coroner's report said the emergency radio beacon on board was delayed in sending a distress call.

"Following the capsizing of the Leviathan II approximately 20 minutes elapsed before a distress signal could be successfully transmitted, during which time the passengers were in the cold water without flotation aids, hindering their chances of survival," the report said.

The service is recommending life-jackets be worn by all passengers on the outer decks of vessels larger than 15 gross tonnes and carrying more than 12 passengers.

It is also calling for a review of regulations to determine whether to expand the class of vessels that are required to carry emergency position radio beacons.

Canadian Coast Guard crew arrived at a dock in Tofino, B.C., following the capsizing of the Leviathan II. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The Transportation Safety Board concluded in June last year that a large, breaking wave caused the vessel to flip.

The board said it was only by chance that a crew member was able to spot a flare in the wreckage and use it to draw attention from nearby fishing boats that notified search and rescue crews.

The board made three recommendations, including that all commercial passenger vessels operating beyond sheltered waters carry emergency radio beacons that activate automatically to transmit a boat's position.

It also recommended that passenger vessels across Canada adopt risk-management processes that identify hazards such as areas known to have large, breaking waves.

Improved access to life-jackets

The coroner said the ship's owner, Jamie's Whaling Station, began initiating changes to its procedures and practices to prevent further incidents ahead of the transportation board's report.

Those changes include mandatory radio check-ins every 30 minutes, improved access to life-jackets and the addition of emergency radio beacons that broadcast the position of a ship in distress, the report said.

The coroner said there had been two previous incidents involving whale watching vessels in the same area in 1992 and 1998, both of which resulted in two fatalities each.

Those deaths led to recommendations that vessels carry emergency radio beacons and implement a buddy system with another vessel to prevent further fatalities.

An RCMP dive team was tasked with searching for debris after the Leviathan II sank. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The Leviathan II was using a reporting schedule that resulted from those recommendations, the coroner's report said.

While delays in signalling distress were apparent, the most significant factor contributing to the deaths on the Leviathan II was the lack of access to flotation devices, the service said.

"Given all six of the fatalities involved passengers on outer decks and the fact that witness statements indicate five of the six were unresponsive within two to three minutes of the capsizing occurring, the only variable that could have prevented their deaths would have been the use of life-jackets, (personal flotation devices) or buoyant exposure suits," the report said.

Transport Canada responds

Transport Canada said in a statement Tuesday that all small commercial vessels are currently required to carry a life-jacket for each person on board and they must be accessible to passengers and crew in the event of emergency.

The department said the public is encouraged to wear life-jackets when on or near water and it supports efforts to expand the use of such devices.

The department had reviewed the coroner's recommendations and said it is constantly looking for ways to enhance safety regulations.

"The department will consult with stakeholders on life-jacket requirements and consider factors, including vessel size, to determine next steps," spokeswoman Annie Joannette said in a statement.