British Columbia

Tofino whale-watching accident leads residents to gather for support

Hundreds of people in Tofino, B.C., gathered at a community hall to come to terms with the capsizing of a whale-watching boat, killing five people, with one passenger still missing.

4 men, 1 woman confirmed dead, 1 Australian man still missing

Tofino whale-watch boat sinking

8 years ago
Duration 3:50
Featured VideoCBC's Chris Brown has the latest on the tragic and so far unexplained accident

Hundreds of people in the small town of Tofino, B.C., gathered at a community hall for support following the capsizing of a whale-watching boat that killed five British nationals, with an Australian man still missing.

John Forde, owner of the Tofino Whale Centre, said it had been "an emotional day" for the residents in the region.

"[I'm] pretty upset, you know, and humbled, and definitely saddened," said Forde. "It was completely a shock."

Tofino resident John Forde was one of hundreds of residents who showed up at a community hall for support on Monday night. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

"Tofino is a small community, we're a tight-knit community, and this is a way of everybody getting together and showing our support for a tragedy that happened."

Forde said he and other nearby whale-watching companies cancelled their tours on Monday, "out of respect." 

"We did have people scheduled to go out, but closed down for the day," said Forde. 

Forde said his was one of many boats that was diverted so they could help with rescue efforts when the MV Leviathan II, operated by Jamie's Whaling Station, capsized on Sunday afternoon. 

But he said he plans to head back on the water on Tuesday. 

"We're out there almost every day of the year, and take out thousands of people," he said. 

TSB investigation could take months

Four investigators with the Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene on Monday. 

Marc-André Poisson, director of marine investigations, said the investigation into what caused the boat to capsize, despite seemingly calm conditions, could take months. 

"We understand people want answers rapidly," said Poisson. "We don't speculate, and it's much too early to say what the causes and contributing factors might be."

Marc-André Poisson, the TSB's director of marine investigations, says it's too soon to speculate on what could have caused the whale-watching boat to capsize. (CBC)

Poisson said the investigators will examine the circumstances surrounding the crash, including the equipment, meteorological conditions and the company's operational policies.

They will interview the crew and passengers who were on board, he said. 

The MV Leviathan II belonged to Jamie's Whaling Station owner Jamie Bray.

"Traumatized would be an appropriate word. Disbelief," said Bray when asked today about the capsizing.

"This is an area that the boat goes to every day," and had for 20 years, said Bray. "Yesterday was no different."

The boat was nearing the end of an otherwise uneventful trip, when something happened so quickly the crew couldn't send a mayday, says the company operating the boat.

A flare went up, alerting local First Nations fishermen who were first on the scene and worked with the coast guard and others to pull 21 survivors out of the cold waters.

Owner of Tofino whaling company traumatized by accident

8 years ago
Duration 1:08
Featured VideoJamie Bray says his company is cooperating with TSB's investigation

5 Britons killed, 1 Australian still missing

They also recovered the bodies of five British nationals — four males and one female — ranging in age from 18 to 76, said the B.C. Coroners Service. Three were tourists on vacation, while one resided in Ontario and the female was a resident of British Columbia.

A sixth person, still missing, is believed to be an Australian man. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed it's "providing consular assistance" to an Australian family following the incident. The U.K.'s Daily Mail is reporting that the man was a 27-year-old tourist from Sydney.

The British consul general in Vancouver, Rupert Potter, called the accident "a serious tragedy" and said he will be travelling to Tofino to help any affected families.

No time for mayday

The 20-metre vessel appeared to be operating normally, carrying 24 passengers and three crew members, led by a skipper with 20 years of experience in the local waters, said the company.

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

"We just don't understand, and we won't know the answers until the Transportation Safety Board finishes their investigation," said Bray.

At about 3:45 p.m. PT, after visiting Plover Reef, the vessel capsized near Vargas Island, 40 minutes north of Tofino.

The crew managed to find flares in the emergency gear and deploy them from the water, said Corene Inouye, director of operations for the company.

"It appears the incident happened so quickly the crew didn't have an opportunity to send out a mayday."

Clinging to boat

After rescue vessels saw the flare, they found the Leviathan partially submerged about 15 kilometres northwest of Tofino.

Clarence Smith was one of the first to arrive at the sinking vessel. He said only some of the survivors in the water were wearing life-jackets when he arrived.

"We went to get the people in the water first, three of them. One guy was clinging onto the boat. We picked him up first. And then I heard these voices in the water — two ladies clinging to each other about 100 feet away from us. So we went and picked them up," said Smith.

Joe Martin, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, watched rescue boats bringing in the victims. Workers tried to resuscitate them but eventually covered them with blankets.

Sheila Simpson had been strolling on the dock with her husband when rescue boats roared up carrying people from the whale-watching vessel.

"They were in absolute shock," said Simpson. "You could see it in their eyes. This didn't happen. We came on a holiday."

Eighteen people were taken to Tofino General Hospital Sunday, and some were subsequently transferred to other hospitals.

Four patients remained in hospital Monday, one each at Tofino General, Nanaimo General, Royal Jubilee Hospitals in Victoria and Vancouver General. No information on their conditions was available.

"Everybody's heart is just breaking for what's going on here and wanting to be as helpful as possible," said Josie Osborne in a telephone interview late Sunday.

RAW: Boat sinking off Tofino, B.C.

8 years ago
Duration 1:24
Featured VideoThe MV Leviathan II remains semi-submerged after capsizing, resulting in the deaths of 5 Britons, and leaving one person unaccounted for

2 previous incidents for company

John Forde, who runs the Whale Centre, another whale-watching operation in the community, also responded to the call for help.

"It's a pretty sad situation when you're doing a grid pattern to an area hoping to see something," he said, adding that he didn't know what might have happened.

"Over the course of a season and years we take out thousands and thousands of people on these trips in conditions similar today. I have no idea what the issue was or what actually happened."

Forde said Jamie's Whaling Station was one of the first such whale-watching operations on the west coast of Vancouver Island and had been around for many years.

This isn't the first fatal incident on the company's record. In 1998 one of its smaller vessels capsized during a sightseeing excursion, sending all four people on board into the water, the Transportation Safety Board said. The operator and one of the passengers died.

And in another incident in 1996, one of the company's boats was involved in a serious crash when the driver fell asleep, while en route to the local hot springs to pick up passengers, and drove straight into some rocks. The operator was seriously injured and the boat was destroyed, but there were no passengers on board.

With files from The Canadian Press and Megan Thomas