British Columbia

Whale-watching tragedy: what were the rules for life jackets?

Life jackets are required on tour boats, but passengers aren't required to wear them, and many don't.

Transport Canada does not require people to wear a lifejacket on all boats

Tourists watch a killer whale from a boat. (CBC)

It's a question being asked by many people in the wake of the capsizing of a whale-watching boat in waters off Tofino: Were passengers wearing life jackets, or survival suits? If not, why not?

The simple answer is, there is no regulation requiring whale-watching companies to force passengers aboard ships the size of the MV Leviathan II — a 65 ft. covered cruiser — to wear life vests or flotation suits.

Immersion suits — designed to keep people afloat, and protect against hypothermia — are used by whale watching companies on the West Coast when tourists are in zodiacs. (Whalewatchingvictoriabc.com)

On ships that size, regulations call for passengers to be told how and where to find life jackets in the event of an emergency, said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

"We would love for everyone to wear a life vest, but it's not required on every single boat that every passenger wear a life vest."

The confusion likely stems from people seeing images of whale-watching excursions where passengers appear to be wearing matching full body suits, often red or orange in colour.

The suits are immersion suits — sometimes called mustang or survival suits — and they are designed to protect from drowning, and hypothermia.

Standard industry practice for a boat the size of the MV Leviathan II is to give a safety presentation at the start of the journey, letting passengers know the location of life jackets. (Jamie's Whaling Station)

It's standard industry practice to require the suits be worn on board smaller vessels, such as zodiacs, but the industry would be open to any recommendation to require suits or life jackets aboard larger vessels, Harris said.

"If this investigation comes out and says, you know what, there should be more wearing of life vests, even in these bigger boats, then, oh yes, absolutely. If anything improves the safety of our passengers, that takes a lot of pressure off us, to be honest with you."

It's unclear whether such a requirement would have made a difference in the sinking of the Leviathan II, and Transport Canada has not yet responded to calls to outline its life jacket regulations, and any changes it might consider.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association represents 36 whale-watching companies in Washington and B.C., but does not count Jamie's Whaling Station — the owner of the MV Leviathan II — among its members.

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