Sunday in Tofino, British Columbia, was sunny, calm, and beautiful, but the conditions near Vargas Island are always unpredictable. That’s where a whale-watching tour boat sunk after sending a mayday call, killing five tourists; one person is still missing.
Investigators don’t yet know what caused the boat to sink, but the incident is under investigation by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board as the Royal Mounted Canadian Police search for the missing passenger, NBC News and CNN reported.
Twenty-seven tourists were on board the 64-foot MV Leviathan II, operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station, when it set out for some whale watching Sunday. At one point, the boat let out a mayday call off the west coast of Vargas Island, eight miles northwest of Tofino, which is in Vancouver.
Thirty minutes later, a Royal Canadian Air Force Cormorant helicopter and a fast-response rescue boat arrived, however, the boat had already sunk, sending passengers into the frigid waters. By 5 p.m., about an hour later, three people were found dead and shortly after, two more, CBC News added.
All told, 21 passengers were rescued, 18 of whom had to be hospitalized. Many of them were warmed by first responders before being transferred, some of them in private homes nearby. By Monday, some of those taken to the hospital had already been released.
The company’s owner, Jamie Bray, took to Facebook to express his condolences.
“Our entire team is heartbroken over the incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved.”
Numerous groups responded to the scene in Tofino, which is a small community whose local hospital has only 10 acute care beds, five emergency stretchers, and a small fleet of ambulances. Witness and fellow whale-watching boat tour operator Rami Touffaha said three ambulances were down at the town dock, representing “pretty much all of Tofino’s resources.”
Helping in the search and rescue: the Canadian Coast Guard, local water taxi companies, private vessels, and the Ahousaht First Nation, whose members went out in their own boats. Aboriginal Councilor Tom Campbell described the scene he witnessed from the waterfront as rescuers brought survivors ashore.
“Their looks tell the whole story. You can’t describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost.”
Authorities and the owners of other whale-watching boat tour outfits are now wondering just what caused the Leviathan to sink so suddenly on a day Touffaha said was beautiful. He said the water wasn’t “choppy, so I don’t see what could have caused the boat to sink, but you never know in these waters unfortunately.”
The owner of another whale-watching company was on a tour himself when the mayday came; he was taking tourists to see hot springs, but changed course and headed for the Leviathan. When he got there, it was too late — the boat was submerged and was so far off shore it couldn’t be seen.
“It was quite close to the rocks and you could still see part of the vessel above water. There was a lot of injured and hypothermic people being brought in Ahousaht water taxis, at least a dozen boats out there if not more. You could see the smaller boats going back and forth to try and help bring [survivors] back to shore.”
In 1998, Jamie’s Whaling Station witnessed another tragedy at sea when turbulent waters tossed a boat called the “Ocean Thunder,” sending all four passengers overboard; a tourist and boat operator died.
Jamie’s boat tour lasts three hours and costs $82. With three viewing decks that can accommodate 46 people, the Leviathan also had a bar, washroom, and inside heating.
[Photo via YouTube Screengrab]