The owner of a Tofino, B.C. whale-watching tour company says he was traumatized and in disbelief when he heard his vessel with 27 people on board capsized on Sunday afternoon.
The Leviathan II, a 65-foot cruiser vessel operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station, sunk near Plover Reefs, west of Vargas Island. Five people are confirmed dead and one person is still missing.
“This particular boat has done this exact same trip for 20 years, twice a day,” an emotional Jamie Bray told reporters at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
“There is a bit of a current through there and it does build a bit more sea as opposed to outside of it. But there were no indications yesterday that it would be different than any other tour in the spring or the fall.”
Bray reiterated that the Leviathan II goes to that area off of Tofino every day and “yesterday was no different than any other day.”
“The vessel is operated by professionals,” he said.
“We operate under guidelines for safety as far as what happens with the vessel with rocks and wildlife.”
IN DEPTH: Full coverage of the whale-watching accident off the coast of Tofino – videos and extended interviews
The crew was well-trained with the skipper having 20 years of experience, 18 of those years with Jamie’s Whaling Station. The other two deckhands had five and three years of experience. Bray said the crew went through bi-weekly safety training drills and exercises.
This is the third accident the tour company has had near the Plover Reefs. In March 1998, a Jamie’s Whaling Station boat “Ocean Thunder” was swamped in the same area and the boat’s operator and one passenger died. Two years earlier, in August 1996, the “Sharp Point” ran aground on Flores Island while en route to pick up passengers.
In both cases, Canada’s Transport Safety Board noted driver error.
But Bray said this recent accident was a totally different scenario.
“The 1998 incident happened in a zodiac, a totally different type of vessel,” Bray explained.
“It was struck by a rogue wave and the passengers were thrown out. It’s a totally different scenario as far as the vessels are concerned. The Leviathan is 20 metres, its Transport Canada licensed every year. It has all its certificates and safety inspections.”
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Director of Operations Corene Inouye said the vessel was operating normally prior to the accident and was near the end of the whale-watching trip when the accident happened.
“To the best of our knowledge, there was no distress call,” Inouye said.
“From what we know at this stage, it appeared that the incident happened so quickly, the crew didn’t have the opportunity to send out a mayday.”
Local First Nations fishermen were first on the scene and are being credited with helping save the lives of several sightseers onboard. Boats from the Ahousaht First Nation were among the first to arrive and respond after seeing an emergency flare go up from the sinking boat.
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Bray said the ship carries three life-rafts with more than 50 adult and 20 child lifejackets and has operated for 20 years with “an absolutely perfect record.” He also noted that jackets are not worn on large vessels, which is in accordance with Transport Canada regulations.
“In an event of a sinking it would be difficult to exit to the vessel to get on deck. On larger vessels we’re not required to wear lifejackets on smaller ones, we do,” Bray said.
Later in the day, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada held a briefing to update the public on its investigation into the tragedy.
Marc-André Poisson of the TSB said they have four investigators on the scene who will “collect any available data that will useful for the investigation” and “conduct interviews with crew members and passengers.”
He went on to say they will also review the remains of vessel as well as its maintenance history. They will also look at weather conditions, operational policies and regulatory requirements.
Poisson did not give a specific timeline for the investigation, but did say they generally can take several months, with some taking as long as a year.
~ with files from Anna Mehler Paperny and Andrew Russell