Whale-Watching Boat Sinks Off British Columbia; 5 Dead, 1 Missing

by Alexander Smith and Alex Johnson /  / Updated 

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Five passengers, all of them British nationals, died and another person remained missing Monday afternoon after a whale-watching boat carrying 27 people sank off the Canadian province of British Columbia, officials said.

The 64-foot Leviathan II had 27 people on board when it went down about 5 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) Sunday eight miles northwest of the Vancouver Island community of Tofino.

"We're absolutely devastated by what took place on the water yesterday," Corene Inouye, director of operations for Jamie's Whaling Station and Adventure Centres, the vessel's tour operator, said at a brief news conference Monday afternoon.

The boat was carrying 24 passengers and three crew members, who "didn't have an opportunity" to send a distress call, Inouye said, her voice breaking with tears.

All five passengers who were killed — four men and a woman, ages 18 to 76 — were British nationals, the British Columbia Coroners Service said. Three were tourists on vacation, while the two others were living in Canada as foreign nationals. Their identities were being withheld until their families could be notified.

Twenty-one people were treated at hospitals, 17 of whom had been released by Monday afternoon, said Kellie Hudson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority. The four others were listed as stable, although their conditions weren't reported.

The incident has been handed over to the Royal Mounted Canadian Police as a missing-persons case, navy Sub-Lt. Melissa Kia said.

It wasn't immediately clear what sank the vessel, which sank on a calm, clear and sunny day. A Royal Canadian Air Force Cormorant helicopter and a fast-response rescue boat arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the call, Kia said.

According to eyewitnesses and photos apparently from the scene, the boat was at one point submerged except for 10 feet of its bow, which was pointing vertically out of the water.

IMAGE: Capsized boat survivors
Survivors huddle for warmth after Sunday's sinking of a whale-watching boat off British Columbia.Ken Lucas

Official efforts were aided by fishing boats and other civilian vessels, and Kia told NBC News that "seeing that kind of response is always kind of heartening."

Jamie Bray, the company's owner, said: "'Traumatized,' I think, would be an appropriate word — disbelief."

In addition to three life rafts, the Leviathan II had life vests on board, but passengers weren't required to wear them. The captain is a 20-year veteran, 18 years with Jamie's, Bray said.

"This is an area that the boat goes to every day," he said. "Yesterday was no different."

People from the nearby Ahousaht First Nation were among those helping with the search. Aboriginal Councilor Tom Campbell told the Associated Press that he was on the waterfront and watched as rescuers brought several survivors ashore.

"Their looks tell the whole story," he told the AP. "You can't describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost."

According to the website of Jamie's Whaling Station and Adventure Centres, the Leviathan II tour lasts up to three hours and costs about $82 for an adult. The vessel boasted a licensed bar, a washroom and inside heated seating.

"It has been a tragic day," the company said in a statement. "Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved."

It wasn't the first fatal accident on the firm's record. In March 1998, another of its vessels, the 20-foot Ocean Thunder, was caught in heavy swell while watching marine life off Tofino.

The tour operator and a passenger were killed after all four people on board were thrown into the water.

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